Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Fatal Flaw of Online Data Storage

For a considerable time, genealogical blogs have encouraged their readers to avail themselves of online storage as a viable means of backing up their genealogical data. However, storing your data online has a fatal flaw. In reality, storing your data online is just another way of backing up your data with some of the same limitations as hard drives, flash drives and other means. The fatal flaw in relying on online data storage is that the data is kept at a remote location, very likely outside of your state or province or even your country. The ramifications of this out of jurisdiction storage are not clear. Should you die there are no clear legal precedents for determining your heirs' access to your online data or even the ownership of the data. Furthermore, it is not clear when you store data on a remote server that the law of the location of the server does not govern the data.

Over the years, I have known several people who have failed to make payments on their storage facilities and have lost all of their goods and personal belongings stored in the facility. Unfortunately, those who store their data online are in almost exactly the same potential situation. Failure to make the periodic payments for the online storage could result in the data being removed or at the very least, locked. This observation applies not only to online family trees but also to data backed up to commercial backup sites.

I don't particularly want to pick on anyone online backup company, but I will use as an example.  Here is the pertinent paragraph:
To ensure there is no disruption in Your Service, Your subscription may automatically renew at the end of the Subscription Period and Carbonite will charge the then-current renewal fees to the credit card associated with Your Account, unless You cancel Your subscription. If You cancel Your subscription, Carbonite is not obligated to refund subscription charges already paid and cancellation will take effect at the end of the current Subscription Period unless a sooner date is requested. After cancellation, You will no longer be able to use any Services or access Your Account or User Data. Your subscription will automatically terminate or expire upon the earliest of (1) non-renewal, cancellation or expiration of a subscription or failure to pay subscription fees when due, if applicable, (2) Carbonite's discontinuation of the Services, or (3) failure to comply with these Terms. You acknowledge and agree that after non-renewal, cancellation or expiration of Your Subscription Period, Carbonite's policy is to automatically delete all User Data protected by Your Account that is stored on Carbonite servers or on Carbonite’s third-party cloud storage providers. (Emphasis Added)
Okay, how quickly after death do you think your heirs can act to preserve your data on Carbonite before it is deleted? Let's assume that your heirs do not notify Carbonite of your death, and merely continue to pay the payments until the data is secured in the local hard drive. But what might happen, if the company were notified of your death? You might also note the following statement in my Terms and Conditions, "These Terms shall be governed, construed and enforced in accordance with the laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts without reference to conflicts of law principles."

Now, do you consider your online genealogical resources to have any value? Have you considered how much this online data is worth? Who inherits the data if you die? What happens to the data if you're disabled and failed to make the payments? Clearly you can see that having data online, even in a reliable well-known commercial service provider has a substantial risk which I called the fatal flaw.

Resolving this issue is rather easy, all you have to do is make absolutely sure that you have a viable local copy of all of your data. In my case, my strategy includes making multiple copies of my data at regular intervals and distributing those copies to various of my children around the country. I certainly use online storage, but as I indicated earlier in this post, I certainly do not rely on online storage as my primary backup.


  1. Bravo! This is exactly what I have been saying about Cloud Storage since it became a thing.

    I can see using the freebie storage provided as a teaser by some of the services, for certain purposes. It's not a good primary backup, by any means, but it does make a reasonable temporary storage or sharing facility for data that is non-sensitive. It's one way to make data available to you wherever you go. But I would never put anything that is critical to your identity, or any other sensitive data like that, out on cloud services.

  2. As a mere backup, you're paying for what you get. It would be unreasonable to expect a commercial operation like Carbonite to give away free storage for eternity. There is no value to them in your data; only in your payments.

    However, if we're talking about data preservation then this type of online storage is probably inappropriate. I did think about writing something on the following but I haven't been able to put together a good case. It seems to me that some of the people with the most to gain from your data are our archives. Rather than pay a generic storage company for their disk space, imagine we could pay an archive to look after our data, together with come clause explaining when/how-much they could make visible to other researchers through a flat subscription. We think of archives as non-commercial organisations but they still need money to do the things they do. Why not let them offer a similar storage service on the understanding that they can make use of the data at some point, and they would ensure it was preserved after your death? This would almost be a separate activity to them and would prevent them having to charge for access to original documents etc.I haven't really thought about the balance between making money, preservation, and privacy but I feel it could be done. Of course, it would also need a data standard, one without any opaque proprietary databases, but that's a whole different topic. :-)

    I know this probably sounds a bit radical and controversial but I haven't seen any suggestion of it elsewhere. What do you think James?