You Should Back Up Your Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter Accounts

Here’s how.

Man using a desktop.
Even though companies such as Google and Twitter save your data on multiple machines, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s backed up.

Photo by Christopher Robbins/Digital Vision.

When I first heard of Backupify a few years ago, I thought the service sounded unnecessary at best. The company promises to back up the data you’ve stored on various online services, scooping up all your mail and contacts from Gmail, your calendar entries from Google Calendar, plus everything you’ve got on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Flickr, and LinkedIn.

I have long been an advocate of frequent backups, but that term is usually reserved for stuff you’ve got stored on your own computer. A backup creates an extra copy, either on an external drive or online, so that when your machine bites the dust, you won’t be hosed. But Gmail isn’t stored on your own computer (you might have downloaded your mail to your desktop, but unless you’ve explicitly deleted your messages from Google’s servers, they’re still online). And Google is very good at backing things up. Like other firms that store data in the cloud, Google keeps many copies of your stuff on thousands of computers across the world. This redundancy is one of the cloud’s biggest selling points. Even if you keep your photos on three different hard drives in your house, they’re still vulnerable. (What if you’re burglarized?) But if one of Google’s data centers gets hit by a meteorite, your data will always be secure in some other center somewhere else.

That’s why Backupify sounded fishy—it seems to do what cloud services already do. It doesn’t help that the firm wants you to pay for the service, too. The company offers a free plan with 1 GB of storage, but if you want to back up even more of your cloud data, Backupify asks for $5 a month for 10 GB of storage or $20 for 50 GB. Remember that the services you’re backing up—Gmail and the rest—are free. So Backupify is asking you to open up your wallet to back up an already backed up free thing. Do they think you were born yesterday?

But in the last few weeks, I’ve seen the light. I now consider Backupify an essential part of keeping my digital life secure. In fact, signing up for its free plan is as important as choosing strong passwords and regularly backing up your local data. And, for my own data, I’m going to go even further. I’ve decided to pay for Backupify’s monthly plan to get enough space to secure all of the stuff I have in the cloud.

Why did I suddenly change my mind about Backupify? After a string of high-profile cloud mishaps, I now realize something important about how Google and other companies store people’s data. Even though the search company saves my email on multiple machines, that doesn’t really mean it’s backed up. Google’s redundancy does protect my stuff from natural disasters or mechanical failure, but it doesn’t do anything to secure my data from its worst enemy—me and other devious human beings pretending to be me.

Backupify, on the other hand, is your savior in the event of human error. If you subscribe to the service, your stuff isn’t really ever gone for good—not when you lose your data because you’ve been hacked, not when you forget your password, not because the cloud service kicked you out, and not because you just accidentally pressed delete.

Rob May, Backupify’s co-founder and CEO, says that he got the plan for the firm in 2008 when he was talking to friends about startup ideas. Someone told him, “Hey, you should build a Flickr backup tool.” May says his first reaction was like mine: “I thought it was a dumb idea.” But the more he thought about the idea, the more sensible it became. Lots of friends told him they were losing data in the cloud, either accidentally or through some attack. And once the data was gone, it was gone.

This gets to the fundamental paradox of the cloud: The advantage of storing your data online is that it’s available everywhere, all the time, to you or anyone with proper credentials. The problem with storing your data in the cloud is that it’s available everywhere, all the time, to you or anyone with proper credentials. In the Atlantic last year, James Fallows described the devastation his wife, Deb, suffered after someone got into her Gmail account and deleted everything:

Six years’ worth of correspondence and everything that went with it were gone. All the notes, interviews, recollections, and attached photos from our years of traveling through China. All the correspondence with and about her father in the last years of his life. The planning for our sons’ weddings; the exchanges she’d had with subjects, editors, and readers of her recent book; the accounting information for her projects; the travel arrangements and appointments she had for tomorrow and next week and next month; much of the incidental-expense data for the income-tax return I was about to file—all of this had been erased.

A few weeks ago, tech journalist Mat Honan suffered a similar attack. And those are just the ones you hear about—a Google representative told Fallows that there are thousands of attacks against Google accounts every day.

But you don’t need to be a victim of a hacker to lose stuff in the cloud. In fact, according to a 2007 study by a trade organization called the IT Policy Compliance Group, malicious attacks cause only a fraction of online data losses. By far the largest cause is human error—you accidentally delete an important document in Google Docs, say. It doesn’t even have to be your error: Earlier this month, in a widely circulated Gizmodo piece that carried the headline “Why the Cloud Sucks,” Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wrote that after he upgraded to the latest version of the Mac OS, he noticed that one of his primary Google calendars suddenly disappeared. At first, he had no idea how it had happened—his other data was intact, so it didn’t look like a hack. Then, he got a notice from the makers of BusyCal, a popular calendar app for the Mac, telling him about an incompatibility with the new version of the Mac OS. The message had come too late: BusyCal, which Wozniak had set up to sync with Google, had deleted one of his calendars.

Backupify solves all these problems with a simple, brilliant innovation: It has no delete function. After you sign up to the service and authorize it to connect to your cloud accounts, Backupify regularly downloads and saves every item you have online—your messages, calendar appointments, contacts, and on and on. But if you delete something from your cloud account, Backupify does not mirror that action on its own servers. So if you, a hacker, or a third-party app trashes your account, it will remain intact at Backupify. Indeed, even if a hacker somehow gets into your Backupify account, he still wouldn’t be able to delete your data. The company’s Web interface has no delete button. The only way to delete your data from Backupify is to call up the company and send its staff a copy of your driver’s license and other credentials to prove that you are who you say you are.

And that gets to why cloud services can’t protect your data the way Backupify does. For privacy reasons, Google and Facebook have to offer customers a delete button that actually deletes your data. (In fact, Facebook has struggled to make delete actually work; in the past, some Facebook photos could still be accessed years after they’d supposedly been deleted. This week Facebook announced that when you delete a photo, it gets permanently removed from Facebook’s servers within 30 days.) Backupify can make deletion difficult only because it’s a third-party service dedicated to backup.

Backupify is about four years old, and in that time it has managed to gain thousands of paying customers, most of them businesses that are looking to protect their Google data. But the firm only has about 200,000 nonbusiness users, which sounds like too few to me. May says that on average, Backupify users restore—that is, undelete—about 3.38 items every year. In practice, that means that a lot of people aren’t restoring anything, and some people are restoring their entire accounts. (You can restore your stuff to your original cloud account, or you can download your data to your hard drive.)

May says that the number of undeletes proves how useful Backupify can be. “It shows you that this is a real problem,” he says. “It happens more than people think. It’s just not publicized very often.” Well, here you go: Let me publicize the heck out of it. You’re keeping all your precious data in the cloud, and it’s all just one accidental or malicious deletion away from oblivion. Signing up for Backupify is free, and it takes about two minutes to do so. What are you waiting for?