Backup your online life to your Mac

29 November 2015, 07:27

All of us create huge amounts of data every day. With each Facebook posting, uploaded picture, online auction or email message, we’re adding to an online footprint that can be many gigabytes in size. Yet none of us ever comprehend the degree of trust we’re placing in online services to keep that data safe. Disasters are rare but they do happen: people log into Gmail to find 10 years of emails have simply disappeared, with no hope of recovery, and eBay and Facebook accounts are routinely locked by overzealous administrators who are reluctant explain why.

We’re encouraged to backup our Mac data to cloud storage online but the opposite might be an equally good idea: making a personal backup to your Mac’s hard disk of the data you put online.

Perhaps surprisingly, several online services we use everyday provide tools to do just this, although others are less helpful. Below we take a look at some of the top Internet hangouts – everything from social networking to email – to see what can be done. We simply can’t cover all of them, though. Post in the comments below instructions for other services, if you know them.

It goes without saying that you should already have a backup plan in place for your hard disk data.

It might surprise many that Facebook has a comprehensive yet easy to use “core dump” feature that allows the download of most of the data you’ve provided it over the years – everything from pictures, to wall postings, and messages. There are some important caveats, though.

  1. Start by clicking the menu icon at the top right of the Facebook home page, and select Settings.
  2. At the bottom of the General Account Settings list click the link to download a copy of your Facebook data.
  3. Finally, click the Start My Archive button and type your Facebook password when prompted.

Archiving takes a few moments but eventually you’ll be sent an email with a link to download a zip archive. In my test the file was just under 90MB, and I’ve been a moderate Facebook user since around 2009.

Once the zip is unpacked, double-click the index.htm file within the folder. This will open it within your favourite web browser. What you’ll see might look like a web page but, of course, it’s actually a series of files on your hard disk within the backup folder. There are no links to anything online, even when you click to view your photos and videos.

Links at the left beneath your profile picture take you straight to the various categories of downloaded files, or to lists of your usage data.

You’ll soon discover that Facebook’s largesse borders on being a token gesture. Your friends list is provided, for example, but it’s literally nothing more than a text list that’s sorted randomly. Wall postings going right back to your very first are provided, including those made by yourself and by others posting on your wall, but any comments made by others by others are absent. Images are stripped out, and the number of likes is not provided.

Your wall photos are available to view in the Photos section but you’ll see that they’ve been shrunk considerably for the archive file, which is the case with all photos provided as part of the archive. Shrinking happens anyway when you upload to Facebook – an eight-megapixel is automatically shrunk to 1-2 megapixels – but the images downloaded as part of the archive are smaller still. The same applies to video files – HD might be an option within Facebook, but the version downloaded as part of the backup archive is even lower than Facebook’s standard resolution. To get good copies of both photos or videos you’ll need to view each individually at Facebook and select the Options -> Download link (choosing the Download HD link for videos, if it’s available).

Not only are photos reduced in size but any captions simply aren’t listed, although comments made by yourself or others are.

Messages are reproduced in the same conversation view as you see on Facebook, and are sorted via each friend you’ve chatted to, but images and some links are stripped out.

In fact, it’s not even the case that all information about you is provided, as Facebook willingly points out. Some data like check-ins, things/people you follow, and notes can only be seen by manually viewing the Activity Log, which you’ll also find on the main menu within the Facebook home page. To find out some technical details, such as which apps are linked into your Facebook account, you’ll need to delve down into the various settings options and then output the page as a PDF (assuming you’re using Safari, click File > Print, then click the PDF button at the bottom left of the dialog box).

There’s a couple of scenarios where backing up eBay data makes sense. The first is if you’re a heavy eBay user, perhaps repeatedly selling similar items. You may want to make a backup on your Mac of your auction listings, including the all-important product images, for use elsewhere in case your account becomes locked.

Alternatively, or additionally, you may simply want to create a local backup of your purchases and sales for use later when calculating your yearly taxes, for example, or simply for peace of mind.

Unfortunately, with the exception of messages (see below), eBay doesn’t provide backup facilities or a way to “core dump” your account data. It does allow the creation of auction templates for reuse repeatedly but these are stored as part of your online account, and the purpose of backup is to provide access to data should the account become inaccessible. Similarly, Selling Manager is the official tool of choice for many advanced-level eBayers but is solely an online tool, so will become inaccessible should your account be blocked.

Many less-than-casual eBayers will probably already have a solution in the form of apps they use to manage their listings, which lets you build auctions on your Mac before uploading them. This way you’ll always have a local copy. Some offer backup features too.

However, BackupYourItems is an eBay app that backs-up your auction descriptions and photographs every week, or more frequently should you choose to make a manual backup. Backups are stored for three months on the server of the app developer and you can download them whenever you want. The service costs $3.99 per month. eBay apps run online and are linked to your account so, again, if your account access is limited or revoked then you might also lose access to your backups. Therefore you should set yourself a personal reminder to periodically download them.

