I’ve been thinking a lot about digital pictures. We all have precious digital memories that we entrust to an un-backed up hard drive, an SSD card, or a thumb drive jammed into a forgotten drawer.

A modern conundrum

My generation — in their mid-40s — crossed from analogue to digital and most of our childhood years were captured on everything from Instamatic to Polaroid. The transition to digital pictures creates a difficult junction point and vulnerability: a physical disaster or malware infection has the potential to wipe out all our digital memories.

Digital memories can’t be shared in the same way as the analogue photo albums of our childhood. Many of us remember our family’s vacation slideshow, but do we really ever open “Harry and Monica’s Wedding in Bermuda.pptx?” Let’s not forget the countless wedding VCR tapes either — the ones that are now copied over to digital files like .mp4, .mkv or .avi.

Clearly, the memories contained in the photo albums are important. I’ve seen pictures of folks being evacuated from fires, hurricanes and other disasters. Along with the family dog, the photo albums are cherished and given a priority exit out of harm’s way. Yet, I would hazard a guess that zillions of precious digital photos are resting on ancient, spinning hard drives.

More capability, bigger threats

Putting photos into albums was a conscious effort. Choosing which ones were the best and truly album-worthy was both time-consuming and rewarding. With the arrival of digital photography, the size of photo collections has exploded.

The likelihood of a physical failure of a hard drive has continued to go down. When initially introduced, the technology was less than stable. Today, a far more likely scenario is an encounter with ransomware on the personal home computer, which targets, encrypts or even destroys all of those digital memories in moments. Ransomware, delivered by exploit kits lurking on the web or phishing email attacks are indiscriminate, and the home computers of tens of millions of people are not nearly as well protected as business systems.

“With the arrival of digital photography, the size of photo collections has exploded.”

What’s at stake?

My generation may be the last to have non-digital childhood pictures resting safe from the evil designs of cyber criminals in dusty albums. For those born a decade later, their entire baby, childhood, wedding and grandbaby pictures may only exist in digital format. That makes holding those pictures ransom on the home PC very attractive to cyber criminals. What would you do today if all those memories were suddenly unavailable?

Cloud backup is not just for business anymore — sounds catchy, but it’s not meant to be some new marketing campaign. A recent report, commissioned by a backup vendor, suggests ransomware is costing $75 billion in the U.S. I think that may be an overstatement, but the FBI certainly views ransomware as a lucrative cybercrime activity, to such a point they are making a rare public appeal to report incidents.

Folks need to start backing up their personal computers so cyber criminals don’t victimize them. The problem with having to pay a ransom is it funds more sophisticated ransomware; it’s a feedback loop with the capability of creating the monster of all ransomware. So, for the millions of people out there who have pictures, videos, documents and digital music collections, I have a stark warning: You are one click away on the web or in an email from losing it all.

It’s time to treat digital memories like you would your precious photo albums. Put them somewhere safe. By this I mean back them up so, if you do get hit by ransomware, all your digital memories can be quickly and easily restored and not be lost forever.