iOS 10.3 could wipe your personal data

Alex Kidman 13 March 2017 NEWS

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Backup your iPhone well before updating.

Backing up your personal files on your smartphone is one of those incredibly dull topics that almost nobody wants to think about, right up until they suddenly lose all their photos, music and personal data. It should go without saying that you should back up your phone (whether it’s an iPhone or not) on a regular basis, either via a direct connection to your computer or to a cloud service such as iCloud or Google Drive. Seriously, do it early and often.

Especially, it turns out, if you’re an iPhone user likely to upgrade to iOS 10.3 when it appears in the next couple of weeks. As ITNews reports, Apple’s latest upgrade to the operating system that runs models such as the iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus, as well as its iPad and iPad Pro lines will radically change the underlying file system used for iOS, and with that, there’s a risk to your data.

You lost me at file system...

At its simplest, the file system is the hierarchical way that any computer organises its information so that it is accessible. If you think of a filing cabinet, you could organise its content by type (say, your bills, then your insurance documents, or whatever), or alphabetically. Either approach would form a simple file system.

What Apple is doing is switching from the HFS+ file system it has used since 1998 over to its own Apple File System (APFS). According to Apple, the new file system is a "next-generation file system designed to scale from an Apple Watch to a Mac Pro."

So my iPhone thinks a little differently about where my files are. What’s the problem?

The risk comes when you update and upgrade. HFS+ and APFS are incompatible file systems. The upgrade to iOS 10.3 will see any updated devices switched over to APFS automatically. If all goes well, that’s a process that should be invisible to the end user, with some potential stability or speed benefits as a bonus once complete.

However, if something goes wrong, it could go badly wrong. It’s not entirely unknown for new iOS releases to have a few bugs, and if there’s anything at all wrong at a file system level, it could lead to devices that lose data during that conversion process. Once your iOS device thinks of itself as APFS, HFS+ based content simply wouldn't be readable. Depending on the error, files could be corrupted to a level where even if you could extract them, they might not be recoverable at all.

The solution to your woes is to back up your iOS device to either iCloud (for personal files such as photos and music) or directly to a Mac or PC (for all files, including the app installer files from your iPhone or iPad). The distinction there is an important one, because if you have apps on your iPhone or iPad that are no longer offered and you rely on an iCloud backup for restoring purposes, you won’t be able to reinstall those apps. If they’re backed up to a local computer, and as long as they’ll run under iOS 10.3, you should be able to install them again if anything goes wrong.

The reality here is that any major software upgrade carries with it some small data risks, whether you're talking iOS, Android, Windows 10 or macOS. Before you make those kinds of changes, you should always backup your data. Yes, it's dull, but dull is a lot better than the genuine pain of losing irreplaceable personal photos or documents.

How do I back up my iPhone to iCloud?

First of all, make sure you’re connected to the Internet via a Wi-Fi connection. Some of the files you may be backing up could be very large indeed, and nobody wants excess mobile data charges.

Then open the Settings app, and scroll down until you find the iCloud section. There’s a toggle switch there for iCloud backup which you can switch on (the green position) to enable iCloud backup. If you’ve never backed up your iPhone before, you may want to tap the "Back Up Now" option below that. Bear in mind that Apple only provides a small quantity of backup space to iOS users, so if you’ve got a hefty quantity of personal data, you may need to pay for extended iCloud space.

If something goes wrong, you should be able to restore any data stored on iCloud when you set up the device again. You should be prompted to have the option to restore from your iCloud backup. Again, being on Wi-Fi is advised, and you’ll need some patience as your photos, music and personal files are recreated on your phone or tablet.

How do I back up my iPhone to my computer?

The primary approved way to back up an iPhone or iPad to a computer is via Apple’s own iTunes application. Connect your iPhone or iPad to your computer and launch iTunes if it hasn’t automatically launched when you plugged your device in. Your device should come up as a clickable option on the main page of iTunes. Select it, and you should see a page relating to your current choice of backup. For local backup, choose "This computer" to create a full backup of your device to the currently connected PC or Mac. If you’ve got Apple Health data on your device you’ll need to encrypt the file before you can back it up. You can then click on "Back Up Now" to create your first backup.

The same interface is used to restore a device if something goes wrong, so if you do hit calamity, you should be able to plug in your device, head to iTunes and use the Restore Backup feature to get your precious data back.

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