A slightly clumsy but effective way of making a backup of your purchase and sales information is to ensure you keep the emails eBay sends each time a transaction takes place. Simply create an email rule to filter these into a folder and back them up as usual with your Mac backup. However, there might be no need because it’s with messages that there’s perhaps the only concession to offline backup offered by eBay – open My eBay, then select the Messages tab, and in the left-hand column will be a Save Your Messages option. This will give you the chance to download all your messages as either HTML, for opening in your web browser, or EML, for opening in most email clients. Bear in mind that eBay messages are automatically deleted after six months, however, and some disappear even sooner. Therefore you’ll need to do this periodically to keep an up-to-date backup.

If you’d like to backup a list of what you’ve purchased over the years, the only way to do so is manually: View My eBay, then select Purchase History in the list at the left. Select the year from the dropdown list below (only two years’ worth of data is available). By selecting 100 items per page at the bottom of the list, you should be able to fit all the items into one web page, and can then output the page as a PDF (File > Print, and then the PDF button at the bottom left).

Downloading details of your transactions via PayPal is relatively easy although again there are some caveats. The instructions below assume you’re using an ordinary (that is, non-business) PayPal account.

  1. Select Activity heading after logging into PayPal. This will show your most recent transactions.
  2. Click the Statements dropdown at the top right (below the Simple/Detailed options), and select Activity Export.
  3. Under the History heading on the old-style screen that appears, ensure Download My History is selected.
  4. Enter a custom date range, with the From: field being two years before the current date, and the To: field being the current date. This is necessary because only two years’ worth of data is accessible in this way.
  5. In the File Types For Download list you can select between Comma Delimited (also known as Comma Separated Values, or CSV), tab delimited, Quicken-compatible files, or PDF. CSV will open in most spreadsheet apps.
  6. Clicking the Customise Download Fields link lets you add quite a few important data items to the report, and you should also put a check alongside Include Shopping Card Details at the bottom of the window.
  7. Once you’ve made your selections, click the Download History button. PayPal will take a few moments to generate the data.

Another way to access monthly statements akin to those you might get from a bank, which can be useful when attempting to prove a financial transaction took place, is to click the Activity heading again, and then the same Statements dropdown as in the steps above, but this time select Reporting Center.

Then click the Monthly Financial Summary link at the left-hand side. Choose a month from the dropdown list in the window that appears, or enter a date alongside (the two-year restriction again applies), then click the View Report button. Once the details are shown, click the small Download button at the top right of the table, after selecting a file type alongside.

Twitter offers a similar “core dump” of user data compared to Facebook. Just login, click your profile pic at the top right, select Settings, and then click the Request Your Archive button near the bottom of the list of options. This feature works in a very similar way to Facebook in that a zip is offered for download and, when unpacked, double-clicking the index.html file will open it for viewing in your favourite web browser.

All you really get in the archive is your tweets, including anything that you’ve retweeted. You don’t get any images you’ve uploaded. They might appear on the page you’ve opened but it’s an illusion because they’re actually being fetched from online sources, and aren’t part of the backup archive. Nor do you get tweets others made mentioning you, or any replies to your tweets. This means you can end-up with some curiously one-sided conversations within the backup.

However, on the plus side you can also click an icon at the top of the screen to view your basic account information, such as your total number of tweets, and account blurb.

The tweet data is downloaded in two file formats that contain identical data: JSON, for people like web developers who know what that means, and comma separated values (CSV). The latter can be opened in a spreadsheet or perhaps manipulated via simple databases if you’ve got the know-how.

Google also offers a “core dump” in the form of Takeout, wherein you can create an archive of most of the data within various Google services. Google says that 23 products are supported so far, including arguably the most important: Gmail (mail and contacts), Calendar, Drive, YouTube, and Blogger.

To access the feature, login to a Google service like Gmail and then visit Download Your Data. Select what you want to include, then click Next, and leave the default File Type and Delivery Method options as they are. Then click the Create Archive button.

Building the archive took around four hours in my test, and I was offered two files for downloading: a zip file containing most of my actual data (241MB), and a mailbox (.mbox) file containing my Gmail (4.68GB). I’ve been using Gmail heavily and other Google services moderately for around 10 years, so this is perhaps average.

As with Facebook and Twitter, the Takeout archive contents are arranged into folders named after each Google service, and there’s an index.htm to help you navigate through them. Google Docs files are all automatically converted to standard MS Office format with the Drive folder.

Regardless of the service, you do appear to get full copies of what’s online, with no shrinking of images or videos, for example.

Some data such as your location history or profile information is downloaded JSON files, which are a form of XML mark-up used in programming. You can open these files in plain text viewers like TextEdit but they’re not supposed to make sense to everyday users. Pasting their contents into a site like, and then selecting the Viewer tab, can make the data slightly easier to read because it will be arranged it into a tree structure.

Be careful importing your Gmail inbox into your usual mail app if the mbox file is multiple gigabytes in size because there’s a strong likelihood everything will crawl to a stop. It might be better to install a new email app specifically to browse the mbox file, such as Thunderbird.

Leave a comment...

I use GaragePay from iwascoding to pull down all the paypal transactions. It allows you to query, sort and export them.

Very useful for making expense reports.

— Bob Shaffer · Dec 1, 08:20 AM · #

“Backup your online life to your Mac”

The verb is “back up”. Not “backup”. No exceptions.

— Jim · Dec 28, 06:58 AM · #