I fear a lot as a mother. My daughter plays a game on the school bus. My youngest doesn't like anything but mac and cheese. The possibility that my daughters could accidentally lock me out of my digital life has been added to the list.

A mother in Colorado whose 9-year-old son used her old phone to stream himself naked on YouTube and a father in San Francisco whose account was disabled and deleted because he took naked photos of his toddler for the doctor are examples of what can happen.

I reported on their experiences for The New York Times and as I talked to the parents who were devastated by the loss of their important documents, I realized I was at risk as well.

My most important digital information is kept in the huge digital basement provided by technology companies, not on a hard drive at home. I have not been able to max out my usage of the company's many services due to the fact that I have not been given 15 gigabytes free.

I paid $9.99 a month for additional iCloud storage space because I filled up Apple's free 5 gigabytes. The allowed space is infinite, similar to scrolling on social media.

It would be devastating if I were suddenly cut off from any of these services.

I used to have physical constraints on how many photos, journals, VHS tapes and notes I could keep when I was younger. The cheap rent of the cloud has made me a data junkie. I wanted to find a place to keep everything I had on every service, so I excavated everything I had on every service and found a place to keep it. I was concerned about figuring out what was worth saving as I wrestled with all the gigabytes.

ImageThe author’s sister wearing a brown tank top and father in a white T-shirt.
The author’s sister and father tailgating before an ice hockey game in November 2007.Credit...Kashmir Hill

My sisters and I were home for the holidays when I found nearly 100 photos from one November night 15 years ago. We have a mini keg of beer. My dad made a funny face at the ridiculousness of the parking garage party as he posed by the car. We pose for a picture in the stadium with the hockey rink in the background, and then we toast with a stranger. Did we get along with him in the third period? There was no mention of the Metadata in the file.

I was transported back to a fun night that I had forgotten. How could there be so many pictures from one night? I don't know how to decide which to keep and which to dispose of.

The founder of the Internet Archive said that the data explosion is a result of economics. It used to be very expensive to take a photo.

Every time you hit a shutter, it costs you a dollar. We hit the shutter all the time because that isn't the case anymore.

I had a Canon camera that had a relatively small memory card that I used often to take my photos. When I asked for a copy of the data in my account using a tool called Takeout, I found more than 4,000 other photos.

I got my data in a three-file chunk after I pressed a button, but some of it, including my emails, was not human-readable. It came in a form that had to be uploaded.

50 million people a year use Takeout to get their data from 80 different products, with 400 billion files exported in 2021. The people may have had plans to move to a different service, simply wanted their own copy, or were preserving what they had on the internet before they deleted it from the company's server.

The Takeout was created by a group of engineers. Brian Fitzpatrick, who led the team, said he thought it was important that the company's users have an easy way to leave. When people store their digital belongings on a company's server, they don't think about it or care about it

Some of my data landlords were willing to work with me. Apple had a more complicated data transfer process that was more complex than Takeout.

I pulled down a lot of data, including more than 30,000 photos, 2,000 videos, 22,000 tweets, 57,000 emails, 15,000 pages of old Google chats and 16,000 pages of searches going back to 2011.

I was not surprised that Marie Kondo was hired as a spokeswoman for the paid version of the storage service, since it was obvious that there was a lot of digital stuff. Ms. Kondo said it would be easier to find the memories that spark joy with better labeling and organization.

The author took this terrible photo at a museum exhibit in 2011 and held onto it for more than a decade.Credit...Kashmir Hill

The data gave me vivid memories of my life. A blurry photo of my best friend's husband with a tiny baby strapped to his chest, standing in front of a wall-sized Beetlejuician face made me recall an outing to a Tim Burton exhibit at a museum. I don't remember what I learned about the film, but I remember my friends horror when they had to beg a stranger for a large diaper for their young son.

Emails from college that I hadn't thought to migrate, photos and videos that I backed up to an external hard drive, and a phone that I took with me to college are some of the things that were missing from my life. I lost them as much as the journal I left in the back of the plane. It's flawed to think that information will stay around forever.

The web historian said that the internet sometimes forgets. When the new owner of Flickr announced that free accounts had a limit of 1,000 photos and anything more, companies shut down and services cut back on the amount of free storage they offered.

The accessibility of the medium on which data is stored, given the challenge of recovering videos from older formats such as DVDs, VHS tapes and reel film, is something that is thought of a lot by an archivist. Most of us don't ask questions like "Will there be the right software or hardware to open all our digital files in a few years?" Bit rot is the degradation of a digital file overtime.

She said that people and institutions think that it will be safe to use digital technology. Digital files can be more fragile.

