It may not be a widely celebrated holiday, but World Backup Day — celebrated on Mar. 31, just ahead of April Fools' Day — aims to encourage computer users to regularly back up their data.

That appears to be something many users don't do.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains why it's important, and offers some strategies to keep data safe and secure.

What is World Backup Day?

It's a day all about backup awareness, and getting more people to start backing up their computers if they don't already, or — for those who do — to take a serious look at their backup strategy, and make sure it's up to snuff.

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Hard drive failure is just one way to lose important personal data. World Backup Day, on Mar. 31, aims to heighten awareness of the importance of keeping regular backups of your data. ((iStock))

It started in 2011 and early on, World Backup Day was sponsored by a bunch of companies that sell backup products or services, like hard drives or cloud backup.

So in that sense, World Backup Day is kind of like Valentine's Day — part of its popularity is driven by companies that want to sell you stuff.

But now, the focus is much more on education, and it's also just a really good regular reminder to check your backup hygiene.

What does a good backup help protect against?

Whenever I talk about the importance of backup, I always think about my friends Mike and Catherine, who lost every single photo of their twin sons' first year because of a hard drive crash.

We're talking about protecting your most precious digital documents. The kind of stuff that's heartbreaking to lose, because it simply can't be replaced.

And to be clear, backups don't just protect against hard drive crashes — there are many, many ways to lose data. You can lose data in natural disasters like floods or fires, for example. Or you can lose data if your computer is stolen.

And then there's ransomware.

In recent years, we're seen the rise of malicious software — like CryptoWall and KeRanger — that infects your computer, encrypts your files, and makes it difficult, or entirely impossible, for you to get them back unless you pay a sum of money (unless you've backed them up).

ransomware-notice

Victims of ransomware will typically receive a notice demanding payment, like this one sent to a Toronto firm whose hard drives were locked and encrypted by outside hackers. (Dave Seglins/CBC)

Most experts agree data loss isn't a question of "if" it will happen to you, but a question of "when."

And when data loss happens, having an automatic, redundant, offsite backup system can mean the difference between a minor nuisance and a total catastrophe.

How many people actually backup their computers regularly?

We don't have great Canadian stats on this stuff, but we do know a bit about what's going on south of the border.

There's an online backup company called Backblaze, and every year they commission a survey, asking "How often do you backup all the data on your computer?"

Their most recent numbers, from 2015, say that 25 per cent of computer users have never backed up their computer.

The good news is that number is decreasing. Back in 2008, when they started the survey, 38 per cent had never backed up their computer. But still, a quarter of people, when their hard drives die, will lose everything.

Another interesting stat from Backblaze — only eight per cent of people surveyed back up their computers daily. And that number is headed in the wrong direction. Back in 2012, it was 10 per cent. So fewer people are backing up their stuff every day, which, again, exposes them to data loss.

Does cloud storage change the need for backups?

Cloud storage — or saving your data on remote servers, accessed through the internet — can be a great part of a backup strategy. I use a cloud backup service to back up my personal computer.

But the the cloud shouldn't be the only place you store data. With backups, the aim is to avoid a single point of failure.

Steve Jobs cloud

Cloud storage services, like Apple's iCloud, can be a good part of a backup strategy, but shouldn't be a user's only backup solution. (The Associated Press)

So if all your documents live in Google Docs, or all your photos live on Facebook, for example — and you don't have a copy somewhere else — that's a single point of failure.

That means you could wake up tomorrow and they'd be gone. The thing to keep in mind with cloud services is that you should have another copy somewhere.

The good news is that many cloud services let you download a copy of everything you have stored with them. Google has their "Takeout" service. Facebook lets you download all your data, including photos, as one big file. It's not a bad idea to do that periodically, just in case.

If I've never backed up, where do I start?

A great place to start is by taking a minute to think about what's most important to you. What are the photos or videos or documents that are the most important to me? What would I be heartbroken to lose if it went away forever?

Then ask yourself — how many of those files exist in only one place? How many photos do you have sitting on your phone, and nowhere else — or how many of your important documents are only in Google Drive, for example?

Once you've identified the important data that's at risk, make a copy. That might mean hooking up an external hard drive and running the backup software that came with your computer, or uploading photos from your phone to Dropbox, or downloading a copy of all your Facebook photos and saving them locally on your computer.

The World Backup Day website has some more useful tips on how to put a good backup strategy in place.

It's different for everybody, but the basic principle is the same — more than one copy, in more than one place.