I am considering uploading some (all) of my digital personal data to Google Drive. I guess this would instantly grant access for NSA to my data. (Is that right?)

Who would have access to my data on my gDrive? After deleting some files on the Drive, will they actually be deleted?

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    Being irrelevant, I didn't want to add this, but What happens if I delete my Google Search History? Is it going to be deleted?
    – gen
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 8:18
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    Not an answer to your question, but an add on. In case you're using linux, you can use encfs to mount an unencrypted directory over an encrypted one, I don't know if you can sync google drive, but with dropbox or copy you can have the enrypted dir synced with the clowd and all your data will be encrypted and safe (depending on your passphrase ofcourse),
    – YoMismo
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 14:32
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    I would be more worried about the increased exposure to identity theft by common criminals, not the NSA. Storing your private data on the cloud is convenient, however, practice shows that such accounts can often be impersonated by various social engineering tricks -obtaining some info about you, then using that to convince the provider to give access/reset passwords to your account.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 1:20
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    "What are some considerations before moving personal data to Google Drive?" Don't.
    – Boann
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 5:39
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    Possible alternative to Google Drive: Get some PHP-capable webhosting and set up your OwnCloud.
    – Philipp
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 7:48

8 Answers 8

  1. Google has access (obviously).
  2. The police will have access if they have a valid search warrant.
  3. A national security letter will give the FBI secret access.
  4. Various three-letter agencies may have access, depending on how they're doing at circumventing Google's encryption. (Google started encrypting its internal traffic after it was revealed that the NSA was monitoring it. Modern encryption, properly applied, is believe to be sufficient protection against three-letter agencies -- all known attacks are against the "properly applied" part rather than the encryption itself.)

As for deletion, Google uses a highly distributed storage system. I don't believe they will intentionally keep data after you delete it, but because of how Google's storage works, residual copies may stick around for a while.

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    Also there may occur a "programming error" causing all deletion commands to be "ineffective" and thus preserving all your data there. Happens. ;-) Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 8:26
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    Per Google's File deletion and recovery policy, "you can contact us to help recover a deleted file or folder for a limited time". The exact duration that the files are kept around to be recovered is not specified. According to the policy, recovery is only possible for consumer accounts; deleted files from enterprise accounts cannot be recovered.
    – Brian S
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 16:12
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    It's known from recent leaks that NSA has been influencing and pushing weak cryptography standards through their relationship with NIST. Their MOU states NIST must consult with NSA on standards. It does not make sense that NSA would recommend algorithms they cannot break as it would be counter-productive to their mass surveillance mission. Thus if you use Suite B algorithms then you are likely not protected against the NSA. Public cryptographers have discovered a few weaknesses, but do not have the cryptanalytic capabilities of NSA.
    – NDF1
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 21:41
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    @NDF1, quantum computers are only exceptionally fast at breaking RSA and factoring-related cyphers (Shor's algorithm). Symmetric cyphers such as AES are not vulnerable, and ECC is not vulnerable.
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 22:22
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    I would also note that it's not a requirement for the agency name to consist of three laters. Vide GCHQ.
    – d33tah
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 11:07

Not instantly. Although, that's what I want to believe. What you could do is the following. Download the Truecrypt version 7.1a and create an encrypted storage file (option 1 from the wizard) and choose 3 algorithm based encryption with a SHA-512 key. Put all your sensitive files in here and upload the encrypted file to Google Drive. When you want to work with your files. THIS IS IMPORTANT: Copy the encrypted file OUT of Google Drive, perform your work, encrypt and put the encrypted storage file back on Google Drive. This should keep your data safe.

If you want to delete it, just delete the encrypted storage file, nothing they can recover without your key.

PS: Since a short time you can ask Google to explicitly wipe your search data. If you just delete your search history through your user control panel in google than it is still used for advertisement. (scumbag, I know)

