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Hi, everyone. Leo Notenboom here for askleo.com.
I got a question this week from someone who is having some problems with their email account, a complex situation, but ultimately they ended up wondering if they needed to get a new account.
Now they didn’t, but as part of the process, as part of their question, they asked if there was a way that they could back up their existing email in case they needed to move it to a new account. And that gave me pause, because well, is there a way to back up email? Absolutely.
In fact, I think it’s critical that you back up your email from your online email accounts. In my case, I actually back up two ways. I have, since I have my own server, my email address is actually run through my own server first, I have the advantage of being put something in place that actually captures and backs up the email as it arrives, but more practically, more pragmatically and perhaps more useful to the average user, what I also do since I access my email online all the time, my email is actually driven by a couple Gmail accounts, and my wife’s too as a matter of fact, what I do is I actually have a copy of Thunderbird on my desktop PC, and every so often, roughly once a week, I fire it up.
That’s all I do, because I have it configured to use IMAP to access each of the email accounts I want to back up. So what happens is Thunderbird then very dutifully, very quietly in the background, starts downloading all the email that had been, that has arrived since the last time it was run. What that means is that I have backup copy of all my email on my PC.
And in fact, of course, since I backup my PC, that then gets backed up a couple of other ways as well but the important thing is that my online email is backed up to my PC. Now, what this all really led me to believe or led me to realize is that while this person was asking a very fundamental question, “is there a way to back up online email?”, and of course, there is, but what I realized is that most people, I don’t think, even think about backing up online information, the data that they have stored in, “The Cloud”, so to speak and don’t kid yourself; anything you have stored online: email, pictures, documents, whatever, that’s all “The Cloud”, that’s all “The Cloud” really is – online services.
You are all using it and you’ve been using for some time before the came up with the marketing of “The Cloud” so we’ve all got information stored in online services: pictures, document and like I said, email is probably the most obvious; the easiest one to comprehend, because it’s one of those things that I think we all use.
You can’t trust the online service providers to back it up for you. Now, I immediately, whenever I say that, I immediately get push-back that says, “well of course the online service providers are backing things up,” and you’re right. They are, but I chose my words very carefully.
They’re not backing up for you; they’re backing up for them, so for example, if there’s a disaster at your online email provider, they have a way to restore services; they have a way to restore your email. Unfortunately, this varies dramatically based on the actual provider itself, but by and large, if you have a problem with your email, the back ups that the online service provider may have, are not there for you; they’re typically not something you have access to; they’re typically not something that the online provider will give you access to, and they’re typically not things that the online provider will use to restore something for you.
In other words, backing up is on you. Your online provider, they don’t have your back; they have theirs. So, there’s a lot of things that can happen that are not part of what you’re online service provider is going to consider their responsibility to protect you from. If your account gets hacked, and your hacker deletes all your email or all your files, if you accidentally delete an email or delete a file from your online service, heck, if the service itself goes out of business, now it’s not something we think about when we talk about the large services like the Gmails and the Microsofts and the Yahoos of the world, but it absolutely has happened, and when that happens, everything in that service, whatever service it might be, disappears.
Sometimes, there are even problems with the services themselves that, while technically they probably should provide some kind of restoration service from the backups that they have, they don’t. We hear about folders, for example, that go missing in email accounts from time to time, and the people who have lost their folders are absolutely convinced that it’s not because they did something by accident, and I have to believe that at least some of the time that’s true; some of the time the problem really is with the service provider but of course, especially when it comes to free services, the service provider isn’t going to take the time or even admit guilt to take the time and then restore whatever it is you feel you may have lost.
The bottom line is that if you’ve got stuff stored online, it’s on you; you need to take responsibility for backing it up. Remember what I keep saying over, and over and over again: If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up. Your online service, your online email account, your online picture collection, your online document collection, your online whatever, is exactly and only one place.
You need to back it up, because if you don’t, you could in fact, lose it instantly without a chance of recovering of it for a variety of reasons. I’m not saying it’s imminent; I’m not saying it’s common; I’m not saying that there’s rash of accounts being lost this way. What I’m saying is that it’s possible; it can and does happen.
