Even as a private individual, you probably have quite a few important documents you need to keep safe. If you run a business, you’ll almost certainly have a whole lot more. The good news is that protecting your important documents is more about careful planning than spending a lot of money. Here is a quick guide to what you need to know.
Paper still has its uses
This statement may come as a surprise given the general push towards digitization. The key point to understand, however, is that digital documents and paper documents have different benefits and drawbacks.
Digital paperwork is great for minimizing your need for physical storage space and for streamlining processes. It is, however, vulnerable to cyberattacks and to becoming degraded through time. This can happen in various ways. Most of them, however, boil down to one of three factors.
Firstly, the storage medium can become physically damaged. This can be through environmental conditions (e.g. humidity), accidents (e.g. being dropped) or just mechanical failure. Secondly, the storage medium can become obsolete (e.g. floppy disks). Thirdly, the file format can become obsolete (e.g. WordStar files).
Paper can’t be hacked and can’t become obsolete. It’s also fairly resistant to environmental conditions. The obvious exceptions are fire and flood. You can, however, do a lot to protect against these. The downsides of paper, however, are the storage space it needs and the fact that paper-based processes tend to be less efficient than digital ones.
The key point to take away, therefore, is that it’s generally best to keep important documents in both digital and paper formats. That gives you the highest level of protection against them being damaged or destroyed. Even so, you should store both your digital documents and your paper documents carefully.
Organization is the key to success
For practical purposes, organization basically means knowing what you have and where it is. The best organization reflects the way you run your life and/or your business. For example, documents you use regularly should be close to hand. Documents you’re just keeping for legal reasons can go into archive storage. This can be physical or digital.
It’s crucial to have a process for moving on documents once they’ve served their purpose. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, it prevents you from accumulating mounds of paperwork (physical or digital). This isn’t just about the storage space excess paperwork takes up (although that can be a factor). It’s about being able to find documents easily.
Secondly, it ensures that your data stays private. Remember, the paperwork itself may be obsolete. The data on it, by contrast, could still be very useful to malicious actors. This is a very real threat and nobody is “too small to be a target”. You, therefore, need to take security very seriously for as long as the document continues to exist.
With physical paperwork, the best course of action is to shred it. If you only have small quantities of personal documents, you could just buy a cross-cut shredder. For larger jobs and/or business documents, you could hire a third-party shredding contractor. For digital documents, you can buy disk-wiping programs.
Storing digital documents
These days, there are basically two ways you can store digital documents. One is in the cloud and the other is on physical storage media. It can be useful to have two digital copies, one in the cloud and the other in physical storage. You do, however, need to choose both your cloud and your storage device with care.
If you’re going to use cloud storage for important documents then it’s very much advisable to use a paid-for service. This at least gives you the possibility of making a claim against the cloud service provider if anything goes wrong. Even so, you should research the vendor carefully. At the end of the day, avoiding problems is better than dealing with them.
In particular, it’s important to know where your vendor is legally headquartered and where they have their servers. This will go a long way to determining how much you can rely on the power of regulators such as data protection authorities. If you’re storing other people’s data, e.g. for your business, then this might be vital to fulfilling your legal obligations towards them.
If you’re going to be storing digital documents on physical storage then you need to think about which form of storage would be most appropriate. The main options are CDs/DVDs, USB drives and mechanical hard drives. These all have their various benefits and drawbacks. The one factor they do have in common, however, is that they all need to be stored carefully.
Storing paper documents
If you’re storing important paper documents on your own premises, then you really want them to be in a proper safe. Ideally, this safe should be both waterproof and fireproof. The reason for this is that water is used to put out fires. It can, however, cause a lot more physical damage than the fire itself, especially to paper.
This is one of the many reasons why it’s highly advisable to keep an offsite copy of your important documents. Getting a bank storage box may seem the obvious solution but it’s highly unlikely to be the best one. Bank storage boxes are (very) safe but they’re not optimized for storing documents.
This means that the best option is generally to use a proper document storage service. As the name suggests, these services are optimized for document storage. That means they keep documents both safe and accessible. So, for example, if you ever do get a tax audit, you’ll be able to retrieve the necessary documents quickly.
Another advantage of using these services is that, if anything does go wrong, you should get a report of the issue. You can then show this to any relevant authority (e.g. tax officials) to explain missing documents. They may then stretch a point and accept your electronic copy. Of course, this isn’t guaranteed but you’d have nothing to lose by asking.