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Electronic files, retained to comply with regulations or for other business reasons, are vulnerable to viruses and changing media formats. What should you do?

About 20 years ago, I was working a midnight shift at the National SIGINT [Signal Intelligence] Operations Center at the National Security Agency and a coworker picked up a 5.25 inch floppy disk holding reports and said, "My reports will be around forever now that it is on a disk." This thought came to me when I recently passed a small highway billboard advertising converting VHS tapes to DVDs for $20. I sat at the traffic light thinking that if my coworker's disk has not been destroyed, the only place it might be read is in a computer museum.

I also started to think about how racks of reel-to-reel nine-track tapes and disk platters have either been converted or destroyed because they are now woefully outdated. As I write this, I have to wonder how many people know what I'm talking about. I remember being involved in several media conversion efforts, where one media format was being replaced with another. I also remember how we thought that there was way too much data to convert, so some of those efforts required specifying which tapes or disk platters were to be converted.

The 5.25 inch disk gave way to the 3.5 inch disks, which gave way to Zip drives, which gave way to CDs, which in turn is now giving way to both DVDs and Flash drives. I don't see this cycle ending. Every so often, I go back and look for old business files that are needed for one bizarre reason or another. If I am lucky enough to find a disk or old computer with the data, I have to figure out a way to get it into a common media format. In some cases, I have had to take the data through a series of computers before I get the information to a format I can use.

I regularly recommend that people and companies back up their data. What I have since come to learn is that it is as important to recover the data and move it to the most currently available format at least once every two years, if not more often. The good news is that you need significantly fewer storage devices every time you do this. For example, a 3.5 inch disk could store the equivalent of at least three 5.25 inch disks. A DVD can potentially store the equivalent of thousands of 3.5 inch disks.

In a corporate environment, this can require a massive effort, but it must be done. As we now have to deal with legal requirements for data retention, we will have to deal with ways of making sure that we have methods for accessing that retained data.

Thinking back, it now appears that my coworker's reports would be around longer if they were printed and not saved to a disk. Frankly, the best backup for any business document is a printout. For your personal life, if you do have any memories that you want to be around for ever, a real photo album is the only way to go. There are so many reasons not to rely on those computer files that will be around forever. Now if I can only figure out what to do with all those disks, record albums, cassette tapes, VHS tapes and now CDs.

About the author
IRA WINKLER, CISSP, CISM, has almost 20 years of experience in the intelligence and security fields and has consulted to many of the largest corporations in the world. He is also author of the forthcoming book, Spies Among Us.

This was last published in January 2005

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