Weeknote 35/2013

Weeknote 35/2013

This week I’ve been:

Monday is Labor Day in the US which will means I’ll have a quiet start to the week. I’m not travelling anywhere so I’m looking forward to getting stuff done before heading to Amsterdam with my wife to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary!


Why I’m saying goodbye to Dropbox and hello to SpiderOak Hive

TL;DR version: I’m moving from Dropbox to SpiderOak for file sync/backup. SpiderOak not only encrypts files in transit, but on their servers. The encryption key stays on the user’s machine so SpiderOak employees (or anyone else) can’t get access to your files.

Wow, hello Hacker News readers! You took down my server there for a moment. If you like this you might want to subscribe to my newsletter or read some of my other blogs. Thanks for stopping by!

I’ve been a happy Dropbox user for years. I even took Lifehacker’s advice a couple of years ago and made it, effectively, ‘My Documents’; if it was on my machine it was backed up to Dropbox’s servers. I’ve had zero user experience issues with Dropbox, finding it efficient and useful for when I want to share something while on-the-go. The mobile apps are great and the pricing plans are reasonable.

So why have I just jumped ship to SpiderOak?

My main concerns are around the NSA revelations. I’ve taken my time to read up on what’s going on and, last Sunday, finally felt I could write my response. As a consquence, I’m reviewing the core services I rely upon on a day-to-day basis. I had Dropbox in my crosshairs due to their seemingly regular and high-profile security breaches. It helped that my yearly renewal was due this Friday.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain the difference between Dropbox and SpiderOak is like this: if you forget your Dropbox password you’re able to reset it. That’s great, but it means that Dropbox has the means to access your files as they hold the key to unlocking your files.

It’s worth saying at this point that I don’t, to my knowledge, do anything wildly illegal. But why should others have access to my files? There’s a reason we put curtains on our windows. Privacy is something that we should care about and defend.

Something we’ve all learned from the Lavabit fiasco is that government security agencies can force individuals and companies not to release details of privacy and security infringements. So if my files were accessed I’d be none the wiser. Dropbox is insecure from many angles. I wanted out.

SpiderOak encrypts your files and then sends them securely to their servers. The key to decrypt those files is on your machine. The key and the files aren’t kept together. It means, of course, that you have to have a reliable password system in place (I use LastPass and 64-character strings) but means people can’t access your unencrypted files on the ‘cloud’ server.*

I researched many other options to Dropbox. I’ll not detail them here as I had to reject them for one reason or another. Instead, I think it’s worth quoting from the SpiderOak FAQ in response to the question ‘What if I forget my SpiderOak password?’

Changing your password from any computer in your SpiderOak account will reset your password for all your computers and the website. However, if can’t reset your password from another machine and the hint has still not helped you remember your password, then I’m afraid your only option is to open a new account. Here at SpiderOak we take our zero-knowledge privacy policy very seriously, so we never have any knowledge of your password and no way to retrieve or reset it, even in emergencies. It’s our way of ensuring that our customers’ data is always completely secure… even from ourselves! If you need any more assistance recovering your password or resetting your account, please contact support@spideroak.com.

It looks like there’s different ways you can use SpiderOak, but I’m going to be using SpiderOak Hive almost exclusive as it offers ‘drag-and-drop syncing across all your devices’. In essence, it’ll be a replacement for my Dropbox folder.

I’ll still be keeping my free Dropbox account for legacy shares and my ebook workflow. Other than that, I’ll be using SpiderOak.

Now then, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got >100GB to sync… 😉

*You should have full-disk encryption turned on and switch off your computer when you’re finished using it, if you want to secure the files on your computer.

What does a non-Web world look like? Investigating Bittorrent Sync.

Further to yesterday’s post, I’ve been messing about Bittorrent Sync. As someone who is avowedly Web-centric, I’m used to a world where files sync via the Web and one signs up to services via email. There’s none of that with Bittorrent Sync:

Bittorrent Sync


As a lover of Dropbox, I’m investigating Bittorrent Sync as a way to augment the way I currently sync files across machines.* I mentioned above that there’s no Web component involved. Instead, files are synced directly from machine to machine via a secure and encrypted process that isn’t available to other Bittorrent users – just the people with whom you’ve shared a ‘secret key’.

