Do you know where your memories are?

Google, Apple and Meta offer near-limitless storage, but it’s wise to keep copies

By Kashmir Hill

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Getting all your data and figuring out how to securely store it is cumbersome, complicated and costly. There’s a reason most people ignore all their stuff in the cloud. (Tim Robinson/The New York Times)
Getting all your data and figuring out how to securely store it is cumbersome, complicated and costly. There’s a reason most people ignore all their stuff in the cloud. (Tim Robinson/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 8 Jan 2023, 10:52 PM

According to a company spokesperson, 50 million people a year use Takeout to download their data from 80 Google products, with 400 billion files exported in 2021. These people may have had plans to move to a different service, simply wanted their own copy or were preserving what they had on Google before deleting it from the company’s servers.

I have many fears as a mother. My kindergarten-age daughter recently learned a game on the school bus called “Truth or Force.” My youngest refuses to eat almost anything but Kraft Mac & Cheese. Added to the list this year, alongside outside influences and health concerns, is the possibility that my daughters could inadvertently lock me out of my digital life.


That’s what happened to a mother in Colorado whose 9-year-old son used her old smartphone to stream himself naked on YouTube, and a father in San Francisco whose Google account was disabled and deleted because he took naked photos of his toddler for the doctor.

I reported on their experiences for The New York Times, and as I talked to these parents, who were stunned and bereft at the loss of their emails, photos, videos, contacts and important documents spanning decades, I realised I was similarly at risk.


I am “cloud-complacent,” keeping my most important digital information not on a hard drive at home but in the huge digital basement provided via technology companies’ servers. Google gives all users 15 gigabytes free, one-quarter of what comes standard on an Android phone, and I have not managed to max it out in 18 years of using the company’s many services.

I did fill up Apple’s free 5 GB, so I now pay $9.99 a month for additional iCloud storage space. Meta has no max; like scrolling on Instagram, the allowed space is infinite.

If I were suddenly cut off from any of these services, the data loss would be professionally and personally devastating.

As a child of the 1980s, I used to have physical constraints on how many photos, journals, VHS tapes and notes passed in seventh grade that I could reasonably keep. But the immense expanse and relatively cheap rent of the so-called cloud has made me a data hoarder. Heading into 2023, I set out to excavate everything I was storing on every service, and find somewhere to save it that I had control over. As I grappled with all the gigabytes, my concern morphed from losing it all to figuring out what was actually worth saving.

Data harvesting

I find nearly 100 photos from one November night 15 years ago, out with my family at a Tampa Bay Lightning game when my sisters and I were home for the holidays. We’re tailgating with a mini-keg of Heineken. My dad is posing by the car, making a funny face at the ridiculousness of a parking garage party. Then, we’re posing in the stadium with the hockey rink in the background, toasting with a stranger we sat next to. Had we bonded with him during an especially close third period? The metadata in the Google Photos JPG file didn’t say.

The photos transported me back to a tremendously fun evening that I had all but forgotten. Yet I wondered how there could be so many photos from just one night. How do I decide which to keep and which to get rid of?

This kind of data explosion is a result of economics, said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group based in San Francisco that saves copies of websites and digitizes books and television shows. Taking a photo used to be expensive because it involved film that needed to be developed.

“It cost a dollar every time you hit a shutter,” Kahle said. “That’s no longer the case so we hit the shutter all the time and keep way, way too much.”

I had captured the 2007 evening in Tampa, Florida, pre-smartphone on a digital Canon camera that had a relatively small memory card that I regularly emptied into Google Photos. I found more than 4,000 other photos there, along with 10 gigabytes of data from Blogger, Gmail, Google Chat and Google Search, when I requested a copy of the data in my account using a Google tool called Takeout.

I just pressed a button and a couple of days later got my data in a three-file chunk, which was great, although some of it, including all my emails, was not human-readable. Instead, it came in a form that needed to be uploaded to another service or Google account.

According to a company spokesperson, 50 million people a year use Takeout to download their data from 80 Google products, with 400 billion files exported in 2021. These people may have had plans to move to a different service, simply wanted their own copy or were preserving what they had on Google before deleting it from the company’s servers.

Takeout was created in 2011 by a group of Google engineers who called themselves the Data Liberation Front. Brian Fitzpatrick, a former Google employee in Chicago who led the team, said he thought it was important that the company’s users had an easy “off ramp” to leave Google and take their data elsewhere. But Fitzpatrick said he worried that when people stored their digital belongings on a company’s server, they “don’t think about it or care about it.”

Some of my data landlords were more accommodating than others. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram offered Takeout-like tools, while Apple had a more complicated data transfer process that involved voluminous instructions and a USB cable.

The amount of data I eventually pulled down was staggering, including more than 30,000 photos, 2,000 videos, 22,000 Twitter posts, 57,000 emails, 15,000 pages of old Google chats and 16,000 pages of Google searches going back to 2011.

The missing

The trove of data brought forgotten episodes of my life back in vivid color. A blurry photo of my best friend’s husband with a tiny baby strapped to his chest, standing in front of a wall-size Beetlejuician face, made me recall a long-ago outing to a Tim Burton exhibit at a museum in Los Angeles. I don’t remember what I learned about the gothic filmmaker, but I do remember my friends’ horror when their weeks-old son, now 11, had a blowout and they had to beg a comically oversize diaper from a stranger.

