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Preserving your information from digital disasters

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As today’s organizations deal with massive amounts of information, there is a remarkable amount of data loss occurring. Digital disasters of systems are increasingly common due to a number of factors including human error, computer job error, natural and manmade disasters, cybercrime, bit rot, and file format obsolescence. One might picture data as a bunch of 0s and 1s, but data can manifest itself as photographs, music, or vital personal information.

What Does a Digital Disaster Look Like?

The Ponemon Institute’s 2019 Cost of a Data Breach report gives some staggering figures on the cost of data loss. It quantifies the latest stats around data breaches:

  • Average cost of a data breach—$3.92 million
  • Each lost record represents a cost of $150
  • Average time to identify and contain a breach—279 days
  • The loss of consumer trust is the biggest contributor to breach costs

And, although these numbers are tremendous, the real stories of data loss are even more impactful. Here are examples of how disk rot, a natural disaster, and data breaches can cause monumental losses.

  • Disk Rot Claims Historic 9/11 Photos—A cache of 2,400 photographs was recovered, shot by a worker helping to clean up the wreckage on the site of the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City. The Ground Zero photos were recorded on CD-R disks (a recordable compact disk format) and those disks tend to rot over time. As a result, many of the photos were unsalvageable. Although these were personal photos, they have important historical value and become part of our cultural heritage, showing what is was to work at Ground Zero in the aftermath. If you or your organization are keeping content on old CDs or disk drives, it’s important to know they won’t last forever. This story demonstrates the criticality of having a preservation strategy built into your organization up front.
  • Fire Destroys Universal Music Group’s Master Recordings—In 2008, on a backlot at Universal Studios, a fire broke out after workers used blowtorches to repair a roof on a movie set. Universal’s video vault and music archive was located on the same lot. The massive fire was impossible to extinguish, and so, firefighters used bulldozers to knock down the burning warehouse. The remains of the Universal Music Group’s archive were reduced to heaps of ash and twisted steel. Although Universal tried to minimize the value of the losses, it was estimated that over 118,000 assets were destroyed, including many original master recordings. Among the incinerated masters were recordings by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, and Judy Garland. The former senior director of vault operations, Randy Aronson, says he hopes the story of the fire will lead to a broader conversation about preservation.
  • Hackers Steal Personal Information from University Databases—As one of many cases over the past decade, Georgia Tech experienced a breach that affected up to 1.3 million current and former students. It started in December of 2018 but wasn’t uncovered until March of 2019. Hacked data included student ID numbers, phone numbers, dates of birth, addresses, grade-point averages, and nations of origins for those born in other countries. Hackers specifically target universities for the sensitive information stored in their systems, including proprietary research data. Higher education institutions also face some unique security challenges, such as legacy hardware and an open culture.

What you can do to avoid digital disasters? 

Although not every digital disaster can be prevented, here are five things to think about in terms of your data:

1) Consider your storage media. Think about digital storage solutions. Do you have a backup? If you haven’t already, consider cloud as part of your backup solution. Also, don’t rely on social media sites as something you will always have access to.

2) Make a practical plan to store data in a few places. You may want to store a couple of copies in the cloud and one copy locally. Realize that once your plan is in place, you have to maintain it.

3) Know the security of the systems you’re in. Many data loss situations are a result of inadequate security. Are security tools built into your systems and are they easy to manage?

4) When will your file formats be obsolete? Yes, when, not if. Some of you will remember Word Perfect and Lotus Notes. What about long-term or permanent records created in those formats? Do you have a strategy for moving file formats forward?

5) Think about the big picture. Will your data be accessible and usable in the future? What are your plans for rendering, viewing, or searching?

Are you protected?

With a digital preservation strategy, your data can be stored securely either in the cloud or on premises. The data will be structured so that it is searchable via your metadata, and the content will be backed up and preserved. With digital preservation, it is important that the file format is moved forward as old formats become obsolete.

In conclusion, unless there’s a real digital preservation strategy in place, you aren’t protected. If you just have your information backed up to physical media or to online backup services, it’s not enough. It is easy to assume your physical media will run forever and the backup services will always be there, but it’s just not the case – and time passes faster than we think. Make sure you have a comprehensive strategy in place before a digital disaster occurs.

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