Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, iCloud Drive, and other file-syncing services are convenient, but they also sync deletions and changes. You can often recover deleted files or undo changes, but they shouldn’t be your only backup method.
Most cloud storage services offer a way to undelete files via the web and many allow you to undo changes to your files and get older versions back. But they only keep these old files for so long.
Deletions and Changes Sync Instantly
When you use a service like Dropbox to store your important files, one “master copy” of your files is stored on the service’s servers. Every time you delete or modify files, the program syncs your changes with the server, and those changes sync on your other computers.
So far, so good. But this means that, if you accidentally delete a file, it’s instantly deleted from your other computers. If you modify a file, it’s changed on all your other computers. If your computer gets infected with malware and that malware tampers with your files, the tampered-with versions will sync to your other computers. If the syncing program has a bug and accidentally deletes some files, they’ll be deleted on your other computers, too.
The copy of your files on the remote servers do qualify as an offsite backup, and they’ll help protect your files if all your hardware is damaged or stolen. But changes happen instantly, and old files are only kept for so long.
There are ways to get those deleted files back and revert to old copies of your files, but they’re limited.
How Long You Can Get Deleted Files Back
When you delete files from a cloud storage service, they’re sent to the Recycle Bin (on Windows) or Trash (on a Mac). That’s the good news — if your file-syncing client decides to delete some files, they’ll be on your computer, ready to be recovered.
But you might end up emptying your Recycle Bin or Trash without noticing. In this case, you’ll have to recover them from the cloud storage service’s website.
Dropbox only keeps deleted files for 30 days, so you’ll have to notice the file was deleted and recover it before then. Pro subscribers with “Extended Version History” can recover files for up to a year.
Other services are more generous. Google Drive seems to never automatically remove deleted files from the trash. OneDrive deletes files after a year but will automatically start deleting the oldest files after three days if the Recycle Bin fills up.
Apple’s iCloud Drive doesn’t offer any way to get a deleted file back — not even a trash or recycle bin. It just depends on you having local Time Machine backups.
How Long You Can Revert Modified Files
Cloud storage services also keep previous versions of files. If you — or a program on your computer — modifies these files, you can get them back by reverting to an older version of the file. You can do this from the service’s website, too — right-click a file and select the appropriate option to see a list of older versions of the files you can use.
As with a trash or recycle bin, the problem is that services won’t keep these old versions around forever. They take up space, after all.
Dropbox only keeps snapshots of previous versions of your files for 30 days. You’ll need the paid “Extended Version History” feature to get previous versions that last longer. Google Drive also keeps older versions of your files for 30 days.
Microsoft’s OneDrive only offers this for Office documents, and Apple’s iCloud Drive doesn’t offer it at all. Both depend on you having local backups.
Perform Regular Local Backups to Keep Your Files Safe
The real solution here — one that will ensure you’ll always have a backup copy of any important files you might accidentally delete or modify, even if your cloud storage service of choice doesn’t — is to create local backups, too.
You don’t need anything fancy or complicated. Just connect an external hard drive once a week or so and run your operating system’s backup tool. On Windows 7, that’s Windows Backup. On Windows 8, 8.1, or 10, that’s File History — if you’re using File History, be sure it’s backing up your cloud storage folder, too. On a Mac, it’s Time Machine. As long as you’re syncing the contents of your cloud storage to your PC, the backup tool will make a copy of those files and store them on the backup drive.
You may never have to touch these backups if our cloud storage service never has any problems, but you’ll be thankful for the additional backup if you ever need it. If you store important files in cloud storage, be sure you have a local backup — just in case.