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any people resist backing up their data to an online backup service like MozyHome, Carbonite, or Backblaze because they worry their data will be poked through by company employees, hijacked by criminals, or provided to law enforcement or government agents without due process.

The sanctity of your data boils down to whether the encryption key used to scramble your data can be recovered by anyone other than yourself. Below I outline the various methods and levels of encryption that can be employed by these services, and then evaluate six of the best options for home users. Several give subscribers full control of their encryption. If you’re already using a service, it’s possible you can even upgrade to take advantage of greater ownership options.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  • Choosing the services to evaluate
  • Backblaze
  • Carbonite
  • CrashPlan
  • iDrive and MozyHome
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Choosing the services to evaluate

These are the parameters I set up for this roundup:

  • Focused on services that offer a personal edition, where you can purchase an account for a single computer or a bundle for a family
  • Included services that are established or well-reviewed.
  • Excluded services that offer scant information about their security and encryption practices. Subscribers should always be privy to how their data is protected.
  • Excluded sync services, even those (like SugarSync) that offer continuous backup and versioning. I define a sync service as one that doesn’t encrypt data with a per-user key before being transmitted over a secure connection. That also leaves out Box, Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and others.
  • I also bypassed services that offer bad advice about file retention or security practices, and ones whose information is years out of date.

Six companies remained after this winnowing: Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan, iDrive, MozyHome, and SpiderOak ONE. Keep reading to see how they rate on encryption features and strength.

Encryption: The ins and outs

Internet-hosted backups have several points of failure where encryption can protect a user’s data. I evaluated the services on each of these points:

Key possession. Encrypted backups require someone to create and possess the underlying key that’s used to encrypt your data before being stored by the host. But there are several aspects to this:

  • Who creates the encryption key? In all six cases, the native desktop backup software handles key creation, but with two services, you can opt to create a key.
  • Does the backup host hold the key in a form it can directly access, or in “escrow,” where it’s protected by a passphrase you set and the host doesn’t know? Or does the host never hold the key at all?
  • Is the passphrase converted through an algorithm into the actual encryption key, or is the passphrase used to unlock the encryption key? In the former case, an attacker who recovers the passphrase also effectively has the key, and can decrypt your backups.

If a backup service lets you reset your account password without losing access to your archives, it has full access to the encryption keys that guard your backups. If it can’t access your files’ contents (and sometimes even the listing of files) unless you enter your password or a custom key, you retain control.

Diversity of keys. Each service varies in whether it uses a single key for all backups, or various keys for different tasks. For instance, CrashPlan uses the same encryption key to scramble all backed-up files across all sessions; Backblaze generates a new key for each backup session; SpiderOak ONE has unique keys for every folder, version, and individual data block within its backups, partly to enable a group encrypted sharing option.

The more unique keys are used, the less risk you face from a single leaked or cracked key, or from advances in cryptographic cracking.

Encrypted before transit. Hosted backups require native apps to scan drives for files and transmit them. Strong encryption should be used by the app before files are transferred to a hosted service.

Encrypted in transit. It’s vitally important that transferred data is strongly protected separately from the encryption that wraps data before it’s sent. That’s to guard against offline attacks, where someone can intercept encrypted data and then attempt various ways to break it, both now and in the future. Encryption that’s unbreakable in 2016 may still break in the future.

Protected at rest. Even encrypted data needs additional layers of security. Some hosts disclose additional information about how they safeguard your data, including certifications and audits from third parties.

Restoring files. When you restore a backup, there’s also a question of where the key winds up. Even for services that allow a user to create a custom full encryption key, that key has to be transmitted to the backup host in a form that can be decrypted in order to restore files.

With all that in mind, we evaluated the following services from Excellent to Poor, summarizing their best and worst points in the pros and cons that follow each rating. For services that offer multiple ways to set up security and privacy, I’ve ranked based on the best method available, as outlined in the section above.

Backblaze

Encryption rating: Very good

Pros:

  • Data is encrypted before and in transit
  • Website lets you access encrypted backups
  • Platforms: OS X, Windows, iOS, Android

Cons: 

  • Password is transmitted for recovery
  • Lacks a client that can restore and browse with local encryption keys
  • Unique keys can be unlocked with passphrase for master key

Backblaze uses public-key cryptography—the same kind of encryption used widely across the internet, including web connections with SSL/TLS cryptographic protocols. The app creates a public-private key pair and transmits the private key to its servers. For each backup session, Backblaze creates a new strong session key, and uses the private key in the key pair to encrypt it and send to its servers. The key is only stored in memory on the client and never stored in the clear at the server.

online backup encryption backblaze

An optional Private Encryption Key protects your encryption key, even though it’s stored on Backblaze’s servers.

However, you can opt to set a passphrase to encrypt the private key before it’s transmitted to the server. In that way, this master private key and each session key are held in escrow. Only someone with the passphrase can access the private key, which in turn can decrypt a session key that restores data associated with a backup session.

Backblaze has engineered its system so that restores all happen via its website, not in the native computer app, so you have to enter that passphrase to decrypt the private key. The passphrase is also required for viewing information about backups through its website and mobile clients. The private key is also held only in memory on its servers and dumped when file browsing and restore operations finish.

This isn’t ideal. Backblaze falls short of other backup services by not offering a client that can handle restoring and browsing with encryption keys kept entirely locally. And while each backup session has a unique key, the fact that all can be unlocked with knowledge of the passphrase used to protect the master private key makes that less impressive. In practice, you’re more secure if you never restore files or browse lists.

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