Technology Practice Tips: USB (Transcript)

This is a transcript of a podcast about using USB drives in practice, including a discussion about the pros and cons of using portable devices for back ups.

Speaker Key:   PB Phil Brown, DW David Whelan

PB: Hi, it’s Phil Brown. I’m here with David Whelan, and today we’re going to talk about USB drives and backups.

DW: USB drives come in all sorts of sizes and shapes; you might think about the ones that you’ve picked up at conferences or expos and you might even have a Darth Vader USB key in your collection. You might also have a big flash drive, and the interesting thing about these drives is that they all use the same sort of memory. It’s called flash memory, and so you might have heard them called flash drives or thumb drives, but you’ll also see in the big removable drives, flash memory as well.

PB: Basically we are talking about a drive that has no moving parts.

DW: Right, so you may have thought about the thumb drive, but it comes in various sizes. We will be talking today about the smaller drives - the ones that are more prone to be picked up for free or at minimal cost, and that you may be relying on to back up information in your practice.

PB: Right, one of the reasons we are talking about this today is that we’ve heard that a lot of lawyers are using USB drives or thumb drives to back up their entire practice.

DW: And the amazing thing is that you really could do this as the flash storage on these little thumb drives is getting bigger and bigger; you can now have tens and soon, hundreds, of gigabytes on these very small drives. It is interesting to think that I can store my entire practice onto this little device which I can then put into my pocket.

PB: There are different kinds of backups, and we should touch on that - whether they are copying new files or doing an entire backup of their drive. And then there’s also something called an image.

DW: The most basic is the backup where you’re really just copying files from your main computer over to the storage, wherever that is, and in this case we’d be talking about flash. This way you could then go onto the flash drive and actually see each of those individual files. The backup is a backup software program that looks at all of your files and sees what has changed and makes a backup file that you can’t actually look at; you need to use the backup software to restore it to get access to those files. And then the image is really a snapshot – a picture – of exactly where all the files are on your computer at a given time, and you store it in a single file called an image. Then if something happens to your computer or to your information, you can use imaging software to bring back that image, and then your computer will look exactly the same way it did – all the software will be in the same place and configured in the same way as it was when you made that image.

PB: There are a number of programs out there (some free and some pay programs) that will actually image a small law firm’s business onto a thumb drive.

DW: The interesting thing is that we couldn’t come up with any really good reasons why you shouldn’t use flash memory for your backups. It seems to be getting more useful and it seems to be able to handle more writes, which means that each time you send something over to the USB drive, it is considered writing to that drive. But still, there’s something a little bit awkward about having your law firm on a device that’s small enough to lose between the seat cushions in your couch.

PB: Losing the thumb drives would certainly be one reason. Another reason might be the quality of the drives – there are so many of these out there that the quality of the different thumb drives vary.

DW: In many cases with computers, you can’t see what’s inside your computer anyway, but there certainly seems to be a lot more scope in pricing and quality of these drives that, if you end up with cheap components – even if you buy a brand-name drive – you may end up with something that isn’t going to last as long or that may have more defects in its hardware than you would have if you were using a mechanical drive or something that is a little bit more strong technology-wise.

PB: You are basically entrusting your practice to one of these little things that might cost $1 or $10 or $15 or you could drop one and step on it, and then you might not recover any of your practice.

DW: That’s the challenge - if you lose one of these devices, you really don’t know what’s going to happen to it. Researchers have been able to recover substantial amounts of data off USB drives that people think they have deleted all the content from, so that’s one of the issues. Even if you are meticulous about managing the location of your USB drives and cleaning them off on a regular basis, you still may find that there’s confidential information on there. If you lose it, when you’re no longer using it as a backup device, there may be content on there. The other issue is that, if you do lose it, and you haven’t taken any plans to encrypt the data and there’s client data on there, you may now have a real issue because you will have a hard time finding out where that drive is going.

PB: That’s right. There is no built-in location software for these drives. There’s no way to necessarily find out where they’ve gone if you do lose them; it’s a little different than a cell phone, where you might be able to find out where it was because of the GPS capability built-in. But once these things are lost, they’re gone.

DW:Where do you think USB drives or flash drives fit into the law practice?

PB: I think they could be part of a backup plan. The key to any sort of backup plan has to be redundancy, so it might be a good idea if you have a cloud backup or a backup onto an external hard drive that you could take away from the office and have an USB key or something that has the kernel of your practice mirrored somewhere regularly in the event of an emergency. One of the points I like to make is that if you’re going to do this sort of thing, you should encrypt it.

DW: Yes, for sure. If you’ve got the content on a portable device that allows you to encrypt it, you should do so. If you’re burning a CD on a regular basis or saving your information to something you can’t necessarily encrypt. Obviously, that’s a challenge. But if you’ve got an external drive, and larger external flash drives may actually be great as they are portable and they’ve got a lot of space for backups and they’re unlikely to be lost because you’re not going to put them in your pocket. However, then you should really be thinking about either getting one that has encryption built-in to the hardware of the device or applying encryption software to it.

PB: And the other thing we always talk about in terms of backups is if you’re going to back up something, you have to do test restores.

DW: That’s right, otherwise you may think that you’ve got a process that’s working, and then when the calamity happens, you’re unable to get back any of the information that you thought you had.

PB: So, while you can use a USB thumb drive to do a backup for your office, there are a collection of different reasons why you might not want to.

DW: That’s right. Thanks Phil.

PB: Thanks very much.