Backup your smartphone pictures for 20 years or more - ideas

Will you have your digital pictures after 20 years from now? Will you regret to not have them? How can you safely store your digital pictures in order to still have them in 20 years or more?

I am talking, for example, about the pictures or movies that you take with your smartphone or with your digital camera. I know I will want to have them after years.

Digital pictures tends to be even more fragile than paper pictures. Do you still have all the digital pictures that you have taken 10 years ago? What if your smartphone gets stolen, or your desktop hard drive fails? What if you delete the pictures by mistake when re-installing the operating system?

Here are some ideas that I got when I evaluated the way to keep my pictures for 20 years or more. I am already using some of this methods for my pictures. I am open to other suggestions and comments.

General considerations
  •  No single solution for storing digital content is perfectly safe for 20 years or more
  • The best solution should be a combination of solutions, hoping that at least one will prove to be reliable
  • I will examine various solutions, with pros(+) and cons(-). For assuring "disaster recovery" one should be a bit paranoid, so here are some ideas:

On short

  • organize all pictures/movies on years/month, example:[2015] / [2015-05] / [event] / *
  • monthly, copy all raw pictures and movies to at least 2 external USB hard drives
  • yearly, do selections for each month and write it at least twice on DVD
  • re-copy the hard drives at 3 years and DVDs at 5-10 years
  • yearly, print 1-10 pictures from each month on paper
  • have some selected pictures stored in your friend's archive (if they accept)
  • (optional) yearly deposit one selection DVD in a remote location, or update a remote hard drive
  • (optional) let your smartphone/Picasa/etc to backup the pictures on the cloud, at reduced resolution (to be free of charge)
  • (optional) backup all data, also in a remote online network storage and be sure that it will be funded and secured for this many years



(backup pictures solutions)

Multiple USB hard drives
  • store your pictures on at least 2 independent hard drives - a single drive will eventually crash
  • test disks periodically and copy to another drive when one of them becomes defective or full
  • copy data to a new hard disk at maximum 3 years, to reduce the risk of both disks to loose data 
  • reduce the time while the 2 disks are plugged in the same time (avoid sudden charges that could damage them both, in the same time).
  • better: keep the pictures on your desktop/laptop and synchronize with each of them separately
  • do not keep frequently used data with pictures, you risk a delete by mistake
  • external/USB drives has the advantage that you can easily connect/disconnect them when updating: reduce usage fatigue, reduce the risk of damage by a power spike
  • it is better to use standard 3.5''(big) hard drives, with enclosure, because they tend to be more reliable and you can change the USB adapter if it breaks
  • always synchronize the disks without delete or overwrite, to not risk propagating errors between disks
  • RAID is not a sufficient solution, a virus or human mistake could destroy both copies. Also, a power surge or controller fault can damage both copies
  • For now I would still favor spinning hard drives, SSDs could prove or not to be more reliable
  • (+) hard disks are handy when you produce tens of GBytes of pictures/movies a year
  • (+) DVDs are too small, Blu-Rays might be too expensive and still not big enough
  • (+) compact solution when having tens of GB of data
  • (+) cheap solution as $/TB
  • (+) easy to add and re-organize the pictures
  • (-) many hard drives starts to die after 3 years, some in the first year; if you don't use them daily, they should last longer; however, after many years, the magnetic recording will fade anyway
  • (-) both disks could start having bad sectors before you notice them
  • (-) hard drives could be easily damaged by mechanical shocks when mishandled
  • (-) water flooding from your neighbor could damage the disks
  • (-) magnetic/electromagnetic fields could damage both disks in the same time (solar flares?)
  • (-) hard drive data can be overwritten by mistake, by a virus or a synchronization software bug

