A Guide to Keeping Your Stories Safe
By Lucy Snyder

 

Nanci asked me to write about file backups/file recovery this month. She told me that every so often she sees a frantic message on Shocklines posted by someone whose computer has crashed -- with the only existing copy of a newly-minted short story or novella dead along with their hard drive.

If your hard drive dies carrying important files that can't be resurrected with the aid of programs like Norton or TechTool, that's a painful way to learn that you must do regular system maintenance like defragging your hard drive and backing up your files to keep them safe. But these days, keeping backups of files is only part of what you need to do to keep your work safe.

It'd be simpler if computers simply worked and didn't crash, wouldn't it? But crash they do, and some of the worst crashes I've seen in my job as a tech support agent have happened because of spyware and virus infections. The Internet has become a truly treacherous place for Windows users (Mac and Linux users are largely immune to such problems at this point) and malware infections can be difficult to remove; the best thing to do is to protect yourself.

The first thing you need to do is to make sure you have a firewall installed and have a decent antivirus program like McAfee VirusScan (my personal favorite) or Norton Antivirus, and have the program set to regularly update your virus profiles. The best antivirus program in the world won't do you any good if you're exposed to a brand-new virus that the program can't recognize because it hasn't been updated (and on that note, make sure that you check for and install system and security updates for your computer's operating system on a regular basis).

The best thing to do is to try to avoid exposing yourself to viruses in the first place. Many people get infections through spam emails that contain viruses masquerading as other types of attachments. So, don't open those attachments promising pictures of Britney Spears cavorting naked with the Queen of England, folks. Don't even touch them.

(Side note: also, don't respond to alarming emails that purport to come from your bank or credit card company. Don't click on the links they provide, don't call the phone numbers they provide, and in the name of all that is holy, don't click or call and then provide any personal information or account numbers. These emails are almost always scams intended to steal your information so that some creep can clean out your bank account or go on a credit spree on your dime. These assholes are ruthlessly efficient, and they will start doing this within minutes of getting your information. If you're worried about your account, look up the company's name in your telephone book and call them.)

(Side note to the side note: never, ever email anyone your entire social security number, credit card number, password, etc. Email is about as private as a postcard, or a conversation on a crowded bus. You would be amazed at the sheer number of people who potentially have access to your emails as they make their way from Computer A to Computer B. This a good reason to never put your social security number on a manuscript that you send through email or in an emailed contract.)

The best way to avoid exposure to emailed viruses is to keep those messages out of your inbox entirely by getting yourself a spam filter like MailWasher, IHateSpam, SpamPal, or POPFile if your email provider has been having a hard time keeping down the daily deluge. If your computer is exposed to viruses and other malware, you could become an unwitting helper in the spam flood. How? Spammers and virusmakers have joined forces in their quest to steal money by creating trojan horse programs that give hackers a back door into your computer. Once inside, the hacker turns your computer into what's known as a "zombie", and it takes its place as a node in a potentially-enormous botnet: a network of hijacked computers that spew out endless streams of spam.

The nasty part is that your computer could be hijacked and you wouldn't even know it. Except for the fact that programs seem to be running much slower than usual, and your Websurfing has slowed to a feeble dogpaddle. You might get a terse message from your admin or ISP telling you that they've cut your computer off from the network until you've dealt with the problem. You might suddenly find that emails you try to send to your friends are bouncing back with arcane-looking error messages because networks have tagged your computer as a spam machine. To find out if you're part of a botnet, you should plug your IP address into DNSstuff's Spam Database Lookup. If lots of places have your IP address banned, chances are good that your computer has been hijacked.

The worst part is that unless you're extremely computer-savvy (in which case this article is all old hat to you), you'll have to wipe your computer clean and reformat your hard drive to dezombify your computer.

The same thing might sadly be necessary if you get infected by certain types of spyware adware spread through websites. Since adware is written by jerks who only want to steal your information or bombard you with advertisements, none of it is written with any concern towards what it might do to your computer. So, adware tends to hog system resources, mess up the function of your web browser, screw up your mouse, etc. Severe infestations can render your computer completely non-functional.

The worst of the worst come from dodgy porn and filesharing sites; avoid those if possible, or visit them on a computer you don't use for anything else. I once bought a computer from a friend who worked as a camgirl, and when I was giving it the once-over I discovered loads of malware, including a keylogger program that was ready to transmit all the usernames and passwords I typed into my online accounts to a computer in Romania. Did I wipe that computer clean and reformat the hard drive before I used it for anything? You betcha.

If you don't want to switch to Linux or a Mac, the simplest thing you can do to avoid 80% of all the spyware and adware out there is to use some other web browser besides Internet Explorer. Malware writers, like most thieves, are fundamentally lazy; they tend to churn out programs to plague the browser that most people use -- Internet Explorer -- and ignore the rest. I like Firefox myself.

If you think you've got spyware on your computer (having weird web browser malfunctions and strange random ad pop-ups is a definite sign of infection), you'll need to look for it remove it. The problem is, there are a fair number of programs out there that purport to find and remove spyware when in fact they simply install more on your computer. The programs I've used that do a decent job are SpyBot and Ad-Aware but even they can't cope with the trickiest adware trojans -- you may have to resort to a complicated program called HijackThis.

If that fails, you'll have to wipe your hard drive and start over from scratch.

And that's when having up-to-date backups are absolutely crucial.

The basic idea of a backup is to have an extra copy of something so that you can replace it if the original file is dumped or damaged. What should you back up? Things that won't be replaced by re-installing your system and programs: your word processing files, pictures, emails, etc. If you're on a Windows machine, this is pretty much everything in the folder "My Documents", plus whatever folder you keep your stories in if it's not in there (you are keeping your stories all in one place, right? Good. If not, it's time to do a bit of housecleaning -- keeping everything in one place makes files easier to find, back up, and restore).

How often should you back up your computer? As often as necessary. In other words, you should back up a file whenever you make changes to it that you wouldn't want to lose.

Printing out hard copies of a finished short story or novel is a fine idea -- but then you're forced to type or scan the whole thing in again if the only electronic version is lost. Making a backup of a file on the same hard drive -- which some programs do by default -- can help you out if an individual file is badly damaged in a computer crash, but will be no help at all if your hard drive dies.

So, for optimal file safety, you need to back it up onto something other than your hard drive. Floppy disks are better than nothing, but can be damaged by magnetic fields from speakers and TVs and are too small to hold some files. Keychain flash drives are okay, but can be a little flaky and are easy to lose. Burning your files to CDs every so often is better -- CDs are more durable than magnetic media, and once written can be destroyed but not tampered with.

If you've got a file that's particularly important to you, it's best to keep a copy in a secure place that's not your residence. Several authors have lost precious manuscripts and computer files to floods and fires. There are many services (such as Apple's .Mac) which offer online storage for files, but remember my earlier warning about keeping social security numbers etc. away from prying online eyes -- some files you might be better off storing as burned CDs and printouts in a small fireproof safe.

Manual backups can be a pain, but there are plenty of programs like Retrospect, LaCie Backup, etc. to make things fairly painless.

That's all I got this time, folks; stay tuned for my next column in a few months. I promise I'll put away the computer and talk about .... SCIENCE!

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Even though Lucy A. Snyder is a confirmed gadget freak, she does love pens and paper and admires those who can fill their notebooks with elegant cursive. Sadly, her own handwriting is an indecipherable scrawl, so she sticks with computers. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of online and print publications. You can learn (and read) more at her personal site at www.sff.net/people/lucy-snyder.

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