And it happens just often enough that it is critically important that you protect yourself in case it happens to you. Now, when it comes to email, email is really easy; email is simple. Like I said, doing something like firing up you favorite desktop email program, be it Thunderbird or EM Client or Outlook, Microsoft Outlook that comes with Microsoft Office (I want to be clear about that. Outlook.com is one of these online services, and your email is stored only online unless you take action).
Outlook from Microsoft Office is a desktop email program that actually can download your email and be used to create one of these backups that I keep talking about. There are many, many, many desktop email programs that you could use for this purpose. Those are just three.
Thunderbird is typically where I end up pointing people because especially for backing up, whether or not you like Thunderbird’s user interface, it’s free, it’s functional and it will create the backup that you need. Should something ever happen to your email account, you then have all of your email still safely stored on your PC that you can then access using Thunderbird and if you happen to like using Thunderbird, you can do that too.
What’s important here is that you take inventory of the information that you have stored online. The question you need to ask yourself is if that information disappeared, if you lost access to that account, if you accidentally deleted something in that account or something like that, would that be a problem? Would you lose data if something like that happened?
If the answer is yes, then you have that data in exactly and only one place and you don’t have it backed up. You need to take action; you need to take steps to back up whatever it is. Now, like I said, email is easy, other kinds of data, other types of service providers, not always easy. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes there are easy steps that are difficult to find. Sometimes there are difficult steps that are easy to find, but the bottom line is that I think everybody really needs to understand that when it comes to backing up, you can’t assume that “The Cloud” has your back; you just can’t.
It’s on you to back up your online data. It’s critical that you do so. So, as always, if you’re watching anywhere but on askleo.com, here’s a link to the article that has this video embedded along with moderated comments. I would love to hear, essentially, what are you using to back up your online world?
Are you backing up your online world? And if not, why not? Is it really that unimportant? Are you OK with losing everything should something happen? Or do you simply believe that the problem is overblown? Obviously, I don’t, based on the questions that I’ve been getting for the last thirteen years, but not everybody need necessarily agree with me.
So let me know what you think. Leave a comment down below. I would love to hear from you. I read them all. I can’t necessarily respond to every one of them but I absolutely do respond to them all and I really do appreciate what you have to say. So until next week, again, I’m Leo Notenboom. This is askleo.com. As always, remember, have fun, stay safe, and of course, don’t forget to back up. Take care.
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46 comments on “You Can’t Assume the Cloud Has Your Back”
Leo, thanks for your informative comments on safety of information in the “cloud”. My question is about “cloud storage”. In the past I have sent information using the cloud and people have sent me information using the cloud. The problem with this is that several months later when I try to access these messages I get a message saying that these messages are no longer available as they apparently have an “expiry date”. On the information I sent, I never indicated an “expiry date” and was not advised that there was an expiry date. On the information I received, I asked the sender if they had set an “expiry date” on the message and was told “no”. So what gives? How does this work? Please advise if there is a solution to these irretrievable emails? This situation doesn’t inspire me to “trust” the cloud with my information and email. Thanks!
Fist, remember that “the cloud” is just services that are provided online. Ask Leo! is technically in “the cloud”.
I can’s answer your question because it depends on specifically what online service was being used. Some may have expiry dates, others may not. Others may just remove data randomly. It really varies as to what online service is being used.
Email, BY DEFINITION, is a cloud-based service. But that’s why I talk about backing it up by downloading email to your PC. That way you control how long you keep whatever has been downloaded. (Just remember, if an email contains a LINK to something, that something will not be downloaded. Only if the email itself actually contains the something – as an attachment for example – will it be downloaded.)
Thanks for your insightful response. The service was Microsoft’s “One Drive”. As you worked for Microsoft perhaps you have some insight into how their policy works in regard to their “best before dates”. I did download Thunderbird and this program has a lot of good features. The only problem is that “Outlook” won’t allow “Thunderbird” to import their address books from “Hotmail”. I did research this and apparently the address book problem has been a problem for about 10 years. It is possible to put in the “address book” manually.? Were you aware of an easy work around to importing the Outlook address book to Thunderbird. Thanks for any information you can provide in this regard.
I remain a tad confused because Outlook is a desktop email program, whereas Hotmail is an online email service (accessed via Outlook.com, which is unrelated to Outlook, believe it or not).
