Well, now we know what happens to our data if federal authorities ever seize a website we were using, arrest its owners and shut the whole thing down. For former users of Megaupload, the prospect of losing their data forever is now a very real one. The companies that host all of that data could start deleting it later this week, according to prosecutors.

This data undoubtedly includes an enormous amount of pirated content, but among it also happens to be the personal files of many users who utilized Megaupload as sort of a Dropox alternative. Wisely or not, many people used the service to send files to themselves, friends and colleagues, not expecting them to disappear overnight. Those users are upset. There's even talk of a possible lawsuit against federal authorities.

The site's data has been caught in a strange sort of legal limbo as a result of the raid on the company. The data still exists, but it's sitting on servers that belong to a third party provider, and that provider hasn't been paid since authorities froze Megaupload's assets. Thus, it could start getting deleted as early as this Thursday.

Authorities say they copied some of the data, but not all of it. Even if they wanted to pore over that incomplete data for non-infringing, personal files, they're legally forbidden from doing so, since it wouldn't fall within the scope of the search warrants they obtained to raid Megaupload in the first place.

Even if it were legally permissible for authorities to pick through the data and hand back only the non-infringing files, it's not clear how that would work logistically. There aren't many, if indeed there are any, precedents outlining how to handle a situation such as this.

For now, the back-and-forth between the hosting companies and authorities continues, as possibilities for retaining the data are explored.

The affair has taught a major, often painful lesson to many users about the risks of relying too heavily on "the cloud" for data storage without routinely backing things up on local, physical hard drives. The need to do so may seem like the ultimate no-brainer, but for many people it's too easy to use a Web service to store or send personal files and neglect to keep a backup elsewhere, or even tell themselves they'll get around to it. After all, when was the last time one of your favorite websites was abruptly and unexpectedly shut down by the feds?