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How do I protect the files on a portable hard drive?


Leo, I’m running Windows 7 with Microsoft Security Essentials. Five months ago I bought a Samsung portable external hard drive. It’s come to my notice that these removable media drives can become very vulnerable to virus and bugs affecting them. I’m extremely worried about this. My portable drive is about 1/3 full of video movies and flv and mp4 file types. I have hundreds of movies stored. I want to guarantee that they will remain safe and preserved for hopefully many decades to come. If a virus attacks these portable hard drives then they can shut down. I think one starts getting messages like this drive is not formatted. I want to be ahead of such problems and do all that I can to be sure that no harm comes to my files in the long-term. What can be done to insure longevity and safety to the drive and its contents?

I have some very specific ideas for you, but I also want to clear up a couple of very important misconceptions.

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Vulnerable? Yes, but…

First off, external hard drives, or portable drives, are no more likely to be affected by malware than internal drives. In fact, they’re slightly less likely to be affected- since most malware infects the system that’s stored on the internal drive.

Yes, some malware can use external drives to travel from system to system. But even when they do that, they don’t typically affect the contents of the external drive itself. While I’m sure that there is malware that harms data on external drives, malware is not at all what I would worry about most in your situation.

The phrase “not formatted” as an error message is rarely the result of malware, but it absolutely does happen. I hear about it from time to time and see it myself.

The biggest risk: failure

External Backup DriveThat brings us to a very important point. Your hard drive will fail!

Someday, sometime, perhaps without warning, it will break. I think it’s fair to say that eventually every hard drive will fail. Some fail sooner, some fail later, some stop being used before they fail, but they will eventually fail.

When a hard drive fails it may fail in a way that allows the data to be recovered, or it may fail so catastrophically that it destroys all data on the drive. Particularly if you’re looking for decades of longevity, you need to accept the fact that your drive will fail someday.

Preparing for failure

That means you need to prepare for it. Something I keep stressing to people over and over again is a very, very simple rule of thumb:

If there’s only one copy it’s not backed up.

If you have only one copy anywhere and that “anywhere” is lost or goes away or fails somehow, then your one copy is gone – forever.

You, my friend, need to start backing up that drive of yours immediately.

If the data on that drive is important to you, back it up. If it’s really important to you, back it up again! By that I mean, make a second backup or a third copy. Back it up to another computer; back it up to another hard disk; back it up to another portable drive; back it up online. It doesn’t really matter as much where you back it up to (within reason of course), what matters here is that you must start backing up the data on that drive.

Regardless of whether it’s malware, or a hard disk failure, or something else failing, a backup can save you.

Heck, since it’s a portable drive, you could lose it – and again, a backup will save you.

Every single one of your concerns is addressed simply by keeping that data backed up. Remember: if there’s only one copy it’s not backed up.

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12 comments on “How do I protect the files on a portable hard drive?”

  1. What happens when I plug in my external hard drive after a couple of months? Does it reinstall data already in the hard drive?

    • I guess I don’t understand. Just plugging in a hard drive makes it available to the system. I’m not sure what “reinstall” would happen by just plugging something in. All it should do is make it possible for you to reinstall or copy the data off the drive if you want to, depending on how you put it there in the first place.

  2. I agree with Leo, have multiple copies/backups of your files, and as Leo describes, when you stop and think about it, you almost certainly have various HDDs lying around, that could be used.

    One additional point. I have extensive files, photographs etc, covering my family’s history and genealogy.

    As well as being covered by the above, over the years I have sent copies of those specific files on DVDs to various relatives etc, widely scattered over the globe, partly intended for them to develop their own specific parts; and partly that should I catastrophically lose the items on all of my “local” disks, virtually all of it will be recoverable via those relatives.

  3. I agree with everything Leo and the contributors say, but like to add a few points:

    Files I want to keep I save on two external HDDs, standard.

    Files I especially value (family photos e.g.) I save on four disks of different brand that I keep at different locations (and on my laptop of course).

    For stuff that I want to keep in shape for a very long time I generate par2 parity blocks with QuickPar, so that I can repair them in case of bitrot etc. (Plus I store them on 4 external HDDs of course.)

    When you save files on DVD, be sure to use rewritable disks and not write-once disks: the rewritables use a different physical writing technique that keeps good much, much longer.

    When you make these actions a routine, it’s not much trouble at all.

    A friend used to call me crazy and a nerd and overcautious etc. for quite some time. Last year he accidentally deleted all his photos and family videos. He had never backed them up. Haven’t heard him laugh at me since.

    Good luck!

  4. So I received my fathers pc and external back up when he passed ,so when I plug it in when, I set it up will I be able to see what is on it?

    • Unfortunately (as Leo often says) It Depends. You’re going to just have to plug it in and give it a try. If it doesn’t work then try typing in questions about the symptoms here at AskLeo! – you may find your answer.

  5. Dear Leo,
    Thank you very much for publishing my letter and the detailed reply you have given, re preserving the files on my Samsung M2, 750gb portable external hard drive.
    You say I could “back it up online”. What exactly does this entail? Can you please email me and tell me how I do this? Bare in mind I have hundereds of FLV and MP4 video files – several hundred hours in fact. My 500gb internal pc drive simply is not big enough but if there is someway of anonymously putting it safely on line for many years to come, I would like to know about it. Hopefully the video files would not corrupt making any back and forth journey(?) Please advise.
    Thank you again.

    • I mention backing up online as one option. It’s not a requirement, and certainly not practical for everyone – particularly those with massive amounts of data and/or slow internet connections. My most important peice of advice here is that you back it up – perhaps in your case that means getting another external hard drive or two, or some kind of storage device to which you can copy (and keep copying) your valuable data.

      Specifically for online backups there are several backup services that will do it, and something as simple as tools like DropBox can be used. Most fall down, though, as not being practical given large amounts of data simply because it takes so very long to upload.

  6. Here is my type of situation. I may have actually even had something like this happen to a pc of mine because I didn’t realize what I now think may be a problem. I am working on recovering an external HD using an adapter to my desktop. Once I recover that it is now part of my system. I not only worry about it having malware, I think it is very likely. Although I don’t know if it is real dangerous stuff just the few problems I have ever had has me being a lot more wary. I would think that normally that HD is isolated somewhat, but for one thing I wonder if explorer now indexes the files and may bring in some of its greatness. How do I work with this HD without it possibly making my good pc sick? Thanks.

  7. Some years ago I carried out a management system audit for a company whose warehouse contained around 70000 different items, and large quantities of each of these. They had of course computerized stock control, linked to a sales and purchasing system, so every movement, and its consequences was recorded in real time. My concern was the data backup process, and this comprised a tape backup system with automatic backup at the end of each days business, with the completed record – on tape- being removed to a safe place off-site and replaced by a second tape to hold the current record at the close of business. Records showed this automatic backup program to have functioned every evening for several years, fortunately with no requirement to utilise the backed up files. I asked how they knew the system worked, and of course there were answers. We tried to extract filed from the latest tape. There were no files, although the record indicated a satisfactory situation. There are clearly more hazards to effective security than that posed by external attack.


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