For backup and remote access, consider privacy-centered alternatives to popular cloud storage services via an encrypted cloud storage account or network-attached storage (NAS). In the first post (backup strategy plan) of this two-part series, we analyzed the use of a local external hard drive as a private local backup strategy. In this second blog post in the series, we examine the privacy implications of using cloud storage or NAS for backup in addition to the benefits of remote access and file sharing.
1. First option: Use backup software to back up files locally to an external hard drive or thumb drive
See prior post (Part 1: Backup Strategy Plan).
2. Second option: Use Online Cloud Storage as your backup, but with caution
"Cloud" simply means someone else's huge-capacity server as a repository of your files. By using "cloud storage" with automatic synchronization of files between "the cloud" and the PC or mobile device, you have a seamless, automatic backup strategy as well as the practical benefit of remote access (the ability to access your files from any computer or device) and flexible file sharing (the ability to provide access to designated files to specific individuals) . Cloud storage vendors enable web access from any device or computer for your own use while away, plus the ability to share files with others selectively without the disadvantages of sharing via email attachments. (Email attachments have disadvantages as a file sharing mechanism as the document's fate is out of your control once you hit “send,” whereas if you use cloud storage and share selectively, you control who has access to it, and you can update without emailing new versions as attachments, which also have size restrictions.)
There are many reviews of cloud storage available online, for example, in the following articles. Note also that some of the software products for backup listed in in the previous post (Part 1) offer both local and cloud-based backup capabilities.
TechRadar’s Best cloud storage of 2020 online
I had been using Google Drive (or its successor product Google Backup and Sync) for many years. Functionally, like other cloud storage services, it has worked great as
a web based file storage facility, with generous free storage or reasonably-priced, large-scale storage;
a seamless backup strategy;
a platform for remote access from any computer or device;
a way to share a file or folder selectively with other parties.
The major concern with cloud storage is privacy
The major cloud services offerings, such as Google Drive, DropBox, and others, are not automatically end-to-end encrypted (encrypted while at rest on the server as well as in transit), or do not abide by the “zero knowledge” principle (they may have a profile of your interests and demographics, what actions you have taken historically, and in principle have access to your files). So in theory a skilled and determined person, inside or outside the vendor company, could access the files.
Privacy-sensitive, encrypted cloud storage alternatives
If you do use cloud storage, we have the following recommendation:
Recommendation: Consider a privacy-sensitive, encrypted cloud storage alternative.
Desired features in a privacy-centered cloud storage account
For maximum privacy, the features we consider as "must have" in a cloud storage service are
automatic synchronization and remote access to all folders and files;
"end-to-end encryption" (files are upload/downloaded in an encrypted form, and files are "at rest" on the provider's servers in encrypted form);
"zero knowledge" (the vendor does not keep a record of the password or encryption key, nor any personal information about you).
file-sharing via the web
a free entry level of storage
Detailed reviews of encrypted cloud storage providers can be found, for example, in the following articles:
We examined about a dozen web sites and reviews of cloud storage vendors that deliver "end-to-end encryption" and "zero knowledge". We eliminated several as too expensive or who do not offer a free entry level. That left a handful of vendors, including, but not limited to, Sync.com and Tresorit.com.
I chose Sync.com, a Canadian company with good reviews, as a replacement for Google Drive/Backup and Sync. Sync.com had good "customer support" reviews and a relatively generous amount of storage with their free account. In addition to serving as a backup strategy, it also supports remote access and selective file sharing via the web. When creating the account, they just need an email address and password. As with encrypted email services, do not lose your password, as they cannot reset it. I installed it on my PC, mobile phone, and iPad. It creates a folder called Sync where you place all the folders and their sub-folders you want "sync'ed" to the cloud server (it would be more convenient if you could name your folder or folders you want backed up to the cloud server with any name you wish). I simply copied my Google Drive folders to Sync. In less than a half hour, it was all uploaded and then I could access any file from my mobile device, iPad or PC. I dragged a new file into Sync, and it was immediately accessible from the other devices.
Note: I also changed my redundant local backup software to back up the Sync folder nightly to an external hard drive, in case I wake up one day to discover that the chosen cloud storage vendor’s backup is no longer accessible. The encryption/decryption is behind the scenes and totally automated.
This is one approach for the peace mind of a private backup preventing loss of thousands of photos, documents, and videos, as well as remote access and file sharing, while maintaining a prudent approach in case the cloud storage vendor becomes inaccessible.
3. Third option: Consider Network-Attached Storage (NAS) also called Personal Cloud Storage
If you are leery about storing your sensitive documents and files in a cloud storage account, you can consider NAS, sometimes called personal cloud storage. A NAS is a set of hard drives attached to your local network, and can also provide remote access to your files. Some reviews can be found in the following articles:
PC Magazine’s Best NAS Devices for 2020
The Wire Cutter’s The Best NAS for Most Home Users
Examples of leading NAS offerings are as follows (Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.):
The advantages of a NAS are that backups are local, so you do not need to entrust your files to a cloud storage service, and unlike mere local backups, they can be configured to be accessed remotely.
The disadvantages of a NAS are that set up and configuration is non-trivial. Also, this may be a pricier solution than cloud storage.
For a small business or a freelancer with technical skills, a NAS could give you the control you may want for your private backups. For home use, it may be a solution for someone with large amounts of files, who works from different locations, and who is technically oriented. However, we highly recommend a redundant backup to an external drive, thumb drive, or other medium that you keep off-site in a location other than that of the NAS, in case of fire, theft, or other loss.
Use a combination of methods for backup, remote access, and file sharing, with optimal privacy as well as loss prevention:
1. If you use solely a local backup, and have no remote access needs,
use automated backup software
be sure to rotate a redundant backup regularly to an off-site location Details about local backup as sole method are in in the previous (Part 1) post
2. If you use a cloud storage account
consider those that offer end-to-end encryption and “zero knowledge” for utmost privacy
make a redundant local backup to guard against the rare event that the cloud vendor is inaccessible or goes out of business
3. If you do not wish to entrust your files to a cloud storage vendor, and if you are a technically-inclined freelancer, home office worker, or power user, then consider a NAS, but again, make sure you store a redundant backup offsite.