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How To Survive An iCloud Wipeout

24 Mar, 2017
Peace of mind

In light of the recent threats that some hackers have been making to Apple (more about which you can read here), we believe it is a good time to have this particular conversation.

Even though we stand by the popular belief that the threat being made by the hackers, of wiping out millions of iCloud accounts, is bogus, at best, we are going to spend a little time being the Devil’s Advocate, and helping you ensure that you’re safe.

Let me say that we at Chip-Monks, have immense faith in Apple taking utmost care of our data, our devices and the security of everything we’ve been trusting them with. I’m sure Apple has checks and redundancies already in place.

But, we’re only trying to prepare you for what is the worst that could go wrong, if you’re one of the people who likes to be cautious and self-dependent.

That statement notwithstanding and irrespective of whether you’re backed up to the iCloud or not, I super-duper-highly recommend you drop all that you’re doing and manually back up your iPhone, iPad and Mac (if you’re on one), to a local storage device (like an external hard disk or your PC’s hard disk). Immediately!

Let us begin by making things easier, and dividing an average person’s data on her phone/device into two categories – one that is primarily on the device’s local storage (let’s call that On-Device for this article), and one that is primarily on the cloud that your device is connected to (let’s call that Uploaded for this article).

And yes, we are going to go by the assumption that you, like most people today have already enabled cloud connection on your device(s).

If you haven’t, then we strongly recommend that you do!

So, of the two major kinds of storage, the On-Device Data is the kind that resides primarily on your device’s physical storage. This mainly includes things like contacts, calendar, photos, and any other kinds of notes etc. you have been making.
The second major kind of storage is the one that is usually primarily on the cloud. Often times Uploaded Data, even if it exists on your device’s local storage, chances are that you’ve actually downloaded it from the cloud, for offline access. This majorly includes the information on your cloud-linked mail account, your music, apps and videos, and such.

So, we are going to start with your to-do list to secure yourself.

If you are fully within the iOS & OSX ecosystem, meaning your computer as well as phone and your tablet (if any), are Apple products.
The first thing you should do is backup all your data, to your computer. Manually.
You can back up your calendar, your contacts, your photographs, etc., simply by transferring them to your computer. Now, this sounds easy, but it gets tricky as you move on to your second kind of data, your Music, Apps, and Videos.

What we have so far been used to, is that if something does wrong with our device, we can easily retrieve the information off of the iCloud, which is basically the backbone of the structure. However, what we must realise with this recent threat is that the backbone may under certain circumstances not be infallible – it can also be threatened, so we must not take it for granted.

Thus, if the iCloud account is wiped out, what you lose is all your data on the cloud in the secondary category – your Uploaded Data.
You can currently download the Music part of your Uploaded Data and back it up to a computer, or even to the local storage of your phone itself (if you have the space on the phone/tablet). But that’s about all you can shore up/secure locally.

Apps, movies you’ve bought, and even your financial transactions with Apple could be irretrievably lost if your iCloud ID were to be wiped out erroneously or maliciously.
The most you can do for your Apps is take screenshots of your apps and related purchases (preferably from your Desktop-based iTunes software) and hope that the Doom’s Day prediction does not knock on your door!

Now lets talk about what to do if you’re using a non-Apple computer.
Well, you mustn’t worry. Even though the systems are disparate, basically meaning that you have an iPhone for a phone, and a Windows OS computer, you can still back up the On-Device Data data to your computer. Of the Uploaded Data, you can at best, download the music you’ve bought and save it on your device’s local storage, or computer’s local storage, via iTunes on the Windows PC. But that’s all you can pretty much do if the iCloud backbone is threatened.

There is another storage hub you can look to – which is neither local, nor iCloud related, and that is the giant Google.
You can push all of the On-Device Data as well as the Music you’d have downloaded from iCloud on to Google’s storage options instead. Link up your calendar, sync the iPhone’s contacts to your Google mail account, store the photos on the Google Drive or Google Photos, link up your notes to your Gmail account, etc.
But none of those options really stand for any of the data in the Uploaded category.

Now that the major questions seem a little settled, let us discuss a few nitpicks that are peculiar to Apple’s devices and their storage features. A lot of these are important as you mayn’t have realised a few of these things to-date. Take a break now, if you need to, else ensure you’re awake as you proceed. 1-2-3, pinch yourself. Awake? Good!

One of the features on the iPhone (and iPad) is that of ‘Optimise Storage‘, which was born of a good idea, but in the case of the very iCloud backbone being threatened, it can turn disastrous.

It basically means that in an attempt to save space on your device’s local storage, the photos on the device are automatically deleted once they are successfully backed up to the iCloud. What you’ll then see on your iPhone/iPad is actually only a thumbnail of the picture. It’s only when you click on the picture, you’ll notice the delay of a few seconds before that picture completely loads for you. This is because the device did not have the picture anymore; it accessed your iCloud account and retrieve the original, full-resolution picture real-time.
In the current predicament, if you lose the iCloud, then everything that has been backed up, and been auto-deleted from your device is lost as well.
If you’re preparing to survive Doom’s Day, you must then disable ‘iCloud Library’ on your iOS device, which will then prompt you to download all your iCloud photos onto your device. Say yes to the prompt on your iPhone. Let all the photos download (remember to only do this when you’re on Wi-Fi) before you go on to  back up your iPhone to your computer.

You can always toggle ‘iCloud Library’ back on after the backup completes successfully.

Another thing peculiar to Apple devices is the auto-backup to iCloud feature. The last time your device was actually backed up to iCloud may actually be a very, very long time ago.

Most people set their devices to back up only when they are on Wi-Fi, the device is charging, and is left idle. So, we should be safe in saying that most people set their devices to back up at night, as they sleep. The backup should occur automatically every night. But the backups on Apple devices are usually too heavy – sure they’re iterative, but new data builds up on the device every single day. So, chances are, that when you wake up the next morning and leave home, the backup is still most likely incomplete. Away from Wi-Fi, it gets interrupted, and thus stalled. The (inconclusive) cycle repeats the next night. Which means that there are times your data is not backed up for days, or weeks, without you even realising it!
Would you believe me, that I, of Chip-Monks lineage, just realised that my iPhone 6s Plus was last backed up to iCloud one and half months ago?!

So you should regularly go check for when your device actually backed up the last time, and not just assume that the backup settings you enabled are working just fine!

Now that we have told you most of what could go wrong, we admit that we have been participants in the Doom’s Day prediction.

We have immense faith in Apple and are fairly confident in Apple’s repeated assertions that no hack of the kind has happened on their servers, and the fact that they’re “actively monitoring to prevent unauthorized access to user accounts”.

And we more or less agree, that a hack of this kind is a preposterous idea. Yet, we’d urge you be safe than sorry and go back up your device.

We also urge that you enable two-step verification on all your accounts and that you do not use the same passwords for all sites. Write to us at connect@chip-monks.com if you need help or advice on securing yourself.

Meanwhile, we’ll stay tuned in for more status updates as the authorities and Apple release them.