You've set up a backup repository, and you have been backing up to it every day for a month now: your backup history is getting long enough to be useful. Can you be happy now?

Welcome to the world of threat modelling. Backups are about insurance, of mitigating small and large disasters, but disasters can strike backups as well. When are you so safe you no disaster will harm you?

There is always a bigger disaster waiting to happen. If you backup to a USB drive on your work desk, and someone breaks in and steals both your computer and the USB drive, the backups did you no good.

You fix that by having two USB drives, and you keep one with your computer and the other in a bank vault. That's pretty safe, unless there's an earth quake that destroys both your home and the bank.

You fix that by renting online storage space from another country. That's quite good, except there's a bug in the operating system that you use, which happens to be the same operating system the storage provider uses, and hackers happen to break into both your and their systems, wiping all files.

You fix that by hiring a 3D printer that prints slabs of concrete on which your data is encoded using QR codes. You're safe until there's a meteorite hits Earth and destroys the entire civilisation.

You fix that by sending out satellites with copies of your data, into stable orbits around all nine planets (Pluto is too a planet!) in the solar system. Your data is safe, even though you yourself are dead from the meteorite, until the Sun goes supernova and destroys everything in the system.

There is always a bigger disaster. You have to decide which ones are likely enough that you want to consider them, and also decide what the acceptable costs are for protecting against them.

A short list of scenarios for thinking about threats:

  • What if you lose your computer?
  • What if you lose your home and all of its contents?
  • What if the area in which you live is destroyed?
  • What if you have to flee your country?

These questions do not cover everything, but they're a good start. For each one, think about:

  • Can you live with your loss of data? If you don't restore your data, does it cause a loss of memories, or some inconvenience in your daily life, or will it make it nearly impossible to go back to living and working normally? What data do you care most about?

  • How much is it worth to you to get your data back, and how fast do you want that to happen? How much are you willing to invest money and effort to do the initial backup, and to continue backing up over time? And for restores, how much are you willing to pay for that? Is it better for you to spend less on backups, even if that makes restores slower, more expensive, and more effort? Or is the inverse true?

The threat modelling here is about safety against accidents and natural disasters. Threat modelling against attacks and enemies is similar, but also different, and will be the topic of the next episode in the adventures of Bac-Kup.