Computer Security for Disaster Preparedness

This article is not about computer security in general. Instead, the topic is how to secure your data if some type of short or long-term disaster strikes. There are several different problems that might affect computer security, and are related to emergency preparedness.

Power outages can affect your computer. And an outage can be accompanied by a power surge, which can damage your hard drive. Not too long ago, there was a brief power outage at my home, and (unknown to me at the time) my surge protector had previously died. A power surge that occurred when the power went out damaged my hard drive.

If you need to leave your home (bugging out), you will want to keep your data secure while you are traveling. If you do any kind of online banking, or use PayPal, or have your credit card stored at one shopping site or another, your computer and your browser may have stored passwords and other information. You don’t want this information falling into the wrong hands.

If your home is robbed or if your laptop is stolen, you might want to have your computer data secured, so that a stolen computer is merely a lost object, and not also a wealth of private information.

A long-term disaster might necessitate the secure storage of your files, so that when the disaster passes, you can again use that data. You might want to have multiple secure backups of your files, with at least one off-site secure location, in case your home is severely-damaged (e.g. in a fire) and your computer is not repairable.

So the issue of data security is an important aspect of survival preparedness. How can you protect your data? There are several good options.

First, backup your data. You can backup data in one of two ways: individual important files, or an image of your whole hard drive. USB drives have reached the point where you can get 2, 4, or 8 GB of space for a relatively low price. For individual files, even 2 GB is probably more than enough. You simply drag and drop your most important files to the USB drive.

I like the ATV usb drive from OCZ technology. It is fast, water-proof, and ruggedized. However, the ATV is also more expensive than the fast but non-rugged JumpDrive FireFly from Lexar. I use both.

The other option is more comprehensive. Imaging backup software does not copy individual files. Instead, all the data on your hard drive, other than unused space (free space) is copied. The advantages of this approach are several. All files are copied, so you can’t forget to backup particular files. The software is also backed up, so that you could restore the whole system on a new hard drive, if the old one crashes. (I have performed this harrowing feat, and it is not for the faint of heart, but it can be done.) From the backed up drive image, you can pull individual files, if necessary. The backing up of the entire drive takes only a few minutes, with the right software.

You should copy the backed up image to an external hard drive. The size of the file is much more compact than the used space on the hard drive. But this type of file is still too large for most USB sticks.

I use ShadowProtect Desktop 4 from StorageCraft to image and backup my hard drive. It is fast and easy to use, but a little pricy.

Second, encrypt your backed up data. One of the best encryption programs is also free: TrueCrypt. It works on Windows, the Mac, and Linux. It can encrypt a set of files, an entire USB drive, or even the main hard drive on your computer. If you lose your USB drive or your external hard drive, at least the data will not be accessible to the person who found (or stole) it.

If you decide to encrypt your entire hard drive — the main system drive on your computer or laptop — be advised that if you forget or lose your password ALL IS LOST. Literally, you will have no way to gain access to that data or your computer without the password. That’s what makes it secure. So either use a password that you can’t possibly forget, or write it down and keep it in a safe, or in a safety deposit box. The same is true for encrypted backup data: no password means no access.

Third, consider an off-site location for some of your backed up data. Even the smallest and least expensive bank safety deposit box is large enough to hold all of your data on an external hard drive or a USB stick. Banks are generally more secure against natural disasters than your home, and so the data is safer. Also, having data in more than one location is inherently safer, since any one location might be compromised.

Fourth, on the question of power outages and surges, I use an interruptible power supply (UPS). It not only protects against power surges, it also keeps your computer running for several minutes during a power outage, so that you can shut down the system without losing any data. Some of the larger and more expensive UPS systems allow you to cold start the computer. So if the power is out for an extended period of time, you can still boot the computer and use it briefly. In some cases of power outages, the internet might not be down for the entire time. I have been able to access the internet during a power outage by plugging the cable modem and router into the UPS, so that the computer can access the internet even though the house and the neighborhood has no power. Very useful.

– Thoreau

One Response to Computer Security for Disaster Preparedness

  1. I would suggest using something like Google Docs as well. You have a few GB of storage and can upload most any type of files, including pictures, scanned images, Excel/Word files, etc.