Protecting your digital assets; follow-up

This week’s Beyond Writing podcast is about protecting your digital assets. This often-neglected aspect of online business can cause people to lose thousands of dollars – or even tens of thousands of dollars – in digital assets.

In the podcast episode, host Dachary Carey and guest host Kay Rhodes talk about the importance of protecting digital assets, and give people a few pieces of advice on how to do it. If you haven’t listened to that podcast, it’s a long episode, but it’s jam-packed full of info on how and why to protect your digital assets – the cornerstone of your writing career.

We have a couple of pieces of follow-up, but didn’t want to add to the already lengthy podcast episode, so I’ll jot those notes here:

Our new system at work

At the time we recorded the podcast, we had just gotten our own digital house in order. We purchased these pieces of equipment and services:

If you follow those links, you’ll see that it’s a pretty pricey setup. We’re not suggesting you need anything approaching this price range – most people can get by with a lot less. For us, due to our need to protect the digital assets of multiple businesses, this was the system that made the most sense.

We set up the system on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Configuring everything from start to finish took about 30 minutes, and it would have been faster than that but we were doing some custom stuff we wanted to look up.

Our first backups from our laptops to the Synology were completed by Friday night. However, at the time I’m writing this, which is Thursday, June 29, 2017 – a week later – the Synology still hasn’t completed its first backup to Backblaze. Uploading that much data, even from an urban cable internet connection, takes many hours. Fortunately, the Synology is doing all that in the background without any input from us, and without tying up our computers.

Meanwhile, our laptops have continued backing up to the Synology. There will be a backlog to sync with Backblaze, but eventually it should all be caught up.

UPS pays for itself

One of the things we talk about in the podcast is an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS. When we had originally shopped for our new setup, Kay got decision fatigue and wanted to put off buying the UPS until later. Being the completionist that I am, I insisted that we had to have a UPS before we could hook up the Synology, and we wanted to get this whole process started, so I persisted and found us a UPS.

We hooked up the system on Thursday evening.

The following Saturday morning, less than 36 hours after setting up the Synology, the power went out. I can count on one hand the number of times that the power has gone out in a decade at this address. It’s rare. The fact that it happened at all was surprising – and that it happened ~36 hours after setting up some fragile spinning discs to protect our digital data? That’s a pretty big fluke.

Happily, the UPS paid for itself within the first two days of owning it. The beeping alerted us to the fact that the UPS had gone onto battery backup, and we were able to safely shut down all the systems – with plenty of time to spare – and wait for the power to come back. Less than two hours later, we were up and running again. The Synology automatically resumed its upload to Backblaze, and our laptops did the next scheduled backup run. No data corrupted or lost, thanks to the UPS.

This is why we do things properly. You never know when the unexpected will occur.

Why do you need physical (local) backups and offsite backups?

In the podcast, we talked about some reasons you need a physical (local) backup and an offsite backup. Most people think they’re fine with one or the other, and never really give it much thought.

In addition to the reasons we discussed on the podcast, another reason to have both types of backup cropped up this week. There was a nasty new ransomware attack – which is now looking more like an outright cyber attack. We didn’t cover this possibility on the podcast, but it’s important to know about it, so I’ll break it down for you here.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware is a type of software attack that attempts to take over your computer and prevent you from accessing your files. There are two types of ransomware attacks: attacks that encrypt your data, which means you can’t read any of it, or attacks that lock you out of your data, so you can’t access any of it.

In either case, the attacker usually gives the victim instructions on how to pay a ransom – usually in Bitcoin to an anonymous wallet somewhere on the Internet – and the attackers promise to provide access to the data again if the ransom is paid.

These attackers are sneaky. They may not outright state that you’re paying a ransom. There are scams where call center people will call your phone, tell you someone is attempting to access (or hack) your computer, and that they can walk you through a process to protect your data. Sometimes these call centers even claim to be from major software companies, like Microsoft, to make them seem more legitimate.

When you follow their instructions, you’re really just installing their ransomware onto your computer. YOU are the one who compromises your own data, simply by following their instructions. Then, they’ll tell you to install expensive software – which you’ll pay them for, of course – and they may also charge you a fee for helping you ‘clean off’ the software from your computer.

They may also discourage you from accessing traditional anti-virus programs, like McAffee or Norton, or from going to the police – by saying that your data may be irrecoverable if you don’t follow their instructions exactly. And who wants to risk losing all their data?

What’s the attack that happened this week?

In the attack this week, it initially appeared that ransomware related to a similar attack in 2016 was rapidly circulating around the world. This attack was hitting major businesses, and also individuals. I don’t want to bog you down in too many details – check out this article on Ars Technica if you want more of the technical details.

Unfortunately, it has emerged that while the attack started out looking like ransomware, it was really a malicious cyber attack. There was never going to be any option for users to recover their data, even if they paid the ransom. The only option would be to restore from a backup.

Doesn’t this mean it’s enough just to have a backup?

With these types of attacks becoming more common – it’s a very profitable business for criminals – you’re probably more likely to face an issue like this than a disaster that destroys your physical backup drives – i.e. a fire or a flood in your home. So you might think it’s ok just to have a physical backup, and then you can always restore if you have problems.

Alas, there are two issues with this:

  1. Some of the attacks are more sophisticated, and wait for a period of time between when you’re exposed and when they encrypt or lock you out of your files. This means if they wait 7 to 10 days, your local backups may not go back far enough to be able to restore to a point before the ransomware got onto your computer.
  2. Some of the attacks actually seek out network-connected drives, and attack every drive on the network. So if you only keep a local backup on your network, and you get hit with one of these attacks, your backup is toast just like your computer hard drive.

As long as ransomware is a growing and profitable business, your digital data is at risk from enterprising criminals. Having just a local backup can’t necessarily protect you if you get hit with one of these nasty attacks.

But what about having only a Cloud-based backup?

If it’s just the local drives that are at risk in a ransomware attack, why not just keep everything in the Cloud?

For the four reasons we discussed on the podcast:

  1. You could always lose access to Cloud-based services. Hopefully that will never happen, but you could be cut off at any time from any account.
  2. Backups in the Cloud are not guaranteed to be secure. There have been numerous issues with cloud accounts being hacked or otherwise compromised over the years.
  3. The Cloud-based provider you’re using might not be following a good, redundant data backup protocol. When you store data in the Cloud, you’re really just storing it on someone else’s computer. If they don’t have a good backup strategy for their spinning discs, you’re in the same trouble as if you don’t have a good local backup at home.
  4. Cloud-based backups take way longer, and require your computer to be on and running long enough to complete the backup. This isn’t ideal if you work on a laptop and close it regularly – maybe you work in different spots around the house, or you like to work at a favorite local coffee shop. You can’t close your laptop and move until the backup is complete.

In conclusion: backups are good.

To conclude the follow-up from this week’s podcast: the week following the recording of this very timely episode has provided a bunch of topical content reinforcing our message: it’s important to back up your digital assets. Whether you’re talking about your writing itself, or cover designs, ad images, invoices and other digital assets – make sure you always have access to the essential infrastructure of your author business.

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