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The Facebook Conditioning Effect

What social networking has (and hasn't) taught us about protecting our data.

Here are a few astounding social photo statistics: There have been more than 250 billion photos uploaded to Facebook, with an average 350 million photo uploads every day. The average user has 217 photos uploaded to the site.

And that’s just Facebook; Mark Zuckerberg’s $1 billion acquisition, Instagram, has a ridiculous 55 million snapshots posted to its app per day (for those doing the math, that’s more than 600 filtered shots per second).

What do all these uploads say about us, besides the fact that we all love a good selfie?

Recent survey results revealed that when given the choice, 74 percent of respondents would save their personal photos before the device (phone, laptop or tablet) on which they’re stored. In fact, of all the files users keep on their devices, consumers overwhelmingly said that their personal photos are the most important.

Photo albums are things of the past; new pictures head straight to the dust-free pages of social networks. But something much more profound and far-reaching is taking place: When we share photos on cloud-based social media, we’re actually creating a second copy of that information — a backup copy of our data — even if that’s not the main intent.

We’re calling this the “Facebook Conditioning Effect” — the idea that social media is making it easier than ever to back up our data, even if we’re unconscious of this fact. No, your selfies and food photos aren’t exactly critical information that necessitate the utmost protection, but the action of uploading and saving a copy of those digital files to an additional location is beginning to condition us to back up and protect more of our data overall.

Why shouldn’t we be thinking this way? With recent advances in cloud technologies and user experiences, backing up data is now as simple as pressing “upload.” That’s how it works with Instagram, right?

But so much of our personal information — the really personal stuff — isn’t backed up properly, safely and securely. Why? Why isn’t all of our data, not just our personal photos, stored safe and sound somewhere out in the digital universe? What’s stopping this effect from making the jump from a social trend to a healthy, all-encompassing data habit, where everything is backed up and protected?

The easy answer would be that there is no Facebook for, say, your taxes. Startups like Dropbox and Box are making enormous strides in creating data storage systems that feature the easy-to-use and easy-to-access formatting of social media sites, yet the two combined have less than 20 percent of Facebook’s user numbers.

So if it’s not an issue of simplicity, what’s really keeping the Facebook Conditioning Effect from fully transforming our digital behaviors?

The problem: Privacy versus protection

The main reason that the Facebook Conditioning Effect hasn’t yet permeated our entire digital lives is because a number of recent high-profile data breach cases have highlighted our chief concern — that our data isn’t safe when it’s not handled directly by us. Snapchat was hacked, and suddenly millions of phone numbers were public. Target’s much-ballyhooed breach put the personal information of 70 million individuals at risk.

So, while we continue to upload every adorable puppy pic we snap, we hide away what’s really important — our work documents, banking information, health records and other personal and professional information — into old-school file cabinets and documents marked “personal” on our desktops.

The key is identifying and separating the issue of “data privacy” from the idea of “data protection.” While data privacy focuses on more of the legal and security issues regarding data use and storage, data protection is about safeguarding that information after it has been created and stored. All Web-enabled device users should be more aware and on alert when it comes to data privacy — such as carefully reading all privacy agreements on sites and apps, and only sharing information that wouldn’t jeopardize anything if leaked — but not at the expense of data protection.

When it comes to protecting data, the safest way to store it is in multiple, secure locations. Just as our photos now live in our devices and on Facebook, keeping important personal information in multiple places (i.e., a hard drive and the cloud, a backup drive, etc.) should come as second nature.

To make it simple, just think of the 3-2-1 rule: Keep three copies of valuable data on two different types of media, and one copy at a remote location. Remember, though, while tools like Dropbox and Box are a good starting point, they’re not foolproof when it comes to security, so finding the right balance of security and simplicity is a key part of the process.

Nat Maple joined Acronis in November 2012, and serves as senior vice president & general manager, Global Consumer/SOHO, OEM and Online responsible for Acronis’s complete online presence, including e-commerce. He previously spent more than a decade in senior leadership roles at Symantec, and held various technology-focused positions at Intel and Merisel. Reach him @nmaple.

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