Many articles have been written on preserving food, weapons, ammo, and various other perishables. While there are also many articles regarding the preservation of digital information, rarely do I see one written with the thought that perhaps the infrastructure itself might no longer be intact. This article will address several key areas, including equipment, media, printing and reproduction, testing, and backups. While books and print materials are critical to maintain, electronics can be preserved and protected even against a Carrington Event or EMP weapon.
My approach here is Keep It Simple As Possible (KISAP). The more technologically savvy may argue their personal preferences on any number of items, but my intent is to provide a minimum level of attainability for the non-techie user. I make some recommendations for preparation that may involve outside parties. This is deliberate to make this task doable for as many people as possible.
Where to obtain hardware I need?
Surplus auctions. This includes schools, municipalities, public utilities, auction houses, etc. When evaluating equipment for this project (specifically computers) look for items marked ‘obsolete, works, no Windows 7 support’. What you actually want is older working laptops, preferably identical models for spare parts. Often you can pick these up for very cheap or even free. I’ve seen entire pallets of 20 or more laptops with CD burners, travel bags, mice, and extra batteries sell for $50.
Ebay and auction companies for asset forfeiture and repossession from failed businesses are also good sources.
What do you need for hardware?
Look for two or more laptops, preferably identical models, which were designed for Windows XP. You don’t want Apple systems for this project. One will be operational and loaded, one will be a spare. You can get by with two, one loaded and one spare, but given the cost of surplus laptops you should have a third or fourth. If you can pick up more than two, I suggest that you keep two loaded and ready to use and the remainder for spares.
Look for units that have a built in CD or DVD recorder, or purchase a standalone CD/DVD burner that plugs into a USB port. As always, if you buy a new one, have a spare, and have a spare for your spare.
You will need at least one USB connection style black and white laser printer. No ink-jet because ink goes stale and hardens, print heads go bad, and ink jet printers are quite wasteful. Laser printers have longer lifespan and the cost per sheet is much less. Black and white laser printers can be obtained for under $100. Buy this item new. Budget for or buy a second identical model. I would not suggest a multifunction copier/printer as they are more complex and have a lower (worse) mean time between failures (MTBF).
You will need extra toner cartridges for the printers. Given that most toners for home use laser printers will top out around 2,000 pages you should plan over time to store enough toner for a minimum of 10,000 pages. This sounds like a lot, but if you are looking at a grid down or TEOTWAWKI, this extra reference material may be invaluable for barter or survival.
Lots of paper. Medium weight paper takes more space but is much more durable than light weight. And since printer paper may be in low supply durability is a factor. Store as much as you can make room for. This is an instance where recycled content paper isn’t advisable. It tends to draw moisture more than virgin paper and moisture is going to be your enemy here.
Anti-static storage bags
Various sizes. Ziotek makes some good ones that are resealable. You need a variety of sizes including ones large enough to hold an entire laptop.
Conductive aluminum foil tape
A 45m roll of this runs about $20 USD, and will last for a long time. This tape is also useful for a variety of other things including entry detection (it tears easily), sealing Faraday type storage cages, and grounding sensitive electronics.
Recordable CD-ROMs. The 50 or 100 pack spindles at Costco are perfect. I want to point out that I did say CD, not DVD. While they are slightly less common, CDs suffer less from “bit rot”, which I will elaborate on later. You will also need some paper CD sleeves.
Secure USB Thumb Drives
These are useful for holding securely encrypted data. While IronKey is the ‘gold standard’, I personally recommend (and use) DataShur devices. They are somewhat lower cost than an IronKey, but they have a significant advantage over the IronKey in that there is no software required to run on the computer or device to which you are connecting the DataShur. This means less compatibility issues. Purchase at least two. They run ~$120 US. These are where I store supply inventory spreadsheets, scanned copies of critical papers (Driver’s License, Birth Certificate, Social Security Card, etc.).
• Windows XP
You will need at one copy of Windows XP for each laptop you want to have in a ‘ready to go’ state. Many surplus laptops may come with a Windows XP license sticker on them, in which case all you will need is a copy of a Windows XP installation CD. These are now a dime a dozen and are easily obtainable. If the laptop doesn’t have a Windows XP License sticker (with the product key), you can either look for one that does, or purchase new copies of Windows XP that vendors are trying to unload since support is being discontinued in 2014.
• Adobe Reader (Free download from Adobe.com)
• PDF Creator (Free download, PDFForge.org)
• Darik’s Boot and Nuke (Free download from DBAN.org if you are a do-it-yourselfer and tech savvy)
Paper is very sensitive to relative humidity and moisture. If you are doing any kind of dried food storage you probably know how to handle this already, but if not you need desiccant packets, and airtight storage containers. Store in a relatively temperature consistent location. You can use the dry ice trick to exhaust the air from storage container just as you would with foods.
Remove the batteries from the laptops for storage. They won’t be any good over the long run, but you’ll want to keep them to insert back into the laptops when you fire them up and test them every six to nine months. Laptops tend to get cranky when they don’t have a battery inserted, even if the battery is no good. Store electronics in a relatively temperature consistent location. Swings in temperature will cause connectors and chips to work loose from sockets.
Store all items in anti-static bags along with desiccant packets. This especially includes the laptops, and all their power supplies. Don’t over pack the bags. Once packed, seal the bags, then double seal with the foil tape, making sure that the tape wraps at least 1/2 inch around each side to the front of the bag.
