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Introduction to cyber security: stay safe online
Introduction to cyber security: stay safe online

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3.5 Remote backups

An image of clouds in the sky.
Figure 16

Large businesses and organisations insure themselves even further against failure by storing backups away from their centre of operation. Individual users can also make use of remote hosting, or data services such as Dropbox, GDrive and OneDrive to keep backups remote from their own devices.

In the event of a disaster, there is much greater likelihood that they can return to normal operations within a short period of time – after all, it is much easier to buy new computers than recreate all of the records.

Offsite backups

Specialised companies offer specialised facilities where companies can hire storage space or machinery to hold backups. These offsite facilities might be nothing more than an extremely secure vault where tapes or disks can be deposited; but increasingly they are large server farms connected to extremely high-speed networks. Users can copy files to these servers as if they were part of their own network; the only bottleneck is the speed of the network between the offsite facility and the user, but with fibre connections and high speed Internet, security and reliability are more important than distance from the servers.

Some of the largest suppliers of remote data services are Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform.

Backing up to the cloud

For many years, offsite backup was restricted to organisations which could afford relatively large monthly fees. cloud technology allows anyone to have offsite storage, and in many cases a certain amount of storage is completely free. Most cloud services are designed for convenience, to allow users to share files between computers, and with other users, rather than specifically as backup services, but they can also offer you some additional security (especially when you encrypt files before putting them in the cloud) if your computer is stolen or stops working.

One strong word of warning if you do use the cloud as a backup, with only a few exceptions, these services will not protect you if a file is deleted. Most cloud services are synchronised – that is, when a file is deleted on your computer, the copy on the cloud server is either immediately, or very shortly afterwards, also deleted. Some cloud services also keep previous version of files each time you update a file.

Cloud backups are obviously limited by the bandwidth of your internet connection. If you have a slow uplink (that is sending data to the cloud) you may not be able to make backups of all your data in a reasonable amount of time. Instead you might have to prioritise which data is backed up to the cloud and which is stored locally. If you have a fast Internet connection, you can set up a folder to contain all the files you want to keep backed up with every small change. You can set the software for the backup service to automatically copy these files to the cloud each time a file is changed, and to sync them between your devices.

Cloud security

Unless you take further steps, once data is stored in the cloud you can no longer be sure that it is entirely secure from prying eyes. Most suppliers have policies claiming that your data will be secure, but they cannot provide absolute insurance from attackers, as experienced by some celebrity users of Apple’s iCloud service in 2014. You can read more about this incident, if you are interested, via the link in the Further reading section at the end of this week.

Some businesses have policies forbidding employees from storing information in the cloud as it may not be secure, or it may be stored outside the legal protection of the company’s country of origin.

Using encryption to scramble the contents is the only way you can guarantee that your data is safe in the cloud.

One of the best ways to ensure your data is encrypted as well as backed up to the cloud is to keep all your files in encrypted folders inside the folder that you backup to the cloud service. You do need to use your encryption key to open the folder you want to use – but that is good security practice for your files on your own computer.

Note that encrypting the whole drive doesn’t encrypt the files that you back up from within the drive.

In the next section, you’ll consider your own backup procedures.