If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.
Many years ago I received a panic-stricken email from an individual whose account had been hacked. He had lost all access. His panic stemmed from the fact that, for whatever reason, the account held the only copy of his master’s thesis.
It was gone, and there was no hope of recovery.1
Hopefully, you’re not keeping something as important as a master’s thesis only in your online email account. That’s wrong on many levels. But I’m sure there are things in your account you never want to lose, such as photos, correspondence, or other things you’ve exchanged via email.
The problem is, of course, that if it’s only in your email account, it’s not backed up.
Let’s fix that. Let’s back up your email.
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Configure Thunderbird to access and download your email using your email service’s IMAP settings to back up. Leave Thunderbird running (or run it periodically) to make sure your backups are up to date. You’ll also need to periodically manually export and download your contacts to back them up as well.
Our example: Outlook.com and Hotmail
For this article, I’m going to use a Hotmail account — firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll continue to access that account as I usually do, using the Outlook.com website, but we’ll back it up to my PC using Thunderbird.
The technique I’ll use applies to almost all online accounts, including Gmail, Yahoo!, and others. For this technique to work, the account must support a protocol called “IMAP”. The good news is that IMAP is common; almost all email services support it.
In this example, I’ll use Thunderbird as my desktop email program, but any desktop program supporting IMAP can back up your email, including Microsoft Office’s Outlook and others.
Download and run the Setup Wizard.
The first choice is whether to accept the Standard settings or use Custom.
Always choose Custom. Even though we’re going to accept all suggestions made by the installer, choosing Custom is an important habit to avoid malware and PUPs. Click Next through the subsequent settings, and accept:
- Create icons on the Desktop and Start Menu.
- The installation location for Thunderbird.
If there are additional options, read them carefully to make sure you understand what you are agreeing to.
Click Install on the last page of the Wizard to install Thunderbird.
When the installation is complete, leave “Launch Mozilla Thunderbird now” checked, and click Finish.
Thunderbird may offer to import settings from another mail program if one is installed. Our goal is to use Thunderbird simply for backup, so there’s no need.
Configuring Thunderbird for a Hotmail account
When you first install Thunderbird, there are no email accounts configured. Thunderbird proceeds to the “Setup an Existing Account” dialog.
Enter your name, email address, and password. In my case, I’ll enter “Ask Leo! – askleo.com” as my name, “email@example.com” as my email address, and the password for that account.
Select Remember password if this computer is secure and you don’t want to type in your password every time you fire up Thunderbird.
Click on Continue, and Thunderbird will consult its own database of email providers for the correct settings. Hotmail is in that database.
Make sure that IMAP is selected and click Done.
If you have two-factor authentication enabled, you may be prompted by your email service to verify your identity or your sign-in will fail. You’ll need to check with your provider for the technique to be used with a desktop email program. It typically involves creating what’s called an “app password” to be used here instead of your normal password. You’ll find more information here: I Enabled Two-Factor Authentication and Now My Email Program Can’t Log In.
Thunderbird is now configured to access your Hotmail account and will begin downloading your mail.
The benefit of using IMAP is that the email program downloads a copy to your computer, creating a backup of your email. You can continue to use your email normally via the Outlook.com web interface, your mobile device, or wherever else you’ve been accessing it.
You can, if you like, use Thunderbird to actually read, compose, and reply to messages. Email you read here will be marked as read elsewhere. Any change you make, such as moving emails to folders, deleting emails, or otherwise managing your messages, will show up in all the places you access your email.
Since IMAP mirrors the activity on your online account to your PC, it will mirror deletions as well. Delete a message online, and the next time you connect Thunderbird, the message will be deleted locally. Backing up your PC regularly3 may provide you with an additional safety net, since the Thunderbird repository would be included in those backups as well.
Backing up contacts
To back up contacts, you need to manually export them from your email provider. Contacts are not included in the email protocol and thus are not included in anything we’ve done so far.
Click on the contacts/people icon in the lower left of the Outlook.com display.
On the People page, click the Manage menu item, and then on Export contacts.
Save the downloaded file somewhere on your computer, ideally in a place that will also be backed up by your regular PC backups.
You can, if you like, import these contacts into Thunderbird, but since our goal here is to back them up, just downloading the file to our computer is enough.4
Back up your email
If you don’t use Thunderbird regularly, it’s important to run it periodically to perform its backup. Once a day, once a week, or a couple of times a month, depending on how current you want your backup to be, run Thunderbird and keep it running until it’s downloaded a copy of all updates to your mail.
Since there’s no automated download of your contacts, you’ll need to do that regularly as well.
The good news is that your email is backed up! Particularly when used in conjunction with ongoing PC backups, you’re well protected against data loss due to account theft or other problems.
But I still wouldn’t keep the only copy of my master’s thesis there. That’s worth a few more copies in other locations for safekeeping.
Footnotes & References
1: My editor asked me: “If it was in his email account, he had either emailed it to someone or received it from somewhere else, so wasn’t there hope of recovery after all?” — Perhaps. My assumption was it was probably saved as a draft email and hence never sent. Regardless, it was a bad way to “save” something, and by the time he came to me he’d apparently exhausted any options and hope for recovery.
2: It’s critical that you download only from the official site. Do not get Thunderbird–or any software–from download sites or aggregators, unless explicitly instructed to by the official site. Almost all download sites now add unwanted software in addition to what you’re looking for.
3: Which you should be doing already anyway. Right?
4: Importing contacts from one service or program into another, while possible, is notoriously error prone and almost always results in some amount of lost data. This has to do with the lack of standards about what information is included in a “contact” and how that information should be represented.