Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Over the moon

How to keep your data truly safe...
If companies are serious about protecting their vital information, says Peter Cochrane, they may want to consider two locations unlikely to be damaged by terrorist attacks, hackers or global warming - the Antarctic or the moon.

Ever since the first time I lost a significant amount of data due to an application crash, system and hard drive failure, which is many years ago now, I have been almost paranoid about saving, duplicating and backing up all my data.

Everything I do and communicate via my computers is regularly backed up in at least three different geographical locations including my home, office and the homes of my PA and my children. In addition, I always carry a portable 60GB drive in my luggage when travelling.

Theoretically, I can recover from any form of failure. But I have no wish to test the theory. I just try to reduce the overall risk to an acceptable level with the technology available at the time.

If I lost all my data I would be dead in the water - my business would come to a halt immediately and so would all my academic and other activities. All really would be lost, including my family photos going back over 100 years, a music collection spanning some 5,000 tracks and my databases of contacts. In my estimation the risk and consequence for my family would ultimately be on a par, or worse than, me being hit by a bus.

Many businesses see the same risk and take appropriate precautions with company back-up networks spanning several continents. Some do not, and some of these have already gone to the wall and I suppose many more will follow. With mass storage now below five cents per GB, it's hard to believe that anyone would quibble at the cost of back-up when you consider the potential enormity of the consequences.

With the recent rise in terrorism, cyber-attacks, political instability and environmental changes due to global warming, I recently got to thinking about the ultimate back-up locations. Hurricanes, floods, heat waves, employee and rogue infiltration of companies as well as hacker attacks are obvious disaster scenarios. But suppose there are synchronised attacks or disasters that take out all of a company's data warehousing. Where could we go to hide and secure our most valuable data - where can we find total safety and security?

Two locations strike me as being ideal for the mass data back-up of all our most vital data: deep in the ice of the Antarctic or, perhaps even better, the far side of the moon. If we want to achieve almost zero biodegradation of the media coupled with a total physical inaccessibility, where better than 20 metres below the surface of the ice where the temperature hovers around -60 degree centigrade, or on the far side of the moon at around -230 centigrade?

Come to think of it, these might be the ultimate locations for time capsules representing all of Earth's civilization to the present. We are currently edging towards a time when we will be able to economically store every significant bit produced including those created by making copies of all paper, and other forms of documents. We could also save samples of all genetic material, human and animal, plus seeds and cells.

So is this really feasible? I think so. The Antarctic is of course the more accessible of the two options as well as the less expensive. The cost of sending a handful of people and vehicles with a drilling rig there are well within the financial reach of many companies and consortia. The moon, on the other hand, is further down the line; it would be a really expensive facility. However, private enterprise is predicting a potential cost reduction in excess of 90 per cent in the next 10 to 20 years. At this level I believe the viability equation becomes positive and the richest companies and governments could become eager customers. In the intervening period a hybrid solution springs to mind based on conventional communication satellites orbiting the planet or the moon.

Of course there is nothing new in this time capsule mission. Every civilisation of significance has tried to record its most valuable data, history and writings, not to mention buildings and artefacts. The Egyptians, Mayans and Chinese are but three examples. In fact the heaviest book ever discovered consists of over 14,000 inscribed stone tablets and was hidden in caves for thousands of years near Beijing. This is mainly a record of Buddhist scriptures and work, which along with the terracotta army gives a valuable insight to the development of Chinese civilization. But what a shame they hadn't kept accurate records of weather patterns, celestial phenomena, natural disasters and all of their medical, farming and other practices and discoveries. I would have liked to see that, along with stored samples of grain, metals, cloths and perhaps the odd body or two. In this regard the Egyptians did a much better job!

Now I think it is our turn to preserve our discoveries, and we ought not forget prior civilisations as well - their writings and details of their artefacts should be saved in the time capsule too. As we are the first with the ability, technology, need and desire to store all of this information, we should start to get the process underway. At some point there will be a last civilisation on this planet, a last recording and we should not miss the opportunity to make it as comprehensive a record as possible. All our discoveries, inventions, music, art, literature, history, medicine and more on record forever - can you imagine?

Typed on a ScotAirways flight between Dundee and London. Despatched to the next day from the M25 heading west to Heathrow via a GSM data link.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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