Lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy, on the digital front
Nov 8th, 2012 by Isaiah Beard

Con Edison Worker

A Con Ed worker makes efforts to restore power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The East Coast’s Infrastructure was heavily damaged by this storm, testing not just our survival skills, but how well we preserve our data and memories. Photo by Robert Francis on Flickr.

 

 

No greater a test of our resolve and our preparedness exists than a true trial by fire, and the past two weeks have been living proof of this. There isn’t any way to overstate or exaggerate it.  Hurricane Sandy devastated New Jersey, New York and other sections of the East Coast, taking away lives, homes, power, and safety.  It could take years before a sense of normalcy is restored for the lives of those most impacted, and as has been stated by many officials and news outlets: it will never be the same.

A stark reality coming from this is the notion that landmarks and attractions washed away by the storm will now exist only in memories, and in people’s photo and video archives.  But what hasn’t quite been acknowledged fully just yet, is that Sandy has also taken a toll on the archival and digital front as well.

For some, Sandy was just a rather annoying inconvenience.  Power and heat were out for a while.  Cell phones didn’t work as well as they used to. Internet access was scarce, and websites were taken offline for a few days until power was restored. This very blog, for instance, had an emergency plan that kicked in when its usual home base at Rutgers sat safe but idle, without electricity. It was digitally “evacuated” to a backup cloud datacenter in Los Angeles for a few days, until all was clear and the power was back on.

These were the lucky ones. Others fared so much worse.

With homes and businesses being washed away, so too were all of the things inside.  We’re starting to hear about this in the media: trillions of dollars in on-paper riches, potentially wiped out. Computers with important family documents and personal data, gone.  Photos, and keepsakes, destroyed as in this article chronicling the situation in Breezy Point:

[Shamus] Barnes, 43, has spent every summer he can remember here at the sandy tip of the Rockaway Peninsula. Those years were lovingly documented in photos of what his family calls “the pyramid” — the intergenerational group photo op that seemed to grow larger each year.

Those photos were lost when, in the midst of Sandy’s assault, fire destroyed more than 100 houses on Monday, including Barnes’ and his parents’ homes.

“We’ll never be able to replace those things,” he says. He is standing in the mud, holding the lighthouse-shaped sign for No. 16 Fulton Walk, all that was left of his bungalow. “It’s just pictures, but they show the legacy of what’s gone on here. That’s the backbone of everything out here — memories.”

Sadly, the events of these past two weeks have meted out a cruel lesson: use the technology you have to save your important memories, before it’s too late to save them.  Storms can take away our physical possessions, but our photos, videos, recordings and documents can always be saved, if we work to keep them safe. We can’t always get back what is lost, but we can take steps to prepare for what may come.

Always Have a Plan B

How do we do this?  A year ago, I wrote a couple of articles on keeping your stuff safe.  The information in those articles is still relevant today, now more than ever:

  1.  Keep a local backup of all your important stuff.
  2. Supplement that local backup with a remote, or cloud, backup.  And I’ll add: do some research to make sure that this cloud provider is in a different geographical area from where you normally keep your digital stuff. This way if your local backup is just as waterlogged as your computer, you can still get your stuff back.
  3. I haven’t written about this part yet, but you should even back up your mobile devices. It’s easy to do, whether you have an iPhone or an Android device.
Yes, many of these options cost money. But they’re quite affordable to most people who own their own computers and pay for their own internet access, and the costs are astoundingly low when they’re weighed against the value – sentimental and otherwise – that is lost when your digital stuff is gone forever.
Options for storm victims 
If you didn’t have a backup plan and were affected by Hurricane Sandy, it’s possible that not all hope is lost.  This article has tips on what you can do to minimize water damage to computer hardware, and possibly save your data.
If your computer’s hard drive was waterlogged or otherwise damaged, some of the data inside might still be salvageable as well. DriveSavers, a data recovery service out of Novato, California, is offering $500 off its data recovery services to Hurricane Sandy victims.
“If you cannot access your data from your computer or storage device, no matter what its been through, the data may still be recoverable,” said Chris Bross, Strategic Technical Alliance Engineer at DriveSavers Data Recovery. “We have repeatedly been successful in recovering data from storage devices that have been exposed to sustained water and fire damage, corruption, corrosion and erosion. We have the most advanced technology and methods available to help Hurricane Sandy victims get their data back safely.”

