Google Drive and privacy

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We look into the privacy claims about Google Drive.

There’s been a lot of talk about privacy with files stored on Google Drive. Part of it is based on a selective reading of Google’s terms of service while the other part is courtesy of a campaign from Microsoft to undermine their rival.


Terms of Service

It seems to have started with a piece in the New York Times that quoted one section of the Google terms of service:

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.

Taken on its own, this paragraph is pretty damning. Words like ‘modify’, ‘create derivative works’, ‘publish’ , ‘publicly perform’ ‘publicly display’ and ‘distribute’ would seem to give Google freedom to copy anything you upload and use it any way they like. Google’s response to the NYT reporters didn’t help allay fears.

But it ignores the sentence immediately before the quoted paragraph:

You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

It’s a shame to see the New York Times engaging in such a blatant ‘beat up’ story.

Dropbox, Microsoft and any other reputable online storage service have similar terms of use. The company needs to have broad rights in order to provide the service. Google and Microsoft need broader rights because they offer more services such as translation (ie derivative works) and document editing – not just storage.

As we understand it, use of the word ‘publicly’ is to cover Google when files are accessed on publicly available computers (eg Internet café’s).

In this litigious world, the legal wording has to cover the company and shareholders against frivolous lawsuits.


‘Reading’ documents

Microsoft has been making much out of Google’s alleged ‘reading’ of personal emails and documents.

We take the unpopular view that Google is no more ‘reading’ documents than Microsoft is.

Google pays for their free services by tailoring the ads you see according, in part, to the content of emails and documents.

The targeting of ads is done automatically by picking out keywords from your content. This can have mixed results. Most people will have seen comically inappropriate Google ads when they don’t properly match your content.

However Microsoft, Google and any email host also automatically ‘read’ (to use Microsoft’s definition) emails in order to apply spam filters.

In other words, whenever you send an email or post a document it’s likely to be ‘read’ or more properly scanned by some system.

The difference with Google is that there’s an obvious result of an automatic scan ie. the ads you see.

We’ve said it before, choosing any of these services ultimately depends on who you trust. Google is harming their previously good reputation with recent revelations about their wifi scanning.


Simple security tricks

There are some simple tricks you can use to give more privacy when uploading files to any cloud storage. In short:

Use different file extensions

Instead of uploading a .doc or .docx file – change the file extension to something unusual like .deleteme or .remove

The cloud software won’t know what to do with unusual extension and leave it alone.

Of course, this trick won’t work if you want to edit or view the file online (ie document, image or video). But it will work if you’re using the cloud for storage or transfer of files.

Password protect documents

Use the password protection option in Office to lock the document. Privacy and Security in Microsoft Office has detailed coverage on the password features in Office.

Password protect archives

For a group of files, combine them into a .ZIP or .RAR file then upload that to the cloud. For even more protection, password lock the archive.

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