Is your Contacts List at the mercy of your webmail service?

Email "@" signs falling from the Cloud into a laptop

It’s well worth saving your Contacts information locally if it only exists in The Cloud.

“Webmail” is the method of accessing email that works via a browser (eg Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera). There is no “program” on your computer that is dedicated to dealing with your email. All of the necessary programming is provided via the web browser.

If you use webmail to send and receive emails then it’s possible that the only “contacts list” you have is intimately bound up with that email account. This contacts list (also known as an “address book”) may be just the email addresses of your correspondents, but it may also include postal addresses and many other items of contact information.

When you use webmail, the information that you are looking at (email content, contact information etc) is normally only stored on the servers of whoever is providing your service. Now, I know that there is an argument that says “So what? Microsoft/Gmail/AOL/Yahoo all know what they are doing and they will take better care of my data than I ever would. I never take backups“. Call me a control freak, but I would not be at all happy to think that 200-1000 email addresses might be at the mercy of an organisation over which I have absolutely no influence. And although you might be right that these large companies have better data backup procedures than you do, that does not mean that they are entirely reliable.

Here are two ways in which computer clients of mine have lost their contact information:

  • Last summer a client of mine lost control of his Gmail account when it was hacked by someone correctly guessing his password – see this blog on Gmail Passwords for the full story.
  • Very recently a (different) client had problems with his Hotmail account. Microsoft told him that there appeared to have been attempts to hack into his account and they made him jump through all kinds of hoops to get it back. He was luckier than the Gmail client in that he did get back into his account, but all his contact information has disappeared.

Despite these occasional problems, there are definitely arguments in favour of using webmail, so can you do something to reduce this vulnerability? Yes, you can. If you use any of the main webmail services (eg AOL, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo) then you have the ability to “export” your contacts list. It would be too tedious to describe the process for each webmail client (ie each webmail service), but the general advice is to click wherever necessary to get your contacts list in front of you and then look for an option that includes the magic word “export”. This may be a sub-option of an option called “manage contacts” or something like that. See the illustration for an example from a Yahoo webmail account.

Webmail Data Export Options

These are the options for exporting Contacts information from Yahoo webmail. The circled option is the one to go for.

You will probably be offered a selection of different formats in which the exported data can be saved, but we needn’t get too distracted by that. If it’s offered, take the “csv” option (which means “comma separated values”). If there’s no “csv” option apparent then take another option such as “Outlook” or “Thunderbird”. The main thing here is that we are saving a copy of your data onto your own computer so that it could be made available in the case of an emergency. Even if it’s in the wrong format a bit of “data massage” will probably put it to rights and you’ll certainly be better off than if you had no local copy at all.

When you’ve completed the process you will have a file on your computer that might be called something like “contacts.csv”. This is a local backup of your contacts data. It can be useful in several ways:

  • To restore contact data back into an existing account.
  • To transfer the data into a new account from the same webmail service.
  • To transfer the data to a completely different account with a different webmail service.

If you do use webmail and decide to spend a little time doing something “techie” and well worthwhile, then have a go at this.

© 2011-2018 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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