Address books and contacts are a mess industry wide. It’s VERY difficult to get a consistent import/export to work properly. In your case I would go to Hotmail, export the contacts list as a “.csv” file, and then go to Thunderbird and import that CSV file into the address book. That would seem to stand the greatest chance of success.
Because of your question I installed Outlook and entered my Hotmail addres. Then I entered a contact. I exported it to a file (csv).
I exported my Thuderbird contacts to another csv file. I opened these in Excel. Outlook gives 92 columns where Thunderbird gives only 37.
So you need to compact your data (using VBA) to the Thunderbird format. Save it as such. Then you can import in Thunderbird. Google me if you need any assistance with this.
The marketing name “The Cloud” seems to have done its job. People seem to feel safer than they might if they realized the reality is “All my stuff is stored on some server somewhere that belongs to someone I don’t know, and what’s more I don’t even have any idea where it is.”
I’ve seen “the cloud” defined simply as: “someone else’s computer”. There is much truth in that.
I’ve never given any thought to backing up my email, but you make a great point. You also mentioned that you use Thunderbird, a free program to automatically back up your accounts. Would you or one of your readers be able to point me to a set of “how to” instructions for the “somewhat technically qualified”. Afraid you lost me at mapping. Thanks
Here’s a good article to help with that: https://askleo.com/back-email-using-thunderbird/
OK and wise advice on email. but how about other programs, I have a large database/CRM that is online. I would assume that should also be backed up on a local drive I have.
Yes. As Leo always says, “If it’s only in one place it’s not backed up.”
It should be backed up, yes. How depends on the specific software and service involved. You’d have to check with them.
I’ve been using Windows Live Mail for some years, it’s in my computer.
I use Spam Arrest and also have a Gmail account.
I bought my domain name from GoDaddy so, I believe, my email is routed through their servers. I have my email routed from GoDaddy to both my Spam Arrest account and my Gmail account. As a result, my emails are stored in my computer, in Gmail, on Carbonite online backup service and an external hard drive.
I feel safe. Except I don’t really trust electronic storage so the really important items are on paper.
I avoid the cloud. My backups are OTT (Macrium, SmartSync, Pkzip, Usb drive images(rotating)). Sadly, I have something on the cloud which I believe is impossible to backup. The configuration data for my Logitech Harmony One and Ultimate One remote controls. I am forced to use their online application to make any trivial change to the remotes. Screen captures (lots of them) seems to be the only protection I have. No export. No going back to a previous setup. Nothing if they stop supporting the hardware. I cannot find a good alternative.
Risk in life is unavoidable.
Hi Leo ,
The bottom line is that nothing is completely safe . If we have an external hard drive , it can be stolen along with the
computer or damaged in a flood , fire , or whatever . If our files are in the Cloud the provider can go out of business or
like Microsoft with the OneDrive service can just cancel the service if you don’t pay the price they demand . OneDrive
offered 15 gbs of free storage space and then decided to eliminate 10 gbs . To me , that was a low blow . And that , I
feel is one of the several reasons you advise us to put our files in more than one place . We never know what may
happen . I don’t really trust the Cloud because frankly , that is what it is , TRUST !!! We don’t really know what they
are doing or are capable of doing with our files . We can’t go to them and check up on what they do or keep tabs on
their activities and feel safe that they are not mining our files . If there are people who sit at their computers all day
figuring out how to put viruses & malware on peoples computers , who is to say that there are not people willing to
sit on a computer and mine files all day looking to find gold ??
Thank you for this very timely message .
“who is to say that there are not people willing to sit on a computer and mine files all day looking to find gold ??”
There are absolutely people and especially programs doing that.
I have used Thunderbird for several years and have not had any problems with it. I have not exclusively used the cloud for backing up data. I do have an Idrive account but I also have all of the files on my computer and an external hard drive.
For email, how about forwarding to another service E. G. Hotmail to yahoo? Still online, but at least on other servers?
That is one way to decrease the risk. I know several people who do it. Me, I’m a control freak who wants backups on MY machine. :-)
I’ve used Thunderbird and Live Mail in the past. I’m currently using Outlook to keep email on my computer. I use One Drive to keep copies of my documents and pictures and back up using Macrium Reflect onto two separate hard drives. I’m nearly as paranoid as Leo seems to be about keeping as many copies in as many places as I can think of. : ) While switching from one desktop email client to another can be daunting, I’ve managed to keep the majority of the ones I really need over the years. At one point, I would forward important emails from one service to an account I had on another (i.e. Hotmail.com to Yahoo.com). One thing I do is to make sure I know and can easily locate the file location that my desktop email client uses to store email and settings on my hard drive, by changing the default location to one I can easily remember and keep in my document folder.