The author on a camel in Egypt with a friend in 2007.Credit...Kashmir Hill

I had to make a decision about where to put my data. I used to back my stuff up to a hard drive whenever I went to Best Buy. When I visited the DataHoarder subreddit, I discovered that digital self-storage has become more complicated. Technical advice for the best home setup was jargon-filled to the point of incomprehension for a first time user. A sample post says, "Started with single bay Synology Nas and recently built a 16 terabytes unRAID server on a xeon 1230." Very pleased with the outcome.

I turned to professional archives and tech savvy friends after feeling like I had landed on an alien planet. One of the $299 hard drives should have plenty of room for what I have now and what I will create in the future, and the other should mirror the first, as well as a network-attached storage system, to connect to my home routers.

Three copies of everything, two copies on different cloud services and one at home is what the "3-2-1 rule" says. Depending on your level of paranoia, you can keep a copy at a relative's house or in a bank lockbox. Master recordings of famous musicians were burned in a Universal Studios fire. John Markoff mined Stewart Brand's personal archives for a biography. He found that even Mr. Brand, who meticulously preserved his communications, was missing several years of early emails because of the loss of back-up tapes and an old Macintosh that was difficult to read.

It's difficult to get all your data and figure out how to securely store it. Most people don't pay much attention to their stuff in the cloud.

The archivists I spoke with had differing views on philosophy. It was important to make an archive manageable for people who look at it in the future, while digital archives were committed to keeping everything with the mentality that you never know what you will want one day.

Jeff Ubois is in the first camp and has organized conferences dedicated to personal archives.

He mentioned a historical example. The selection of Normandy as the best place to land troops was the result of postcards and photographs sent by people who had taken vacations on the coast.

It is difficult to predict the future uses of what we save. Is this just for me to reflect on my life as I get older? I don't know if it's for my family. I wonder if it is for an artificial intelligence that will act as a memory replacement when I am 90. Does that mean I need to remember that I searched for ice cream calories in January of last year?

We made our collections manageable before the internet. Metadata and advanced search techniques allow us to sort through our lives. When I lost a family member, I used the facial recognition feature in Apple Photos to find photos I had forgotten about. I was happy to have them, but I wonder if I should keep all the unflattering photos.

According to Bob Clark, the director of archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center, less than 5% of the material in a collection is worth saving. He blamed the technology companies for giving us too much storage space.

He said that they have made it easy for them to accumulate data.

Sometimes the companies try to play the role of memory miner, showing moments that they think should be meaningful, in order to increase my engagement with their platform or inspire brand loyalty They inadvertently show the value of human curation.

A slide show with instrumental music and photos of myself and others in front of a random assortment of waterfalls was offered by my phone recently. The technology saw the backdrop as the star of the show.

Mr. Clark doesn't think we can rely on the algorithm to decide what's important or not. There needs to be points of intervention and judgement involved.

When deciding what to delete or keep, screenshots might be the first thing to go.Credit...Kashmir Hill

Instead of keeping a full digital copy of everything, I decided to take the advice of the archives and cut it down a bit. The privacy agreements I had to click to use an app and the emails that were best forwarded to my husband via text were all easy to start with.

A photo I staged to make it look like I was on a camel in front of the pyramids was one of the clear keepers.

I keep a lot of photos with long-ago exes because I don't want to fill up 12 terabytes any time soon.

There was a lot of data exhaust, as the security technologist Matt Mitchell calls it, a polite term for the record of my life rendered in searches, from a 2011 query for karaoke bars in Washington, D.C. to a more recent search for the closest Chuck E. I will not keep them on my hard drive, and I may have to remove them from the server because of their embarrassment potential. Mr. Mitchell said that hoarders should eliminate data that could come back to bite them.

Mr. Mitchell is the founder of a cybersecurity education nonprofit. When you run into the worst of these problems when you store too much, it's only when you're storing too much.

Footage of the Boston Pops Orchestra being digitally preserved at George Blood, LP, a company that recovers data from obsolete media like VHS tapes, floppy disks and reel-to-reel tapes.Credit...Mark Makela for The New York Times

It is cheap to store this data in the cloud right now.

George Blood, who runs a business outside Philadelphia that creates 10 terabytes of data per day, said that the cost of storage has fallen. They might charge you more for the electricity used to spin the disk than for the storage itself.

People don't usually reduce their data footprints until they are near the end of their storage space. They are forced to make a decision about moving to the paid plans. Most companies have policies that allow them to remove inactive accounts for a long time.

Apple introduced a feature to designate a person who can access an Apple account after the owner's death to be aware of the potential value of data left behind. An inactive account manager is a tool that has been in existence for many years. Legacy contacts were created by Facebook in order to look after accounts that have died.

The ultimate question around personal archives is what happens to them after we die. By keeping so much, more than we want to sort through, which is almost certainly more than anyone else wants to sort through, we may leave behind less than previous generations. Our personal clouds could grow so large that no one will ever go through them, and all the data could blow away.