Saturday, 23/9/2017 | 12:19 UTC+0

Keep your data safe from the apocalypse in an Arctic mineshaft

Norway’s famous doomsday seed vault is getting a new neighbor. It’s called the Arctic World Archive, and aims to do for data what the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has done for crop samples — provide a remote, impregnable home in the Arctic permafrost, safe from threats like natural disaster and global conflicts.

But while the Global Seed Vault is (partially) funded by charities who want to preserve global crop diversity, the World Archive is a for-profit business, created by Norwegian tech company Piql and Norway’s state mining company SNSK. The Archive was opened on March 27th this year, with the first customers — the governments of Brazil, Mexico, and Norway — depositing copies of various historical documents in the vault.

Data is stored in the World Archive on optical film specially developed for the task by Piql. (And, yes, the company name is a pun on the word pickle, as in preserving-in-vinegar.) The company started life in 2002 making video formats that bridged analog film and digital media, but as the world went fully-digital adapted its technology for the task of long-term storage.

As Piql founder Rune Bjerkestrand tells The Verge: “Film is an optical medium, so what we do is, we take files of any kind of data — documents, PDFs, JPGs, TIFFs — and we convert that into big high density QR codes. Our QR codes are massive, and very high resolution; we use greyscale to get more data into every code. And in this way we convert a visual storage medium, film, into a digital one.”

Piql’s proprietary film format uses special, high-density QR codes to store digital information. Image: Piql

Once data is imprinted on film, the reels are stored in a converted mineshaft in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The mineshaft (different to the one used by the Global Seed Vault) was originally operated by SNSK for the mining of coal, but was abandoned in 1995. The vault is three hundred meters below the ground and impervious to both nuclear attacks and EMPs. “An abandoned mine is perfect for this type of operation,” says Bjerkestrand.

Piql claims its proprietary film format will store data safely for at least 500 years, and maybe as long as 1,000 years, with the assistance of the mine’s climate. “No energy is needed whatsoever to maintain these temperatures,” says Bjerkestrand. “Deep in the permafrost it’s minus five, minus 10 degrees; and it’s also quite a dry area. So cold and dry: it’s perfect for the long-term storage of film.”

Clients can send data to the Archive digitally or physically, and, once it’s stored, request its retrieval at any time. This isn’t an instantaneous process though. As an extra security precaution, the data is not connected to the internet. (“The cloud is cheap and accessible, but it also means everyone can hack my data,” says Bjerkestrand.) Once a request for stored information is made, personnel at the Archive manually retrieve the relevant reel and upload it via a fibre optic connection to the mainland, a procedure that can take around “20 or 30 minutes if you are really in a rush.”

The archipelago of Svalbard is remote but there are daily flights to the Norwegian mainland. Image: Rune Bjerkestrand

The obvious attraction of an Arctic data vault is that the information stored there won’t degrade quickly. But, as Bjerkestrand explains, the archipelago of Svalbard also has another advantage. Not only are the islands remote, but an international treaty signed after WWI means the territory can’t be used for military purposes. This means the Archive might be attractive for countries fearing that their national documents might one day be lost to conflict.

“Historically what happens in wars — in the early stages of wars — is that archives are destroyed,” says Bjerkestrand. “So to have an archive which is protected, in a remote place which is regulated by international treaties, gives it that extra security that things cannot be manipulated or attacked.”

But if you want to get your own data in the Archive you’ll have to get in line. Bjerkestrand says the company has been getting requests from all around the world, although he wouldn’t share details on how much a place in cold storage costs. “We haven’t settled fully on the pricing or the service model,” he says. “But the concept is forever.”