Data Stored Online Lacks Legal Protections

Dec 14, 2007
Nicole A. Ozer

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

According to recent reports, Google Inc., the wildly successful Internet company based here in Northern California, is planning to offer online data storage to its users. Though the exact details of the plan are not yet known, Google is expected to launch the service sometime next year.

Google already offers its users some storage though its other products, including GMail, Google Docs, and its photo management program Picasa. Earlier this year, Google gave its users the option to increase the shared storage capacity of these services, so offering standalone storage not a big stretch for the company to make.

While storing documents online can provide benefits such as backup and remote access to data, it can also cause all sorts of problems you might not see coming.

You might be giving away a lot more privacy than you realize. When you store documents on your home computer, the government needs to obtain a warrant from a judge to come into your house to search your computer.

But, due to some pre-Internet Supreme Court cases such as Smith v. Maryland, if the government wants to access information held by a third party like Google, they just need to ask for it by sending a subpoena.

Google has fought government subpoenas in the past, even when other companies handed over user info with few questions asked. But once you store your information online, you leave your privacy in the hands of Google. The company's own privacy policy says it will hand over your information when it has a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to "…satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request…"

With more and more dragnet government surveillance, such as warrantless wiretapping, you might want to ask yourself what information you really want stored on the Internet for the government to potentially access.

In addition to privacy concerns, when you store your documents online you also might be giving away some rights to those files that you never imagined losing.

Earlier this year, there was a small uproar when sharp eyed users discovered that Google's legal boilerplate for its Google Docs program granted the company a royalty free license to distribute its users' files "for the purpose of displaying, distributing and promoting Google services." Recently Google changed the text to ensure that users retain control of their documents, but the incident remains as a testament to what can happen when you put your data on the internet without reading the fine print.

If you need your data to be both mobile and truly private, you might want to consider an offline storage method. Portable hard drives and USB flash drives both offer competitively priced storage that is not plagued by some of the problems you may encounter online. And, you will still be able to access your data when you are unplugged from the Internet.