Recover from information loss

Updated20/05/2021

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    There is a common saying among computer support professionals: "it's not a question of if you will lose your data; it's a question of when." If your devices are stolen, seized, or damaged, you will need to have ongoing access to your important documents. Planning ahead can minimize what you lose. Take or consider the following steps to plan ahead.

    Recover files you have accidentally deleted

    When you delete a file, it disappears from view, but it remains on your device. Even after you empty the Recycle Bin or Trash, files you deleted can usually be found on the hard drive. See How to destroy sensitive information to learn how this can put your security at risk.

    But if you accidentally delete an important file, this might work to your advantage. Some programs can restore access to recently-deleted files.

    All devices These tools do not work if your device has written new data over your deleted information. If possible, stop using your device until you have tried to recover the files (or had someone do that for you). Doing additional work on your device could write over the files you lost and make them impossible to retrieve. The longer you use your computer before attempting to restore the file, the less likely it is that the file will be retrievable.

    Use the portable version of a tool like Recuva instead of installing it. Installing the software may accidentally write over the file you are trying to recover.

    Linux, Mac, and Windows

    Create a backup plan

    Take these steps:

    Organize your information

    Before you make your backup plan, try to move all of the folders that contain electronic documents you intend to back up into a single location, such as inside the "Documents" or "My Documents" folder.

    Identify where and what your information is

    The first step to making a backup policy is to picture where your personal and work information is currently located. Your email, for example, may be stored on your email provider's server, on your own computer, or in both places at once. And, of course, you might have several email accounts.

    Then there are important documents on the computers you use in the office or at home: word processing documents, presentations, PDFs, and spreadsheets, among other examples. Your computer and mobile devices also store your contact lists, chat histories, and personal program settings, all of which can be considered sensitive.

    You may also have stored some information on removable media like USB memory sticks, portable hard drives, CDs, or DVDs. If you have a website, it may contain a large collection of articles built up over years of work. And, finally, don't forget your non-digital information, such as paper notebooks, diaries and letters.

    Define which are primary copies and which are duplicates

    Next, define which of these files are 'primary copies,' and which are duplicates. The primary copy should be the most up-to-date version of a particular file or collection of files; it should be the copy you would actually edit if you needed to update the content. Obviously, this does not apply to files of which you have only one copy, but it is extremely important for certain types of information.

    One common disaster scenario occurs when only duplicates of an important document are backed up, and the primary copy itself gets lost or destroyed before those duplicates can be updated. For example, say you have been travelling for a week, updating a copy of an important spreadsheet stored on a USB memory stick. You should begin thinking of that copy as your primary copy, because it is more up-to-date than backup copies you may have made at the office.

    Write down the physical location of all primary and duplicate copies of the information identified above. This will help you clarify your needs and begin to define an appropriate backup policy. The table below is a very basic example. Your list may be much longer, and contain some 'storage devices' with more than one 'data type' or data types stored on multiple devices.

    Data type Primary / Duplicate Storage device Location
    Electronic documents Primary Computer hard drive Office
    A few important electronic documents Duplicate USB memory stick With me
    Program databases (photos, address book, calendar, etc.) Primary Computer hard drive Office
    A few electronic documents Duplicate CDs Home
    Email & email contacts Primary Gmail account Internet
    Text messages & phone contacts Primary Mobile phone With me
    Printed documents (contracts, invoices, etc.) Primary Desk drawer Office
    In the table above, you can see that:
    - The only documents that will survive if your office computer's hard drive crashes are the duplicates on your USB memory stick and the CD copies at home.
    - You have no offline copy of your email messages or your address book, so if you forget your password (or if someone manages to change it maliciously), you will lose access to them.
    - You have no copies of any data from your mobile phone.
    - You have no duplicate copies, digital or physical, of printed documents such as contracts and invoices.

    After following the checklist in this section, you should have rearranged your storage devices, data types and backups in a way that makes your information more resistant to disaster:

    Data Type Primary/Duplicate Storage Device Location
    Electronic documents Primary Computer hard drive Office
    Electronic documents Duplicate CDs Home
    A few important electronic documents Duplicate USB memory stick With me
    Program databases Primary Computer hard drive Office
    Program databases Duplicate CDs Home
    Email & email contacts Primary Gmail account Internet
    Email & email contacts Duplicate Thunderbird on office computer Office
    Text messages & mobile phone contacts Primary Mobile phone With me
    Text messages & mobile phone contacts Duplicate Computer hard drive Office
    Text messages & mobile phone contacts Duplicate Backup SIM card Home
    Printed documents Primary Desk drawer Office
    Scanned documents Duplicate CDs Home
    Once you have written the checklist, it is time to make the back up copies.