The granularity of what was in my digital archive accentuated the parts of my life that were missing entirely: emails from college in a university-provided account that I hadn’t thought to migrate; photos and videos I took on an Android phone that I backed up to an external hard drive that has since disappeared; and stories I’d written in journalism school for publications that no longer exist. They were as lost to me as the confessional journal I once left in the seatback of a plane. The idea that information, once digitized, will stick around forever is flawed.

Margot Note, an archivist, said members of her profession thought a lot about the accessibility of the medium on which data was stored, given the challenge of recovering videos from older formats such as DVDs, VHS tapes and reel film. Note asks the kinds of questions most of us don’t: Will there be the right software or hardware to open all our digital files many years from now? With something called “bit rot” — the degradation of a digital file overtime — the files may not be in good shape.

Individuals and institutions think that when they digitize material it will be safe, she said. “But digital files can be more fragile than physical ones.”

Where to put it

Once I assembled my data Frankenstein, I had to decide where to put it. More than a decade ago, pre-cloud complacency, I would regularly back my stuff up to a hard drive that I probably bought at Best Buy. Digital self-storage has gotten more complex as I discovered when I visited the DataHoarder subreddit. Posts there with technical advice for the best home setup were jargon-filled to the point of incomprehension for a newbie. A sample post: “Started with single bay Synology Nas and recently built a 16TB unRAID server on a xeon 1230. Very happy with result.”

I felt as if I’d landed on an alien planet, so I turned instead to professional archivists and tech-savvy friends. They recommended two $299 12-terabyte hard drives, one of which should have ample room for what I have now and what I will create in the future, and another to mirror the first, as well as a $249 NAS, or network-attached storage system, to connect to my home router, so I could access the files remotely and monitor the health of the drives.

Getting all your data and figuring out how to securely store it is cumbersome, complicated and costly. There’s a reason most people ignore all their stuff in the cloud.

What to keep

I noticed a philosophical divide among the archivists I spoke with. Digital archivists were committed to keeping everything with the mentality that you never know what you might want one day, while professional archivists who worked with family and institutional collections said it was important to pare down to make an archive manageable for people who look at it in the future.

Bob Clark, the director of archives at the Rockefeller Archive Centre, said that the general rule of thumb in his profession was that less than 5 per cent of the material in a collection was worth saving. He faulted the technology companies for offering too much storage space, eliminating the need for deliberating over what we keep.

“They’ve made it so easy that they have turned us into unintentional data hoarders,” he said.

The companies try, occasionally, to play the role of memory miner, surfacing moments that they think should be meaningful, probably aiming to increase my engagement with their platform or inspire brand loyalty. But their algorithmic archivists inadvertently highlight the value of human curation.

“I don’t think we can simply rely on the algorithms to help you decide what’s important or not,” Clark said. “There need to be points of human intervention and judgment involved.”

Paring it down

Rather than just keeping a full digital copy of everything, I decided to take the archivists’ advice and pare it down somewhat, a process the professionals call appraisal. An easy place to start was the screenshots: the QR codes for flights long ago boarded, privacy agreements I had to click to use an app, emails that were best forwarded to my husband via text and a message from Words With Friends that “nutjob” was not an acceptable word.

There was also a lot of “data exhaust,” as security technologist Matt Mitchell calls it, a polite term for the record of my life rendered in Google searches, from a 2011 query for karaoke bars in Washington to a more recent search for the closest Chuck E. Cheese. I will not keep those on my personal hard drive, and I may take the step of deleting them from Google’s servers, which the company makes possible, because their embarrassment potential is higher than their archival value. Mitchell said super hoarders should pare down, not to make memories easier to find, but to eliminate data that could come back to bite them.

“You need to let go because you can’t get hacked if there’s nothing to hack,” said Mitchell, the founder of CryptoHarlem, a cybersecurity education nonprofit. “It’s only when you’re storing too much that you run into the worst of these problems.”

Inactive accounts

Right now, it’s cheap to hoard all this data in the cloud.

“The cost of storage long term continues to fall,” said George Blood, who runs a business outside Philadelphia digitizing information from obsolete media, creating 10 terabytes of data per day, on average. “They may charge you more for the cost of the electricity — spinning the disk your data is on — than the storage itself”

Big technology companies don’t often prompt people to minimize their data footprints, until, that is, they near the end of their free storage space. That’s when companies force them to decide whether to move to the paid plans. There are signs, though, that the companies don’t want to hold on to our data forever: Most have policies allowing them to delete accounts that are inactive for a year or more.

Aware of the potential value of data left behind by those who euphemistically go “inactive,” Apple recently introduced a legacy contact feature, to designate a person who can access an Apple account after the owner’s death. Google has long had a similar tool, prosaically called inactive account manager. Facebook created legacy contacts in 2015 to look after accounts that have been memorialised.

And that really is the ultimate question around personal archives: What becomes of them after we die? By keeping so much, more than we want to sort through, which is almost certainly more than anyone else wants to sort through on our behalf, we may leave behind less than previous generations because our accounts will go inactive and be deleted. Our personal clouds may grow so vast that no one will ever go through them, and all the bits and bytes could end up just blowing away.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times



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