Store the bags in a full metal cabinet or a Faraday cage. Do not ground! An oversized ammo can (like a mortar flare can) is also good for this, but you need to make sure that there is metal on metal contact all the way around the interior of the lid and lip of the can. Sand the area around the gasket on the lid down to metal. Then sand the top edge of the inner lip that meets the gasket down to metal. Make sure you don’t have any burrs. Make a double sided layer of foil tape (stick the two sticky sides together) so that you can have a foil on foil seal over the gasket. This will provide the conductivity to provide full electromagnetic shielding. Please note this does make it vulnerable to rust. (It is a tradeoff.)
Storing the printer
This is a little more difficult. There are a couple ways to do this. Cut anti-static bags down and use foil tape on the seams (both sides). Place a layer of duct tape over the foil tape (both sides). Form a large enough bag to store the printer. Another way is to just store the printer in an airtight bag (heavy duty garbage bag with desiccant) and place it into an EM shielded cabinet.
How to put all this together
Unless you are technically savvy or somewhat of a geek, this is where I recommend you involve a third party. I would suggest a local (non-chain) computer tech or your favorite local geek. You’ll usually get better service, and generally they are not going to look too oddly at you when you bring in three or four laptops to have them security wiped. 🙂
Take the laptops in and tell them you picked them up surplus, and would like them security wiped with DBAN (Darik’s boot-n-nuke) because you want to start playing around with laptop hardware. This will probably cost you no more than $50 in a shop. If you know a local computer geek you can probably get it done for the cost of a six-pack of beer or their favorite caffeinated beverage!
I’d also suggest bartering out having your friendly geek load Windows XP and Adobe Reader on the laptop(s). This will cost more in a shop, but if you tell them they don’t need to be updated or patched as they will never be on a network, it’ll usually save them quite a bit of labor. As far as bartering, a lot of geeks are closet gun lovers and would love to shoot. A day at the range burning some powder can get you a lifelong computer geek friend at your disposal. And if you have gadgets (laser sights, range finders, chronographs) to show off….well that’s like nectar to a bee. 🙂
I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT, DO NOT, and DO NOT EVER connect these laptops to the Internet. They are never to be connected to ANY network. Software should only be loaded from CD/DVD or USB thumb drive. Putting them on a network (wifi/wireless, wired, or the Internet) will guarantee their compromise. If you can’t listen to this, I suggest you abandon this project entirely. I’m that serious.
Storing your data
Collect your library of data on any other PC. By installing PDF Creator on that PC, you can print any web site, article or other file (word document, excel spreadsheet) as a PDF file and save it on your PC. These PDF files can be viewed or printed on the laptops using Adobe Reader.
Create an index (this can be done as simply as putting it in notepad). You will want to keep a printed copy of this index updated and stored with your data library. The index should list the filename, disc it is stored on, and some important keywords (medical, first-aid, wind power, etc.)
Once you have started your library collection and want to archive your first set of data you will insert a blank CD into your main PC where your files are saved. Windows should open up a box asking you if you want to burn files to the CD. You will answer yes; you want to create a data CD. That will open up a window showing the files on your CD (initially blank). You can copy and paste the files or simply drag them from where you have them saved into the blank window. Depending on what version of Windows (XP, Vista, 7) or what CD burning program came with your computer this process may be slightly different, but there will be a button or selection that says to ‘burn to disc’ or ‘write files to disc’, or something along those lines. Once you have burned them to the disc you can verify the process worked by inserting the CD into one of the laptops and see if it has your files on it.
Long term storage of CD, DVD, and thumb drives
All of these media suffer from a process sometimes called bit rot. This has to do with the chemical (for the CD/DVD) or electro-chemical (for USB thumb drives) properties. In a nutshell, over time the data will lose its integrity. This is why the best practice is to burn three identical copies of the DVD or CD, taking them from three different spindles of blank discs. The statistical likelihood of bit-rot occurring in the exact same files on all three discs in very, very, low.
All CD/DVD and USB media should be redone every three years at most. For the most critical materials I usually recommend 24 months. So every 24 to 36 months, copy a set of the files from the CD/DVDs back to your main PC. Then update them and burn them to entirely new discs. Always, always, always verify each one of these discs before destroying the old copies.
This is also a good time to rebuild your index and consolidate discs as you will gradually accumulate new materials. Every time I rebuild my library I’ll have accumulated with anywhere between 30-45 discs (10-15 discs with two additional copies of each). When I’m done I usually have 3 or 4. I also use this time to delete old or obsolete materials.
It is possible to accumulate a good digital library along with a reasonable chance of it surviving EM events. If you aren’t worried about EM events, your storage and preservation process becomes much less cumbersome, with moisture and temperature your primary concerns.
The cornerstone of Information Assurance is CIA: Confidentiality, Integrity, Availability. To quote Gandalf on Confidentiality “Is it secret? Is it safe?” Don’t disclose the existence of your digital library. Multiple copies and spares help verify Integrity. Regular testing of the hardware and rebuilding the media ensure Availability.
Like most preparation, the startup is the most frustrating. Once you have your gear lined up, and your validation and assessment process worked out (how often to test, how often to refresh your library, etc.) it can operate as smoothly as your well cared for firearm.
This is also a good way to preserve and duplicate rare or hard to find items in your library. Purchasing a flatbed scanner (which can be picked up pretty cheap on eBay) will allow you to scan in other materials you own which may be out of print and hard to obtain multiple copies. Just remember that even though they may be out of print, they may still be copyrighted. So don’t give out those electronic copies in violation of the law.