Thanks for this most informative video. In regards to email back up, here is what I do:
I own two domains (more than 2 actually) but for the purpose of email backup discussion, we’ll say I have two since only two domains are involved. I have my regular personalized mail on google apps (let us call it xxx@domainA.com). I have another mail account that I called yyy@domainB.com.
All mail received on xxx@domainA.com is automatically forwarded to yyy@domainB.com.
All mail sent to recipients are also automatically BCC’d to yyy@domainB.com. So, at this point, all emails (received and sent) actually sit in two different accounts. Mind you, these are both “cloud based” but are nonetheless in two separate google apps accounts. The underlying assumption here is that the emails are most likely stored on two different google servers and it would be very unlikely that Google would lose my emails on both servers at the same time. Errors could happen but I think overall, Google can be trusted.
The automatic BCC of emails that I send from the first account is achieved with the google extention AutoBCC which automatical puts the address yyy@domainB.com in the BCC field whenever I send an email. I do not have to think about it, it gets done automatically
Is my thinking unsafe in any way ? If it is, can you please point me out in the right direction.
It definitely reduces risk. (Though in some ways it also adds a different risk since that’s yet another account that could be hacked, but I consider that minimal.) As I said elsewhere, I’m a control freak and want backups on MY machines. :-)
I have MozBackup and actually backup my email on Thunderbird quickly and easily. It can even backup email history. This is excellent software.
I use Thunderbird for my Email service. I have folders for the topics I want to save. I also get a lot of SPAM and definitely do NOT want those saved! I save all of your Emails, Leo. This way I can go back and review what you have written or said. I was using MS Office Outlook, but, I really got tired of connections to the Internet was MS Edge or Internet Explorer. I wanted to use my Chrome browser and with Thunderbird, I can. I save all of my confirmations for my utilities and purchases in their own folder or sub-folder (like Amazon.com). I also back up with my External Drive. Yes, that easily could go kaput, as could my Hard Drive on my computer, but I still use it.
I am happy with my solutions and they are easy to maintain.
To be clear, Thunderbird is not an email service, it’s an email program. It’s just software that runs on your machine. It connects to whatever email service you use (bellsouth, hotmail, gmail, whatever) and fetches your email from them.
Terminology matters, I’m afraid.
I use an Apple Mac computer. I use Mac Mail with my gmail email account. I ‘think’ all my emails are still on Google. And on my computer. So I guess I am ‘backed up’. But if I were to download and install Thunderbird and run it periodically wouldn’t it just be another copy of my email on my computer and not a ‘back-up’ at all? In other words should my hard drive fail wouldn’t I lose both the Thunderbird and Mail accounts of my email?
Mac Mail and Thunderbird are both email programs which do essentially the same things. There would be no significant advantage in using a second email program, although there would be no harm either.
If you are accessing your emails via IMAP or POP with the “Leave mail on server” option, your mail is still on GMails servers. If for some reason, they are not (you can check on the GMail website), you can use IMAP to put them back on the GMail servers.
If your email is on both Gmail’s servers (you can verify by visiting gmail.com and logging in), and on your Mac, then you’re already backed up. I assume you also backup your Mac somehow on top of that.
I use the “MailStore” program to download all my Cloud based email, including attachments to an external hard drive. The program is free for personal use, and it sets up a searchable database, which is helpful when you happen to use multiple email accounts. Notwithstanding the privacy issues that the Cloud involves, Mailstore allows a local backup that I can store on a removal drive.
Thank you for your newsletter.
Thanks Leo, I had not given even one thought that I needed to backup my gmail account. I started my gmail account when it was invite only so it may take several days for them to do the backup and send it. I did the full back up. It will be interesting to see what the size of the file will be. I will look at it and decide what folders to do the next time I do a mail back up. Once again . Thanks for you insight.
