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When a hacker deletes all your Gmail messages

Gmail hacking prompts crisis of faith in cloud computing for writer James Fallows.

Many people are concerned about hacked e-mail accounts (even celebrities), but what about when several years worth of your digital file cabinet are deleted, say, by a malicious intruder?

That happened to Deb Fallows six months ago, and her husband, author James Fallows, wrote a riveting account of their ordeal for The Atlantic that makes for fascinating reading.

His words of advice are: use strong, unique passwords on important important online accounts; take advantage of Google's two-step verification service; and back up our cloud-based data on our own. Oh, and act fast. Deleted messages are purged from the Trash folder after about a month.

In a nutshell, someone somehow got a hold of his wife's Gmail password and sent scary "Mugged in Madrid" messages to her contacts (including ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who sent a "terse" e-mail to the author with the subject line of "Deb's e-mail has been hacked"), diverted her incoming messages to an outside account and pretended to be her in e-mail exchanges with concerned and or dubious friends and family. The hacker then deleted six years worth of correspondence. Poof!

Google initially was only able to retrieve a fraction of the deleted data and said the rest were not recoverable and that Google "will not be able to respond to any further e-mails on this case." That's when being a prominent writer with the likes of Schmidt in your address book comes in handy.

Fallows dashed off an e-mail to a top Google engineer to the effect of: "You (Google) cannot be serious about this. You cannot entice people into relying on your services, and be so cavalier about the risks they are exposed to. Can you?"

Suffice it to say his connections and persistence pay off. But his resulting crisis of faith in cloud computing drives him on a journey into the bowels of the Googleplex where he seeks reassurance that we're not fated for digital disaster.

"How could big tech companies offer cloud services to hundreds of millions of people without better guarding their data against catastrophic loss?"