Here’s to hoping that no one will ever have to experience such great losses again. But in case we must, let’s take the steps we need to better prepare for next time.

A teachable moment in personal data preservation
Apr 26th, 2013 by Isaiah Beard

 

 

An all-too-coomon sight: $3,000 worth of stealable student laptops sitting unsecured.

An all-too-common sight: $3,000 worth of stealable student laptops sitting unsecured.

It’s the time of the semester in most universities where nerves are frazzled, sleep is lost, and sadly, lots and lots of laptop thefts happen.  Where I work at the Alexander Library, the end of every semester brings throngs of students cramming for exams and finishing final projects, and they invariably bring their laptops, smartphones, and tablets with them.  Unfortunately, many are tempted to leave those devices sitting unsecured on desks when they step out for a break, despite repeated warnings not do this. Predictably, we also get the most reports of pricey electronic being stolen around this time of year as a result.

Having your expensive laptop or mobile device stolen is a humbling, stressful experience that even I have fallen victim to. However, the monetary loss of the hardware can pale in comparison to the value of the data inside the device.  Personal data can be stolen, resulting in anything from embarrassing disclosures of personal details, to outright identity theft.

Even worse: if you were working on something highly valuable to you, and you don’t have a backup copy anywhere else, the results can be devastating.

Currently circulating around social media and even local news is a photo of this flyer, posted around the Rutgers campus about a week ago:

LostLaptop

My heart goes out to this person. Their entire academic career is now on the line because of a thoughtless criminal act.  And sadly, this isn’t the first time academic data has been lost to a theft: in Oklahoma, a similar “reward” was offered by a researcher wanting her critical data back as well.

Consider also that even if you’re vigilant, and lock down your hardware or never let it leave your sight, theft isn’t the only way you can lose your data.  Laptops and smartphones can be dropped and damaged.  Hardware failures and crashes happen.  Or a slip of the fingers could result in a file being accidentally deleted and lost forever.

But, unfortunate incidents like these can also be a teachable moment about how important it is to always have a backup plan.

If you own a mobile device, laptop, or even a desktop computer, and especially if you’re a student or academic that relies on them for your schoolwork or research, take the time right now to make sure your files are secure and backed up.  It may not be a convenient time, but data loss never makes an appointment!

Consider using an external drive, or an inexpensive cloud service, or both.  At the bare minimum, sign up for a free 2GB Dropbox account (or contact me for an invitation which will get you an extra 500MB), and store your work there as added protection.  Doing these simple steps will help ensure that you aren’t forced to try negotiating with a thief on the price to retrieve your data… further rewarding them for what they’ve done.

If the worst does happen, it may be possible to locate your stolen device if you have the right tools.  Apple devices have location tracking available through iCloud, but they have to be turned on beforehand to work.  Free tools such as GeoSense are available for Windows laptops as well.

One other thing to consider: your assignments, research data and coursework aren’t the only information kept on your devices.  Personal emails, banking data, photos, and info that can be used to steal your identity are also likely stored there.  These are things you don’t want a thief to have access to.  For this reason, you might also want to consider encrypting the storage on your mobile devices, and using strong passwords to prevent unauthorized access.

Easy to use, transparent full disk encryption options are built-in for Windows 7/8 and Mac OS X computers.  iOS devices (iPhones and iPads, starting with the iPhone 3GS and iPad 2) have encryption built in, too: just enable the passcode lock feature, and use a strong passcode to make it effective. Android devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III and IV have similar capabilities.

Using encryption helps prevent thieves from accessing your data, and that’s a good thing.  Even if there’s something irreplaceable on that laptop that tempts you to bargain with its abductor, the potential breach of your personal data probably isn’t worth it!


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