  • pictures on DVD have a big advantages compared to hard drives: they cannot be overwritten by mistake
  • on a 10 years time frame, a CD/DVD has a way higher chance to survive than a hard drive
  • keep DVDs in individual case (not in contact with others); maybe paper is better than plastic?
  • you should still write the data to a new DVD at maximum 5-10 years to avoid aging
  • avoid extreme temperatures; ideally keep a not-so-high, constant temperature (a dry basement?)
  • keep it secure from being damaged in moderate earthquakes (by DVD falling or by hit from other objects that falls); for big earthquakes you have bigger problems than the pictures...
  • the only solution for accidental fires is to have a copy in a remote location (a relative, a friend, rented box, etc)
  • (+) DVDs are not affected by moderate magnetic fields
  • (+) don't have moving mechanical parts that can be damaged by use (except the disk itself)
  • (+) don't have electronic parts that can become defectives by aging (like capacitors)
  • (+) are not affected usually by power spikes (except if the whole system goes on fire)
  • (+) are less affected by thermal expansion / contraction
  • (+) less affected by water flooding
  • (-) might be easily affected by mechanical scratch when mishandled or broken DVD unit
  • (-) extreme temperatures and humidity could prematurely damage the disk surface (exfoliation)
  • (-) DVDs are too small, it is hard to organize pictures
  • (-) Blu-Rays might be a bit expensive and not big enough anyway 
  • (-) still fragile when falling, when the box is hit by a big object and on fire accidents
  • (-) expected lifetime could be as small as 15years in ambient conditions; it could fail much early sometimes
  • (-) it could fail in couple of years if the DVD stays in contact with a material that adheres to plastic when aging (rubber, plastic foil, another DVD,...)
 Free backup
  • If you don't want to spend money on network storage, you could still use automatic free backup with reduced quality (like Google Plus offers now)
  • If you have concerns about privacy, you should only store files remotely after encryption, but this might not be free
  • (+) such storage could be a safety net when all local storage has failed (house on fire)
  • (+) a lower resolution photo is better than no photo at all
  • (+) if the phone is stolen or broke, you might still recover the last month's pictures
  • (+) the storage should be protected by redundancy on multiple disks (in theory at least)
  • (-) there are no contract guaranties if the data is corrupted at the operator
  • (-) if you loose the password, you might not have a way to recover it, as you don't have any contract with the company that stored the content
  • (-) you can still overwrite/delete the pictures by your mistake
  • (-) the operator can change the terms of usage and ask money for future storage
  • (-) in 20 years, even big companies could go into insolvency, services gets removed or sold to other companies
Payed storage
  • it is a good practice to keep a copy of the important data in a remote location
  • (+) protects the data from local accidents (stealing, water flooding, fire, earthquake)
  • (+) professional backup should have redundancy built in
  • (+) you have a contract with some warranties (read it first!)
  • (+) you should be able to recover access if you loose password (not always on free services)
  • (+) you have the option to encrypt the files with a password that is only known by you
  • (-) the company could go into insolvency
  • (-) in 20 years the company could face and invoke situations outside it's control (like water flooding, electrical accidents, data-center on fire)
  • (-) you can still remove your data by mistake (is undelete available?)
  • (-) a virus on your side could delete the data remotely 
  • (-) you could forget the encryption key for the data, the company cannot help here 
  • (-) if you cannot pay for a while, you might loose the data

Paper print
  • actually this is the only solution that was time proved to preserve images over tens of years
  • digital pictures are available mainstream only recently, no digital storage solution was actually validated by time
  • microfilms might be more compact and robust, however they are not so easy to create
  • (+) we know for sure that paper print managed to survive even over 100 years
  • (+) paper pictures are available even when electricity is down and your computer is broke
  • (+) a hit will not damage a paper picture completely, unlike on a DVD
  • (+) paper has a robustness that usual digital storage materials don't have, because...
  • (+) you are less tented to mix pictures with things that you are using often (music, games)
  • (-) paper pictures takes a lot of storage space, you must select only some of the pictures for this
  • (-) the quality is depreciating in time, no matter what
  • (-) there is a price to pay for printing the pictures
  • (-) very sensible to water, fire

Bottom words
 I think that, combining such ideas, you can increase the chance that after 20 years or more you will still have some personal memories (pictures, movies) from the past. These are actually anchors to memory, they become even more important as time passes. Keeping digital pictures on the long run is not an easy job, actually it is almost sure that one single storage will eventually fail. When you analyze it, so many things can go wrong in 20 years...

I hope these ideas will help you a bit, to save your future memories from accidental loss.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the ideas and your analysis, all very sensible and true. And yes, I'm talking about the long term storage of pictures, and also other life documents.