So, just how should internet users store their data?

We assume it will always be there, but the custodians don’t always keep it secure

Skyline of Dubai at night
Powered by automated translation

Modern life causes us to generate an astounding amount of data. The Internet Archive in San Francisco tasked with storing the world’s information, contains a colossal 25 million gigabytes of material – but that represents a tiny fraction of the amount we produce every day – from holiday videos to step counts. It all combines to form a vivid personal record, a valuable ­picture of who we are. But while this kind of personal legacy might once have been placed carefully in a box under the bed, it now sits on servers in unknown locations around the globe.

Our assumption is that it’ll be there for as long as we need it, but the custodians of that data can’t always guarantee to look after it for the long haul. This has just been illustrated by photo storage service Flickr, with the announcement that its previous offer of a free terabyte of storage is being cut back. From February 5 next year, users of Flickr’s free service will only be allowed to store 1000 photos, and any excess will be deleted, oldest first. No heed will paid to their importance; pictures of weddings and graduations are just as likely to disappear as blurry selfies – unless you download them soon for safe keeping.

'It’s the way we’re wired'

The new owner of Flickr, SmugMug, has given a very reasonable explanation for this change: the firm is trying rebuild a platform dedicated to quality rather than quantity, and wants users to recognise that online storage is worth paying for. But it serves as a reminder that despite the convenience of a virtual repository, precious memories can disappear for unforeseen reasons – and when they do, we become furious.

“It’s the way we’re wired,” says Dr Micah Altman, director of research at MIT Libraries in Boston, Massachusetts. “When we discover we’ve lost something, we pay a lot more attention to it than we would have done otherwise. In the past, we’d keep physical objects around us and make decisions about whether or not to keep them, but today, we generate more information than we can possibly manage by ourselves.”

That information is produced without us even thinking, enabled and encouraged by the various services we use. We may access webmail rather than store it on a computer, send our photos to the cloud to save on smartphone space, or choose to stream our favourite music rather than collect libraries of mp3s. Online services have made themselves indispensable, with calendars, address books, to-do lists and much else besides living on their servers. “Part of the business model of these services is to lock people in,” says Altman. “It’s much more profitable. But if you’re storing all your data in one place, well, that’s a single point of potential failure.”

So what could go wrong?

In theory, cloud storage is safer than keeping everything archived at home. Burglars break-in, hard disks fail, and phones can be lost. The big online services, however, store copies of your data in multiple locations across multiple ­continents, and losing that data would require a highly unlikely failure in all those locations at once. "For things like fire and flood and lightning strikes [the services] are doing really well," says Altman. "The bigger worry is that something goes wrong with your relationship with that organisation. That they mess up your credit card ­rebilling, your renewal email goes astray or you end up in dispute. There are critical risks related to the organisation itself."

Companies including Flickr and YouTube have been involved in well-publicised cases where people have had their accounts closed – and data deleted – because of disputed violations of terms of service. Then there's computer error; despite the solid reputation of internet warhorses such as Gmail and Dropbox, they have both experienced glitches in the past where customer data has mysteriously vanished. And then, as with Flickr today, business models have to change or die – and if the latter happens, your data may die with them.


Read more:

Five-star fakery: how online reviews may not be as trustworthy as you think 

‘Merging man and machine doesn’t come without consequences’

Why do people love unboxing videos?


Countless services have fallen off the internet, from Geocities (2009) to ­blogging platform Posterous (2013) to last month's closure of social media platform Path, and with each shutdown comes mass deletion of our painstakingly accumulated stuff. When ­entire server ­companies go bust, like what happened with Megacloud in 2013, the ramifications are even greater. Worse: these companies aren't generally liable for that data loss.

What the future holds

The Googles, Facebooks, Apples, and Amazons of this world are seen as too big to fail, and could be seen as reliable keepers of our digital assets – although Scott Galloway, professor of marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, predicted in an interview last year that those businesses are all likely to fail in the next 50 years, such is the pace of change. People’s lives have become so inextricably intertwined with these firms that it’s hard to imagine them not being there. However, if they went, a part of us would disappear, too.

Data is fragile, and the practical lesson we should learn is one we've been taught a thousand times: back things up in multiple places. "Paying a few dollars a month to more than one online storage service is more reliable than keeping a copy in a safe-deposit box because you're never going to check that the copy in the ­deposit box still works," says Altman. But there's also the more profound question of how much the preservation of our data really matters to ­future generations – particularly in an age when we generate so much without trying, from our musical tastes to our movements around the world. "We don't have good models to predict what ­information is going to be useful in the ­future," says Altman. "­Important information isn't necessarily the most popular or the most viewed, and as yet there's no way of knowing its future value."

So, while our individual digital legacies may be important to us, they’re of unknown worth. But one thing is clear: if it’s preserved properly, historians of the future will have a crystal clear idea of what human life was like in 2018 – as long as they have the time and the patience to sift through it all.