Gmail , etc are not the only places where e-mail requires backups. My husband sees his e-mail (POP3) on his smart phone which has little enough memory to allow reading but not saving his e-mail. His response to his phone “freezing” was to throw it against the wall! So, rather than live with his tantrums and broken screens, etc I decided I had to do something. I purchased a refurbished laptop, setup Thunderbird, and down loaded his mail from our ISP’s POP3 server. I found out very quickly why his smart phone was choking! There were thousands of e-mails on the POP3 server! Our ISP allots 5Gbs to him. It took 24+ hours for it to all download. I had no idea he had provided his e-mail address to so many advertisers/newsletters. Once that was all downloaded, I cleaned it up by sender and deleting/marking junk, unsubscribing to hundreds of news letters, saving his pay-check stubs locally and to my backup server. Now every morning I download his e-mail to my local LAN where I maintain the important backups like pay-check stubs. And yes I could set his smart phone to download the e-mail off the server. Except, that isn’t a reliable way to clean up his e-mail because of the reasons listed above plus that means his e-mail is as you said “in only one place.” And I’m paranoid about the “only one place” gotcha so I’ve made sure his e-mail is saved (not the junk) in more that “one place”
I usually don’t backup all of my mails. Those that are important, i just open them then click on file and then choose save as. What really is important to me, is my email addresses, but this is easy to backup.
I am one of those (you suggest minority) who have experienced problems with upgrading to Windows 10. Fine (and I was happy with it) for the first few weeks – but then two problems – my task bar became dysfunctional, greyed (blacked) out so that I could only get in by right clicking the Window to close down and had no access to programs, simultaneously loosing Edge (replaced by Explorer (on demand) to service links). I also at that time lost a percentage of my pst outlook files which was very inconvenient as I store all my emails in the Outlook folders (? bad practice). At great length I eventually got Microsoft to laboriously correct these problems by handing over control of my machine.
Everything was fine but within another couple of weeks – same problem with the task bar and Edge. Really frustrating!!
I upgraded from Windows 7 Pro and (I believe) they installed Windows 10 Pro. I previously backed up the 7 using EASUS as you suggested, but I haven’t overwritten it with the Windows 10 install. I don’t seem to have lost data but I’m nervous about the possibility. The Microsoft technicians don’t seem to investigate the problem but just do a Windows 10 /Outlook re-install. I NEVER had any problem with Windows 7. I am nervous about trying to restore from my backup – haven’t got enough space on the drive to accommodate both. I’m hoping to get a large SSD and transfer everything to that but at 79 jobs seem to assume a greater difficulty than in the old days of weaning on 8 bit machines!
I listen to, and thank you for, your weekly broadcasts and would appreciate any enlightenment you can provide on this topic, especially the reason for it happening and anything ‘I’ can do to overcome the situation without resorting to Microsoft technicians in whom I don’t have complete confidence.
My email used to be handled by the university I used to work for. Around the time I retired, the university farmed out its email to gmail. (The U generously allows us retirees to keep our University email accounts.)
There is no way the University would have farmed out the handling of email if there was a significant risk that University email was not properly backed up, and/or properly available. Maybe I can’t trust “the cloud,” but I do trust “the university” to do due diligence on the way its email is being handled.
Gmail keeps deleted email for a month. Me “accidentally” deleting my email, *and* failing to realize I’ve done that for more than a month, is a risk I am willing to take. I’m not backing up my email, and I have no intention of starting to do so. (Noting that my email in regard to the charity I work with is archived on yahoo as well as being in gmail. This enables anyone on the staff to see all the mail on the topic of the charity. I believe that is “backed up” even to your satisfaction. :-) )
Do you think I’m being cavalier about this? I just can’t see it as a risk. If the university doesn’t regard it as a risk, for all of those people still working at the U and doing business in their email, I can’t see the risk as significant. ??
On the other side of the coin — my dad has copies of zillions of emails he’s sent and received over the years on his Mac. It’s my impression it’s a headache to back up, and I would bet the farm that he couldn’t find a particular email even if he wanted to look for it. There are downsides to keeping everything on your desktop as well as upsides, I think.
Having your email backed up by another cloud service as you are doing is a good solution. I personally use both local and cloud backup. As for trusting the University, I think you’re missing one point. My University email is also on the cloud. Of course, I trust my university, but I also have them forward a copy of my emails to Gmail which I in turn backup by using an email program with IMAP.
