Julie Ng

Passwords, Backups and a false sense of security

4 min

What would you do if you suddenly lost your data or got hacked? Most of us don’t think about it.  It won’t happen to us. Well most of my stuff is on dropbox. Or with time machine we’re set.

I’m safe. Or am I?

TL;DR - Use a password generator. I use 1password. Have a multifaceted backup system. I use Time Machine on network and USB drives, Arq to S3 and vanilla S3. I hope I’m safe.

In case you haven’t heard, Mat Honan, former Gizmodo employee, just suffered a digital nightmare. In Yes, I was hacked. Hard. he writes:

At 4:50 PM, someone got into my iCloud account, reset the password and sent the confirmation message about the reset to the trash…

At 5:00 PM, they remote wiped my iPhone

At 5:01 PM, they remote wiped my iPad

At 5:05, they remote wiped my MacBook Air.

Within minutes, he lost a year’s worth of his digital life, including documents, photos, etc.

Password security

As Mat’s case demonstrated, we’re often only as safe and secure as our passwords.

So yourself a favor and buy 1password and let it generate all your passwords for you. I use it and their browser plugins everyday to access all of my digital services. 

If random alphanumeric characters scare you, consider getting a correct horse battery staple

Velvet handcuffs and the Achilles heel of digital ecosystems

David Pogue of the New York Times wrote "Mountain Lion continues to put velvet handcuffs on people who own iPhones, iPads and other Macs”, referring to seamless syncing of Calendar, Contacts and Reminders via iCloud.

Maybe it’s too easy. Not because Apple is stupid, but rather we are stupid with our passwords. Find my iPhone/Mac is supposed to help us in case of theft. Ironically, I would rather have a thief steal my physical iPhone than have a hacker get into iCloud and wipe all my digital records, photos, etc. I can buy a new iPhone and Mac.

So the saying, never to put all your eggs in one basket, still holds true today. Even if that basket belongs to Apple.

While I use different passwords for all my services, what would happen if my account got hacked? Or my apartment burned down?

Backup paranoia or backup role model?

This year I decided to get into business for myself so I rethought my backup system. Before then, I had only Time Machine backups to a hard disk.

I currently own 3 computers (macbook air, mac mini, old macbook pro), an iPad and an iPhone. I could part with a stolen iPhone or iPad. Everything on them is either already in the cloud and/or email servers. 

Network backups

I have a Lacie Network Space 2 that I use both as a NAS drive for extra storage and a time machine backup. These network backups, however are .sparsebundle files and I’ve had an entire backup crash on me before. Time Machine alerted me that the backup was corrupt and I had to create a new backup from scratch.

USB Backups

About once a month I backup my air to a 2TB USB drive, just in case the network backup is corrupt.  More importantly I run have virtual machines to do testing for Windows and even starting a VM up triggers a backup alert to Time Machine (and other services) to backup ca. 20 GB. So I exclude my virtual machines and certain system folders (spotlight indexing is also a problem). That’s why I need to occasionally create a proper 100% backup to a USB/Firewire drive.

Cloud Backups

Most importantly, I back up to the cloud. I use Arq to send all my important digital documents, from bookkeeping, to taxes and web projects to Amazon S3. I highly recommend Arq. I select the folders I want to backup, how much I want to spend monthly and then just gets out of my way.

Arq works seamlessly and I like their no-fluff yet powerful interface. I can see what changed, how large my files, etc. are. I like Time Machine but their animation heavy interface can get annoying if you’re searching for some file or a version you can’t trakc down.

Archives and vaults on S3

I have yet another backup lying around on S3. After reading about Frank Chimero’s setup, I decided to zip up folders I pretty much never use but don’t want to delete and just store them on S3. Such folders include old client work or folders, papers, etc. from high school and university.

No Dropbox?

Nope. I use Dropbox to share folders and sync certain apps like Little Snapper. But no nothing important or critical data. Dropbox was made for sharing, not backups, even if it is in the cloud. The file integrity is just not the same when the files are syncing or haven’t synced yet.


I might be a little neurotic when it comes to my backup system. I tried simpler services like Backblaze, but I just wasn’t satisfied with file restore (took ages). Remember a backup isn’t really a backup unless you can restore it. Don’t wait to find out if you can.

And don’t let what happened to Mat Honan happen to you. It can happen to you. But use good and different passwords. Use more than just iCloud. Don’t make it easy for them.