Why you should archive your emails

General Nov 20, 2019

If you're using Gmail, or some other email provider, you may be thinking that your email host already has multiple levels of redundancies and backups, so why would there be a need for a solution like Mailyard?

Backup vs archive?

To answer that question, we first have to understand the difference between backups and archives. While there is some overlap, the two serves different purposes entirely.

A backup is typically used for data that is actively being used within a system, and can be used to restore the system's operations in the event of a disaster where data is lost. As Gmail users, we don't need to care about making backups of our emails at all because Google takes care of matters transparently, and we can trust them to do so.

An archive looks similar to a backup, in that it also stores data that you want to protect, but typically concerns data that is no longer, or will no longer be, in active use (i.e. not being updated anymore). However, the purpose of the archive is to safeguard your data for posterity, making sure that it is accessible/readable for generations to come, long after the active system is taken out of operation.

Aren't backups enough then?

Backups allow providers like Google to provide a higher quality of service to its customers, by shielding them against data loss in the event of disaster. That's great, so as long as you remain a desired customer of Google.

In one recent case,  Markiplier, a YouTube streamer had the interesting idea of asking his fans to vote for what actions he should perform in real-time using emojis in comments. Many of them participated by posting a string of emojis at a time, tripping YouTube's automated spam detection, getting themselves banned. However, this did not just mean getting banned from YouTube, it also suspended the entire Google account, including access to Gmail. In defense of his fans, Markiplier reached out to Google and had to escalate matters after initial appeals were denied to higher ups to get it fixed.

This situation arose from something as benign as posting a stream of emojis on a YouTube video stream, but you can imagine a different situation where you or you actions may not agreeable with your provider's policies (which may look reasonable now, but can be updated at any time at their discretion). Or, you might be the victim of identity theft, losing access to your account, with no certainty that you can get it back. There are many ways in which you can lose access to your data.

Ultimately, the issue is not if we trust Google to backup our data, but what protections we have in place for our own data, and how much agency we can exercise over it.

What to look for in an archival solution

An archival solution must provide some sort of guarantee that your data is kept safe, and guess what, with Mailyard, we keep backups of your archived data! It makes total sense really; the operational state of Mailyard is ensuring your archived data is safe, so having multiple levels of redundancies are the way to go.

Archives should provide you easy access to your data. What good is your data if it is kept so safe, such that you have to go through great lengths just to view it? Mailyard runs on the cloud, so anywhere you have internet access and a computer, you have your data at hand.

A good archive is tamper-proof. Data is only as good as its provenance, but as far as possible, Mailyard preserves all the original qualities of your data from the source you provide. Checksums and other protections are put in place to ensure that uploads are not corrupted, or compromised by malicious attacks.

Lastly, archives also have provisions for data disposal. For Mailyard, this is a planned feature for the enterprise version, but we are also looking at what this might look like for consumers. Companies like Facebook provide the ability to memorialize an account after death, and dealing with data that we have lying around is an important topic that is often last on our mind.

Gmail, Outlook, Thunderbird, etc already have an archive option

When Gmail came into the picture with a huge mailbox in early 2004, it was a time when the convention was having to delete our emails after we no longer needed them. The archive feature on Gmail enabled users to save all our emails but separate them in a way that worked for us. In that light, Gmail's archive feature works great. However, if you lose access to your Google account, you still lose your data.

With Outlook and Thunderbird, you do indeed have the option to manage archival of your data, but that puts you in charge of your own data protection. If you are merely storing it on your computer, you may lose all your data in a hard disk crash. Of the two, Thunderbird seems to provide a more seamless approach to archiving and accessing your archived data, but the process by and large is old school technology, without the comforts of what we expect from a cloud-based solution today.

What if Mailyard turns against me or shuts down?

You're right, we do reserve the right to turn away customers, or to stop the use of our products in a way that is in breach of our terms of use, just like your email providers. However, because of the way things are set up, it will be impractical for someone to use Mailyard in a way that we would need to suspend an account (we'll do so only as a last resort).

Also, while Mailyard being shut down is a valid concern (nothing lasts forever), I keep the option of releasing the server's source code as open source, allowing for self-hosting. Regardless of what you choose, I urge you to at least keep a copy of your raw emails somewhere; whether it be a local copy which you can access with Thunderbird, or an archive file you store on Dropbox. It's better than just leaving it in one single place.

What do you think? Not convinced to start archiving your emails, something holding you back? Let me know at jaryl@mailyard.io.

Jaryl Sim

Jaryl remembers the internet he grew up with; an open web built by people simply because they could. Not one to sit idly by, he writes software to restore some of the magic the web has lost.