Ask Leo! #679 – This Doesn’t Need to Happen

This Week

It was almost a throw-away comment in a larger broadcast email from one of the internet gurus I respect: "I lost a huge amount of research and work when my computer crashed this summer." SERIOUSLY? This doesn't have to happen!

Also, how I'll never have to change my email address (and yet can change my email provider any time I want), in How Do I Get an Email Address for Life?

And, when it's important to understand the difference between different types of WI-Fi logins: Does a Login Page on an Open Wi-Fi Hotspot Mean it's a Secure Connection? (TL;DR: Absolutely not! The article explains what to look for.)

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This Doesn't Need to Happen


I lost a huge amount of research and work when my computer crashed this summer.

That's a quote from an email I received from someone who, honestly, I expected better of. He's a prominent figure in my industry, and someone who has a large team of people supporting him.

To have a simple computer crash cause “huge” data loss … well, as I said, this doesn't need to happen. Ever. Not to him, and not to you or me.

Sadly, he's not the only one running the risk.

Look at your computer, right now

I was traveling recently when a colleague mentioned that should her laptop fail or be lost, it would be a serious problem. Apparently, there was significant work that would be lost.

Again, this doesn't need to happen. Ever.

Look at your computer. Right now. The one you use most, perhaps the one you're traveling with, the one that has your work on it.

Now, imagine it gone. Without warning, without recovery, just … gone.

If that would result in serious data loss for you, that's a problem.

And again, it doesn't need to happen. Ever.

And yet it does, over and over again. I hear stories.

Tales of data loss

In the early years of Ask Leo!, I received a plea from an overseas graduate student working on his master's thesis. Something had happened to his online account, and he could no longer access it. He'd been hacked, and all the recovery methods were failing. And of course, this was a free account (Hotmail, if memory serves), so there was no hope of help.

Calling it a “problem” doesn't do the situation justice. It was a disaster. That account held the only copy of the thesis he'd been working on. Without access, it was gone.

He had to start over from scratch.

A good friend of mine contacted me a few years ago and told me that all of a sudden, pictures wouldn't open properly on his computer. After a lengthy investigation, we determined that the machine had been infected with one of the early instances of ransomware. The malware hadn't completed, so he hadn't been presented with the ransom demand. The process had been interrupted, presumably by security software detecting and neutralizing it as it encrypted his files.

Unfortunately, it was too late for a vast majority of his pictures — pictures kept only on that PC. Pictures that remained encrypted without hope of recovery.1

Pictures of his late granddaughter.

A bit extreme?

You might say those are relatively extreme examples, and I won't disagree.

But they're still too common. I hear tales like these often, often from desperate people grasping at straws to recover something critically important, sentimental, and ultimately irreplaceable.

It doesn't have to be extreme to be painful. It might not be your life's work; losing the photos on your digital camera or your smartphone is one example of data loss that might not be tragic, but can certainly hurt. And it does happen. Small, portable devices get lost. Memory cards go bad. Well-meaning friends or technicians accidentally delete things.

Stuff happens. You know it does.


I harp for a reason

Significant data loss doesn't need to happen, and yet it does.

It happens more often and more easily than we might think.

My frustration is that it's so easy to prevent. Yet people are scared away by details they don't understand, poorly written and poorly documented tools that are supposed to help, and systems that have become so complex it's sometimes difficult to understand exactly what's where.

I get all that. I truly do. But the fact remains it can be easy, and it's important. Even if it weren't easy (which, I know, many disagree with) it's still important. In fact, if something is important enough for you to work on, if you're doing “a huge amount of research and work”, then it's well worth investing the time to protect yourself, even at the most basic level.

The most basic level?

Envision your computer suddenly gone.

All the things you're thinking of that would be lost forever?

Make a copy. Put that copy somewhere else.

That's it. That's all. Everything else is refinement. Everything else is about what gets copied, where it gets copied, and automating the process of making those copies.

But ultimately, it's all — and only — about making copies.

If there's only one copy, it's not backed up.

Concrete steps

So start making copies.

Learn how to use the tools if you have to, but start. Today.

Get over your fear of the cloud, and start using any of the free services for some basic automation. Encrypt if you're working on highly sensitive documents or if you're just paranoid.

Read An Eight-step Back-up Plan Using Windows 10's Built-In Tools, even if you're not running Windows 10. Many of the specific steps will work on any Windows version, and the concepts are universal.

Read How Do I Back Up My Computer? for a nice high-level overview of the various options and approaches to backing up. (In fact, have a look at all of the Best Articles: a Collection for articles on backing up and security in general.)

But above all, no matter what you read or how you do it, start backing up. Now.

If a sudden and unexpected loss of your computer and data (or phone, or account, or …) would be anything greater than an annoyance, you're not sufficiently backed up.


I'll continue to preach the word about backing up. To me it's the one thing that could save more grief than just about anything else I can talk about.

If you feel the same way — if you feel that this article and the ideas behind it have merit — share it. Share it on Facebook. Share it on Twitter. Send the link to this rantpost up there in your address bar to the people you know aren't backing up as they should. (And I'm betting you know quite a few.)

Spread the word.

Related Links & Comments: This Doesn't Need to Happen

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How Do I Get an Email Address for Life?

I've used {now defunct service redacted} for several years in order to avoid notifying my contacts I've changed my email address. They promised me a single email address I could keep forever. Except I now find that the site is working, but it doesn't allow any view of my account. The page merely says, “It works! This is the default web page for this server. The web server software is running, but no content has been added yet.” Are you able to help me?

Help you get your account back? No.

Help you avoid this situation again in the future? Absolutely.

It's exceptionally frustrating when a service promising to provide something forever goes away. Apparently, “forever” isn't what it used to be.

Continue Reading: How Do I Get an Email Address for Life?

Does a Login Page on an Open Wi-Fi Hotspot Mean it's a Secure Connection?

Many hotels, airports, and other places with an open Wi-Fi hotspot display a page that I need to log in to or accept terms on before I can connect to the internet. Does that mean it's a secure connection?

No. Absolutely not.

This is a critically important distinction to make, and it's one I'm afraid many people misunderstand.

Continue Reading: Does a Login Page on an Open Wi-Fi Hotspot Mean it's a Secure Connection?

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Posted: November 21, 2017 in: 2017
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