So you’ve got all your data stored on servers somewhere — your emails at Gmail, photos on Facebook, and passwords in LastPass. But what if one of these services failed and lost your data?

Sure, it’s true that your data is safer in the cloud — Google, Microsoft, and other companies have lost less data than average people have when their hard drives crash — but there’s always a risk.

Isn’t My Cloud Data Safe?

Your emails are probably safer in Gmail or than they are on your hard drive. Service providers generally back up your data to multiple locations. This is more than many users do to protect their personal data — many people tend to ignore backups until they lose their precious data.

But you shouldn’t ignore backups entirely just because your data is in the cloud. Having backups of your data is always a good idea, whether that data is stored in the cloud or on your computer.

Having a backup is a good idea for a few reasons:

  • Accidents and Bugs with Syncing: You may accidentally delete or overwrite your data, or a bug with a service could result in your data being erased. For example, you could accidentally delete your bookmarks on one of your Chrome browsers. Or an error with Google Chrome’s bookmark-syncing protocol could result in them being deleted. Either way, you would lose all your bookmarks — unless you created a local backup copy of your bookmarks. If you’ve been building up a collection of bookmarks for years, this could be a big problem.
  • Service Crashes: A service itself may experience a problem and lose your data. Luckily, this hasn’t been particularly common. The most high-profile case of a cloud service losing all its customers data occurred when Microsoft’s Sidekick servers lost many customers’ contacts, photos, to-do lists, calendar entries, and other data in 2009. Microsoft, who acquired the Sidekick service along with Danger, who went on to make Microsoft’s terrible Kin phones, did not have any backups of this data. Sidekick owners who trusted Danger (and then Microsoft) to store their photos and other personal data realized how dangerous relying solely on a cloud service could be.
  • Attacks: If you’re ever unlucky enough to be the target of attacks, your data may be lost. Matt Honan, who lost much of his data when attackers targeted his accounts by exploiting weaknesses in account recovery mechanisms, lost many personal photos and home videos when the Find My Mac service was used to remotely wipe his Mac’s hard drive. His other data was recovered thanks to help from engineers at Google and Twitter, but who knows how helpful they would have been if it wasn’t such a high-profile attack. Without any local backups, he was completely at the mercy of these companies.
  • Deletion Due to Inactivity: Some services delete your data after you haven’t logged in in a while. For example, Microsoft’s Hotmail (now service deletes all your emails if you haven’t logged in in about eight and a half months. If you’ve switched to another service but still have an old Hotmail account with important email, you may lose it all. If you had those important emails backed up locally, you wouldn’t have to worry about this. Yahoo and Gmail appear to have similar policies, although they may not be enforced as often — stories of Hotmail accounts being wiped have been much more common over the years.
  • Switching Services: If you would like to switch from one cloud service to another, you may want to create a local backup and import it into the new service first — assuming both services support that. This helps protect you if a service you use ever shuts down — you can just take your data with you.

How to Back Up Your Data

We’re not trying to worry you unnecessarily, but you should now understand why it’s a good idea to have local backups of your most important data. If you have years and years of emails in your Gmail account, many of which may be important in the future — whether for business or personal reasons — you shouldn’t trust Google alone to keep your data safe. Having a local backup is still a smart idea.

  • Google Services: Google allows you to download your data from many Google services — from Drive and Contacts to YouTube and Google+ — from the Google Takeout page. Note that this doesn’t yet include data from all services, such as Google Calendar and Gmail.
  • Gmail: Google doesn’t provide a simple way to download your Gmail emails. You can access them over IMAP and back them up in an email client like Thunderbird, or use a dedicated Gmail backup application to create a local copy of your Gmail emails.
  • Google Calendar: You can download your calendars from the Google Calendar website. Open the Settings screen, click Calendars, and click the Export calendars link under My Calendars to download your calendars.
  • Evernote: Nothing prevents you from accidentally deleting your Evernote notes, and once you have, that change will be synced everywhere. Keep your notes safe by following our guide to creating a local backup of your Evernote notebooks.
  • LastPass: LastPass allows you to export your passwords and notes as an encrypted file. You can then use the LastPass Pocket application to decode them, even if LastPass goes completely offline — you wouldn’t want to lose your passwords and be locked out of your accounts.
  • Facebook Photos: Facebook allows you to download local copies of your photos. People have been locked out of their Facebook accounts in the past, so it’s a good idea to have your own copies of important photos.

We can’t possibly list every service here, but these examples should help you locate your most important data and back it up — just in case.

Some services my not allow you to export your data. You ideally shouldn’t use web apps that don’t let you control your own data — you want to be able to export your data just in case the service shuts down or something better comes along.

Sure, the cloud is great, but that doesn’t mean we should neglect local backups for the most important things. If a service has a bug and loses important emails or photos, you may never be able to get them back again. If nothing else, having local backups of your most important data can give you some peace of mind.

Image Credit: Tal Atlas on Flickr

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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