    To back up to your local devices

    All devices Store the backup on something portable so that you can take it to a safe location. External hard drives, CD/DVDs or USB memory sticks are possible choices. Some people use CDs or DVDs for this, since the risk of overwriting and losing your backup is lower. Blank CDs may be cheap enough to allow you to use a new one every time you make a backup.

    If you are backing up your mobile device to your computer, your next step should be storing that backup to an external device.

    Because your files often contain the most sensitive information, it is important that you protect your backed-up files using encryption. You can learn how to do this in How to protect the sensitive files on your computer and in the VeraCrypt Guide.

    Linux

    Consider whether or not you should backup to "cloud" services

    Why? When you hear "the cloud," think "other people's computers." Cloud services like Google Drive, iCloud, Dropbox, and NextCloud store your backups and other data on servers (computers) owned by those companies. This means your adversary would have a lot of time to access those machines without you noticing they had done so (unlike devices in your possession, where you would be more likely to notice suspicious activity). So it is likely better to make a local copy of your valuable data.

    However, if there is a strong likelihood that your devices or workspace will be destroyed, or your devices will be seized and not returned, it might make sense in the short term to encrypt your data and then store it in cloud services.

    Consider whether you would prefer to use a service that encrypts your data for you as part of its service, or encrypt your files yourself and back them up to your device's built-in tools.

    To use an encrypted cloud service

    Consider the following:

    To back up to cloud services using your device's built-in tools

    All devices Encrypt your files first using Cryptomator: https://cryptomator.org/

    Android

    iOS

    Mac

    Windows

    If you need to share encrypted files with colleagues or store them safely somewhere else

    Why? If you are worried about someone getting to your files, you may decide cloud storage is not safe enough for you. However, if you need to collaborate on files with others or need to make a backup somewhere other than your home or office, and you are certain your attacker cannot get at your cloud storage, here are some options for encrypting data and storing it in the cloud.

    Figure out where programs or apps save databases, and back them up

    Why? If you use a calendar app, digital address book, or an app like Windows Media Player or iTunes that downloads music, you may not be aware that this software saves information in folders you don't usually look in. Email apps use databases like these as well. If you use programs like these and want to back their files up, you might have to search your hard drive to learn where they store files.

    Be sure these databases are included in your regular backups, particularly your email databases, and particularly if you don't store email on a server (which you might not if you use an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook). See if the app gives you the option to choose a new location for its database (this may be somewhere in the app's settings). If it does, you can use that setting to put it in the same folder as your electronic documents, making backup simpler. Do not move the database without using that setting, or it may cause problems when your app tries to find its database.

    Once you know where your programs save their databases, you can back them up in the same way as electronic documents.

    Linux

    • Wojtek: we need this advice

    Mac

    • Find Apple Mail's backup folder by pressing Command-Shift-G, then typing ~/Library/Mail/ in the prompt that appears. Press enter/return, and your Mac should show you the window where these folders are saved.
    • Add them into your backup list.

    Windows

    • These files are often kept inside your My Documents folder on a Windows computer. If that is not the case, however, you should add the appropriate folders to your regular backup.

    Back up email

    • One option is to use Thunderbird regularly to view and back up your email on your device, instead of using your usual email app and storing your email in the cloud or on another server. The Thunderbird Guide explains in detail how to set up Thunderbird to use your existing email address, download your email, and possibly delete it from the server. Most email services provide instructions on how to set up other software to receive your mail (search your email's settings for instructions on POP3 to delete your email from the server, or IMAP to keep it on the server).
    • If you choose to move your old email messages to your computer, make sure that you can locate your mail app's database, and include it in the backup of electronic documents described above.

    Back up smartphone

    • To back up the phone numbers and text messages on your mobile phone, you may be able to connect it to your computer using software from the website of the company that manufactured your phone. You may need to buy a special USB cable to do this.

    Android

    Scan and back up print documents

    • When possible, scan all of your important papers. Back up the scans along with your other electronic documents, as discussed above.

    Set a backup schedule

    • To back up all of the data types listed above, you will need a combination of software and processes. Make sure that each data type is stored in at least two separate locations.

    Practice recovery

    • Once you have made your back ups, test to make sure that you know how to open files and use them again. Remember that, in the end, it is the restore procedure, not the backup procedure, that you really care about!

    Establish procedures for coworkers

    • If you are working in an office, write up and share procedures for all staff to reliably and securely back up files. Communicate the risks that losing your data could have to your ability to do your work. It may help to work together to fill out a grid like the one above to identify all data that passes through your office.