Learn how modern magnetic tape data storage formats incorporate security features that best their competitors, while still offering a lower per-gigabyte cost.

Since its emergence, magnetic tape’s fundamental function has been securing data. The first commercial computer to use tape data storage was the UNIVAC 1 in 1951, which offered 2.3 MB of storage on a half-inch-wide, eight-track metallic tape. Seven decades later, the current leading data storage format, Linear Tape-Open (LTO), is capable of storing 30 TB of compressed data on its eighth-generation tapes technology, over 13 million times greater than its progenitor. This impressive rate of growth even exceeds Moore’s Law, which predicts that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit—essentially processing power in a modern context—doubles every two years (which it generally has). And this expansion of storage capacity shows no signs of slowing. The LTO Consortium (the trio of businesses that develop the LTO format) has issued a roadmap for the development of the LTO tape standard that lays out planned capacity gains for the next four generations of the technology. Currently, they are predicting that LTO-12 will be able to store up to 360 TB of compressed data.

Coupled with this ever-increasing capacity is tape’s inherent longevity, which makes it ideal for long-term use. After all, your data isn’t really secure if it has a high chance of becoming corrupted or outright lost over the next decade. In this respect, tape really shines—boasting a lifespan of up to 30 years. The only media capable of outperforming tape by this metric are some of the emerging forms of optical storage being introduced to the market. But these solutions are extremely expensive and not feasible for large-scale deployment, especially when compared to tape, which offers the lowest price-per-gigabyte cost of any storage media.

However, safeguarding the integrity of vast amounts of data is not the only way tape offers security, it also offers security in the more traditional sense, by protecting your property from theft or damage by bad actors. One way it does this is by offering software and hardware data encryption. This way, even if someone gains physical possession of your tape cartridge, they will be unable to access it from another drive, rendering the data on the tape inaccessible to the thief. And while it is theoretically possible to break encryption, the associated time, processing power, and expense make this scenario unfeasible.

Another unique feature of the magnetic tape environment is its capacity for write once, read many (WORM), a feature that prevents data originally written to a tape from being deleted or overwritten. Users can still read the data on the tape or make a copy if they wish, but the original data will never be changed. This means even if a cybercriminal has network access or physical access to the library, they will not be able to delete or overwrite your data. Not only is this function great for protecting the data your business or organization needs to operate, it can also fulfill legally mandated archival requirements.

However, the most powerful data security measure is not a firewall or encryption or any of the approaches that might spring to mind when considering cybersecurity. The only foolproof protection against network-based attacks is what is called an “air gap,” which means physically isolating the media not only from internal and wide area networks, but even from the drive itself. This means the data stored on these cartridges can only be accessed by someone who can physically get to it. Unfortunately, traditional platter-based hard drives can’t be used in this way because, while they can be physically removed from the network, hard drives need to be spun periodically to keep the lubrication in their ball bearings from seizing up, rendering the drive useless. In that scenario, the only way to recover the data on the drive is with a costly and delicate platter swap. Other forms of storage can stored offline as well, but none can compete with the price-per-terabyte rate of traditional hard drives, let alone tape.

We live in an age when cyberattacks can affect even the largest and most technologically capable companies. Make no mistake, it’s not a matter of if but when. Recently, Polish company CD Projekt Red, Europe’s most profitable video game developer, was hit with a ransomware attack that gave hackers access to the company’s HR information, internal emails, and their game engines’ source code. However, unlike in a standard ransomware attack—in which the victim pays to get access to their data back—these hackers knew the company had backups of their data that they could restore from, so simply offering to unencrypt the data for a price would be an ineffective incentive. Instead, the hackers threatened to sell off the information and proprietary software they had stolen to the highest bidder.

As this example shows, even if your business can restore its data from backups after a ransomware attack, your most valuable data can be sold or leaked, causing damage your company’s worth or image. In CD Projekt Red’s case, their stock price, which had already taken a massive hit after the troubled rollout of their latest game, fell even further in the wake of the hack announcement and currently stands at half the value of its peak in August 2020. When the data you have stored is not only vital to your company’s operation but also possesses intrinsic monetary value, just being able to restore it isn’t enough. The air gap is the only surefire way to make sure your data is completely inaccessible to hackers.

Magnetic tape technology also plays a more obscure, but no less vital, role in real-world security. How can this be? It all comes back to the security advantages we outlined earlier. Because tape can last for decades, hold massive amounts of sequential data, and be completely resistant to cyberattacks by being stored offline, it is the ideal format for police agencies and security companies to store important footage that may contain evidence. CCTV cameras are becoming more prevalent around the world, including here in the United States. And with the implementation of more requirements mandating police officers wear body cams and the already prevalent police dash cams, the problem of how to keep all this expanding A/V content arises. It may be months or even years before a crime comes to light and even longer for the relevant evidence to surface.

To prepare for such situations, agencies need to be able to hang on to these video and audio recordings for long periods of time while ensuring no one tampers with them. To the latter point, LTO’s WORM capabilities ensure that once the evidence is written to the tape, it cannot be deleted or changed—even preventing manipulations like superimposing data over the original. This maintains the integrity of the evidence, allowing it to be used in court without fear of accusations of tampering. Not only is this good practice, in many cases, it is mandated by law. To maintain compliance, these agencies will need to implement a reliable, long-term storage solution. Sounds like a job for magnetic tape to us!

Are you ready to really lock down your data? We want to hear from you! Get in touch with one of our representatives today to further discuss tape’s security features and other benefits. We offer tape solutions ranging from large libraries supporting hundreds of cartridges and dozens of drives to our portable single-drive Qi. Visit our contact page to contact us electronically or by phone.