The only downside I can think of backing emails up on your computer is the consumption of disk space. I wouldn’t call that a downside. It’s just a price you pay for peace of mind. And if your father needs to find an email, you could probably help him use the search function of his email program.
If someone hacked your account, and deleted everything in it (permanently and immediately so the 30 day thing wouldn’t apply), would you be able to get it back from Gmail and/or the University? If the answer is a definite “yes”, then I’m relatively happy. However if the answer is “I think so”, or less, I’d start backing up right away.
Also, I’m not suggesting you need to keep it all IN your desktop/backup email program forever. I have email going back over 20 years, but the older stuff isn’t directly accessible from my Thunderbird, for example. I have to take steps to access it.
“There is no way the University would have farmed out the handling of email if there was a significant risk that University email was not properly backed up, and/or properly available.” – The risk of Google losing your email or of somebody gaining access to your account and maliciously deleting emails is exceptionally small. That said, I do back up Gmail emails simply because it’s extremely easy to do so and costs nothing. All I do is use a rule to automatically forward all mails from Gmail to Outlook.com (with Outlook.com then acting as the backup). With Google Apps Mail – which I assume is what the university is using – you also have the option to automatically copy emails to a secondary Gmail account.
Both my wife and I use Thunderbird and migrated to it because Outlook (not Outlook.com) would become unstable when the pcs folder grew larger than 1GB. This required running the inbox repair tool from Microsoft but I was never totally sure that everything was recovered. You didn’t mention in your article that not only does Thunderbird keep your email on your local hard drive but you can also run the free MOZ Backup utility to create a backup of all your messages, contacts, appointments and settings in one file not to mention Firefox bookmarks. This can be used to replicate Thunderbird on other computers and I always copy it to my laptop. When traveling, I use Windows Live Mail on my laptop but it is convenient to be able to open Thunderbird if I need to refer to an old email or look up a contact. I have set my laptop version of Thunderbird to NEVER get or update my email so I don’t end up with messages downloaded there. When I get home my desktop then downloads all my new messages. Perhaps you have already done this but I would like a clear definition of the difference between IMAP and POP3 and how to use them.
Enjoyed your video, I have never relied on the cloud, my email is through Thunderbird with that and other data backed up on my hard drive (protected by IObit “Protected Folder”) and an external Hard Drive that is only attached when backing up. To some this may sound overkill but if something bad happens I can restore and life goes on.
I’ve been using Thunderbird for many years as it was the closest replacement for the late, great Outlook Express, which was absolutely the best, most basic, easiest to use and functional email program ever! Windows Live, which I tried and immediately removed, was a poorly designed mess. ymmv
First class video. I haven’t trolled through all the many comments but perhaps I am a tad unusual (in this like many other things I suppose). Ever since Netscape died on me (without usable backup :-( ) some 12 years ago I have used Outlook and some years ago I had it forward all future incoming traffic also to Gmail as backup. None of this deals with outgoing mail, which I also didn’t notice you dealing with in the video, and cc-ing everything to Gmail would be heavy. But other than that I think it’s a pretty good back-up.
I hope you don’t troll the comments. Trolling means to write upsetting comments and try to start arguments in a forum. I believe you meant trawl the comments ;-)
I do not believe OneDrive is an adequate backup. It is a file syncing tool. I have trouble explaining to others that it is not a backup since there is a copy on the hard drive. Do you agree with me and can you elaborate so that I can convince others?
I consider OneDrive a valid part of a backup strategy.
It can be considered a backup because one of the places that it synchronizes is to your OneDrive online account. Hence that’s an automatic additional copy of the files in your OneDrive folder.
Thanks for the article. I thought Gmail would keep my mail safe and save space on my computer but now I am going to get Thunderbird to make sure I don’t lose anything.
I have tons of folders on gmail, will all of them get copied into my computer with Thunderbird? Will Thunderbird copy my contacts? If a folder disappears in Gmail and I don’t notice right away will Thunderbird delete it too? If I delete an email online will I have to delete it again in Thunderbird?
If you use IMAP, Thunderbird will download all of your folders and email. Unfortunately, it won’t synchronize your contacts, those would have to be exported and imported manually. If you delete an email or a folder online, it will also be deleted in Thunderbird and vice versa.