If you’d like to give it a try, download the software for your computer and enter this ‘secret’ key, giving read-only access to my BTSync folder: RCFZPEYBNV4MGZTQEO2ITOANGEZNF42WF

Of course, it’ll only work when I (or someone else who has synced the files) is online! There must be a way to install the software on a server so it can act as a node?

* This would be an awesome way of sharing learning and teaching resources en masse!

I sync therefore I am.

I use a MacBook Pro. Which I like. A lot.

Increasingly, however, it’s a very powerful thin client. A ‘fat’ client, as it were. Pretty much everything I use now syncs with a cloud-based service:

  • Documents, presentations, etc. are saved to a well-ordered Dropbox folder (automatically syncs with my Windows machine at work and my iPhone). I’ve gone with the 50GB for $9.99/month option.
  • Spotify provides all of my music. This is £9.99/month and, to my mind, worth every penny. I sync offline playlists to my iPhone via wifi but can access almost anything I want over 3G.
  • As Evernote recognises text in images and allows you to search through notes, I’m now using it to ‘take notes’ in books I read for my thesis and pleasure. I currently doing ‘pay as you go’ to upgrade storage as and when I need it through the iPhone app (£2.99/month). At the moment that seems to be most months!

The system works so well that I recently sold our Apple Time Capsule. I’ve got a 1TB external hard disk, but to be honest very rarely use or need it. 😀

Off-site and cloud-based backup: my solution.

Over Christmas I was talking with someone about backing up data. They quite rightly pointed out something I hadn’t really considered – namely, I may have an Apple Time Capsule, but if my house burned down I’d be a bit stuck. 😮

As a consequence, I’m in the market for an upgrade to a paid-for cloud-based backup solution. I asked a few people on Twitter and in person what they used for off-site backups. They mentioned the four below:

Comparison of cloud-based backup solutions (Jan 2010)

(too small? click on the table to enlarge!)

I tried these out. I found that all of them apart from Dropbox had something lacking:

  • box.net is a bit too business-focused.
  • MobileMe may provide extra features but only 20GB of storage. Also don’t like having to pay in one big chunk for a year’s service.
  • SugarSync is interesting and the cheapest of the options above, but I didn’t like the interface.

As I navigated to the Dropbox website to give them my credit card details, I remembered Zumodrive. I used to use it all of the time last academic year, but hadn’t looked at it for a while. I thought it could be perfect for my needs! Why?

  1. It now has ‘folder linking’. This means changes made in a particular folder are always reflected in Zumodrive with no extra actions needed by the user. This is also the case in the other solutions outlined above, but didn’t used to be the case with Zumodrive (it used to be like an online USB flash drive).
  2. Photos are automatically synced with either iPhoto or Picasa (I use the latter). This is particularly handy for the photos I don’t deem worthy enough to go on my Flickr account.
  3. As with Dropbox and other solutions, you can instantly share any file with others through a link on Zumodrive.
  4. The cheapest upgrade is only $2.99/month.
  5. You can open files from iWork 09.

I signed up for the $6.99/month 25GB option.

However, calculating the amount of data I was going to need to backup overall it looked like I was going to have to spend $9.99/month for 50GB and then, before long, probably have to move up to the 100GB $19.99/month plan. I didn’t like the sound of that.

I tweeted about this and Mark Wagner, amongst others, replied:

Thinking about this, I realised that I’d conflated cloud-based and off-site storage. What I really need is something to sync Documents and other files of my choosing so they’re available quickly and easily (e.g. via my iPhone). And then, separately, I need an ongoing archive of all of my stuff.

I’ve signed up for Mozy. They do unlimited non-commercial storage for $4.95/month. That’s my off-site storage solution. My cloud-based storage solution is going to be a free Dropbox account. Why? Because it’s truly cross-platform, has a great iPhone app and you can gain an extra 250MB storage for every referral you make! 😀

I need 7 more people to sign up for Dropbox to get my maximum referral bonus space (3GB). If you’re going to sign up, would you consider using one of the links to the service in this post please?

What are YOU using? Why?