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The bad guys have started taking data hostage.  If you get lured into clicking a malicious link, you may find yourself facing a screen demanding money for the decryption code.  Even if you never have to face "ransomware", your computer's hard drive gets older.  Hard drive service life has never been better, but it still has limits.  What happens if the drive crashes?

Backups have become simpler in recent years.  There are two main ways of backing up a computer:  To a plug-in hard drive, or to the cloud.

The Cloud

"The cloud" really means hard drive storage someone else owns and operates somewhere else.  You'll need to make sure you examine your provider's Service Level Agreement, including the remedies for breaching that agreement.  Find out if they offer encryption, both for data in storage as well as while you're accessing it.

The Good:
  • As long as you know your login credentials, your data is always available to you, even if your computer was lost or destroyed.
The Bad (or at least iffy)
  • You're relying on others to keep your data safe and private; this means trusting them to guard against hackers, malicious employees, and damage to the computers on which your data is kept.
  • You may have to pay a monthly fee, depending on how much data you're storing.
  • Your access will be limited by the speed of your internet connection.
Cloud services usually help you set up the backup using their own process and software.

Plug-in drives

Usually USB but sometimes Firewire, portable hard drives are available in sizes of up to 2 Terabytes or more and will still fit in a shirt pocket.

The Good:
  • Buy exactly however much space you need, including room to grow, with one up-front cost.
  • Don't delegate security / privacy concerns to others.
The Bad (or at least iffy):
  • Less convenient to plug in the drive for each backup and unplug it afterward.
  • You are now responsible for the data security, including loss or theft of the backup drive.
Once you have the hard drive, Windows has built-in software to walk you through the process of backing up and setting a schedule.  Just go into Control Panel and look for the Backup and Restore app.

Mac users will want to step through Time Machine setup.  Make sure you have formatted your plug-in drive for a Mac, with Journaling!  Time Machine preferences can be found in System Preferences; there should also be an icon on the screen:
what it looks like
(Image and tips credit: Youtube presentation by David A. Cox, no relation)

Note that many drives come with backup software; the down side here is that you have to keep a copy of that software in order to do a restore.  If you use your operating system's native backup feature (and don't change brands after a disaster) your new computer should be able to read the backup.

Factory Reset

The backup methods mentioned above protect your data.  In addition, you should have a once-per-computer backup that will reset your computer to its factory condition.  This used to come on a CD or DVD bundled with computers; more recently, the computer will come without any media at all, and prompt you to insert a DVD or a thumb drive on which to store the factory reset backup.  Once this backup is done, you put the DVD or thumb drive in a safe place.

With any luck, you won't need it for the life of the computer.  But if you're unlucky enough to suffer a major virus infection, the start-over CD is absolutely critical.