March 29, 2009

Protect Your Important Data with Dropbox

Filed under: Linux — bnsmith @ 9:47 am

An Easy Backup Solution for Ubuntu
I bet you think that you already know how to easily backup your files: just pop in a blank CD-R, pick the files to backup, burn it and you’re done. But suppose that I actually suggested that you try this backup method, would you do it? Maybe you would get around to it next week, or next month, or next year; just as soon as you got a bit of free time.

Sorry, folks, but that’s not good enough. In order to protect your important data, you need a strategy that’s automated. One that works no matter how busy you get–because the times when you’re busiest are the times that you need those backups the most.

I’ve given this problem some thought over the years, and the best solution that I know of is an online service called Dropbox. The basic idea is that the Dropbox program creates a folder on your hard drive, and anything that you copy into that folder is backed up online.

Why Dropbox?
The following five points were the main factors in my decision to select Dropbox as my primary backup solution.

  1. Dropbox is free. A Dropbox account won’t cost you a cent, and the founders have promised to keep the lowest tier of service free forever. Someday they may be bought out by a larger company and things could change, but for the foreseeable future, their service is totally free of cost, and even free of ads.
  2. Dropbox is fully automated. It runs in the background and constantly watches your Dropbox folder. Any time you copy a new file into that folder or modify an existing file, Dropbox will detect the change and upload the parts of the file that have changed. With text documents, it usually completes the backup operation within seconds of clicking the “Save” button.
  3. All your files are available through a convenient web-based interface. If you’re away from your main computer, you can still log in to the Dropbox web-site and download any of the files that you keep in your Dropbox folder.
  4. When you make changes to your files, Dropbox actually keeps the older versions. I imagine that most users probably won’t use this feature often, if at all. However, under the right circumstances, it could save you from a potentially costly mistake.
  5. Have Dropbox installed on multiple machines, and it will keep a fully synchronized copy on both! Given this fact, the right setup would reduce the amount that you would need to trust the people who run Dropbox. Suppose that you have a work computer and a home computer. If you have Dropbox installed on both computers, and save a file in your Dropbox folder on your work computer, it should be copied up to the Dropbox servers and then back down to your home computer in a few seconds. This means that you would always have a copy of your important files saved on a computer that you own and control.

It Sounds Too Good to be True!
Dropbox is not without its faults, so I suggest that you read the following carefully before making a decision.

  1. The free service only allows you to keep 2 GB of data backed up on the Dropbox servers. If you are willing to spend US$99 per year, then you can increase this limit to 50 GB. Still, if your passion is making movies, for example, even this might not be enough.
  2. Using this service requires trusting the employees of Dropbox. When you copy a file into your Dropbox, you are trusting that they will keep the file safe, secure and private, not just now, but forever after. Who knows what might change in 50 years? Perhaps the future owners of Dropbox will change to a blackmail-oriented business model and threaten to publicly release your files unless you pay them an exorbitant yearly fee. For this reason, I don’t recommend using Dropbox to backup anything that is so sensitive that its release would be life-destroying (at least, not without additional protection). This means that Dropbox is absolutely not the right place to keep the passwords for your bank accounts. I’m not trying to say that you can never keep anything even remotely private in your Dropbox, just that you need to consider the risks. Imagine, for a moment, that you’re writing a novel. If you manually backup your novel once per week, then a hard-drive crash could lead to the loss of several days worth of work. This would then necessitate the motivation-destroying process of rewriting thousands of words over again, which might easily doom the entire novel. On the other hand, if you keep automatic backups of the novel with Dropbox, you face the slight possibility of your novel’s incomplete draft being published on the Internet, likely through some undetected security flaw being exploited by a hacker. As you can see, both options have risks associated with them. For each file that you consider putting into your Dropbox, you must weigh the risk of losing that file due to the lack of an adequate backup solution verses the risk of that file being exposed. Unfortunately, this is a difficult choice to make, and there is nothing more that I can say to help you choose. It’s possible to decrease the likelihood of your data being exposed by encrypting it before placing it in your Dropbox, but this is less convenient.
  3. The Dropbox service is entirely Internet-based. Files are only backed-up when you are connected to the Internet. If you are planning on travelling to a country where Internet access will be sporadic or unavailable, you will need to come up with an alternate backup strategy.
  4. Dropbox includes a feature that allows files to be shared publicly and made accessible to anyone on the Internet via a special web-site address. To share a file, simply place it into the “public” folder within your Dropbox. A feature like this could indeed be helpful, but I recommend staying away from it. The Dropbox “Terms and Conditions” describe the licensing implications of placing any file into the “public” folder, and their chosen licensing conditions may not meet your needs. If you wish to share your photographs, for example, it is probably better to do it through some other venue where you are in control of the exact license that your photographs are shared under.
  5. Dropbox doesn’t currently include a feature allowing the synchronization of any files or folders outside of the main Dropbox folder. Actually, there is a way to do this, but it requires some technical knowledge. I will explore this topic in a later post.

Installing Dropbox
Now that you know the pros and cons of this backup strategy, if you still wish to try it, just follow these instructions:


  • Click the big “Download Dropbox” button


  • It should take you to the download page for Linux; click the link for your version of Ubuntu and your processor architecture (either regular x86 or 64-bit x86)
  • Save the file to your Desktop
  • Double-click the file on your Desktop; the “Package Installer” program should open
  • Click the “Install Package” button; enter your password
  • Log out and then log back in
  • You should now see the Dropbox icon in the top-right


  • Left-click the Dropbox icon to start the setup wizard


  • Go through the wizard to set up a new Dropbox account
  • Once the wizard is complete, you should be able to go to Places -> Home Folder and see your new Dropbox folder


Now, just keep the files that you want to backup in your Dropbox folder. You can edit them and move them around as much as you want. Dropbox won’t miss a beat. If you have any questions about Dropbox or suggestions for a better backup solution, please leave a comment.



  1. >> I don’t recommend using Dropbox to backup anything that is so sensitive that its release would be life-destroying
    I think you should talk about truecrypt or encfs which are good solutions for storing private data on dropbox.
    This way, data is encrypted locally before being sent to dropbox (amazon in fact) servers and is not readable by dropbox staff without your key.

    Comment by poof65 — April 2, 2009 @ 4:19 am

  2. @poof65: Absolutely! I’ve actually known about Truecrypt for a while now, but for this application, I now think that EncFS is a better fit. I’ve looked at various tutorials, and I haven’t seen anything that describes how to set-up exactly what I’m looking for, so I’ll have to do some experimentation. Look for this in a future post!

    Comment by bnsmith — April 4, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

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