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    i thought Truecrypt has a security issue?
    – WiiMaxx
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 12:28
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    The y do not have security issues. At least none that are publicly disclosed :-): The problem with TC is the fact that support is dropped by the two russian developers. They ended the development of TC in May 2014. TrueCrypt is now in the process of being evaluated by several crypto analysis teams. Phase 1 of the audit did not found any errors in the implementation. It's now in phase 2. You can track the progress here: istruecryptauditedyet.com Security issues will arise if these audits detect flaws. Unless some development team picks up on the code and starts further development.
    – 4oxer
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 13:21
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    In other words: TC is now not more or less secure than before the team decided to quit.
    – 4oxer
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 13:25
  • Why does copying the file out of the container and then moving it back in add additional security? What is the concern? That they'll be able to see incremental changes? Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 19:53
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    Oh, perhaps I don't understand how TrueCrypt works on other platforms. On Linux, it mounts the encrypted drive as a filesystem, which means that all reads/writes are decrypted/encrypted directly to the container file, therefore there'd be nothing to do at all. Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 23:46

Any data you upload to Google Drive (or Skydrive, or Dropbox for that matter) should be considered duplicated by the NSA. Apart from arbitrary queries from the aforementioned secret service, law enforcement agencies from any country may gain access to them through legal means (subpoenas and so on). And of course, Google engineers could in theory browse your files.

As for what happens when you delete them, who knows? It is a good working assumption to consider that any data uploaded will stay on their servers forever. Realistically, I suppose it does get deleted at some point, but considering how much replication they must have, it may be a while. Your guess is as good as mine.

Bottom line, it is not trivial to set up off-site backups for confidential data. The only thing you can trust (or hope to trust) is cryptography. Look into duplicity and other backup tools which support strong encryption!


What about hosting those files on other hosting services which have client side encryption like:

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    thank you for your recommendations. Honestly, I am looking for alternatives with similar functionality (e.g. automatic sync on mac, pc, android, + web browser ui) Can you recommend something like that?
    – gen
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 17:05
  • @gen: You might be interested in Software Recommendations.
    – unor
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 16:37
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    @unor; just posted a question there: softwarerecs.stackexchange.com/questions/7677/…
    – gen
    Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 21:16

Cryptography is a form of smart obfuscation,

it does not make things "secure", just "secure enough, for now".

If someone REALLY is out to get you, he would store your encrypted data until a later date when encryption can be broken - anything from stronger computers to software vulnerabilities like "heartbleed" will do the trick to decrypt your stuff in the long game.

Also, chances are, if someone really is out to get you it would probably try to find a way to hack your computer, not your cloud account, there's plenty of such software around - some of it available to random 3rd world governments under shareware trial licenses for free.

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    @to whoever downvoted, there's a lot of answers suggesting that encryption is the silver bullet on how to securely keep data in the cloud, its not - if you don't want your data to be accessible at some point in the future you will not upload it and one answer needed to say it
    – bbozo
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 18:39
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    Encryption IS a secure method. BUT the question is: secure against what threat? No measure is ever a silver bullet, and in that way, there is no 'secure' method to do anything. It is always a question of the nature of the threat you are needing to secure against.
    – schroeder
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 19:44
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    @schroeder, I agree, that's just misleading semantics when discussed in this context. For example: plain text is secure against a decent individual and pre-heartbleed OpenSSL communication was secure against people who didn't exploit heartbleed. Today's communication and data storage is also "secure" when you use "industry accepted standards", but same would have been said about OpenSSL traffic before heartbleed was announced. If your life depended on it in the long run, you would not trust what we today call "secure" communication.
    – bbozo
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 21:30
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    One cryptographic algorithm will be broken tomorrow. Just compute which one and avoid it :).
    – dan
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 21:53

To answer one of your questions: any Google employee who has administrative access to the hosts (file servers) on which the drive data is stored will have read-access to your data: this includes the operations engineers, service engineers, system administrators: these type of employees are typically the ones with that type of access.

The answer to your other questions depends on what methods Google uses to remove distributed data across multiple hosts, and whether they are using any backup methods to store copies of the data. Nobody other than Google technicians will know the answer to this question, and of those probably only the engineers who maintain the filers and the data distribution structure.

To give you an idea of how truly "privy" that information is: I used to work at Yahoo as a Unix sysadmin, but I didn't work with the filer infrastructure and so even I don't know what the answer to that question would be for Yahoo data, although I spent a year working in the operations group for two of the departments there.. Only the engineers directly responsible for that infrastructure are going to know if the data is truly "deleted" or not (and to what level of deletion, if that makes sense to you).

most likely, the file system pointers to the data are deleted within one or two days (depending on how long it takes to propagate through Google's infrastructure), while the actual data itself continues to reside on hard disk until it is overwritten: meaning the data (or parts of it) could theoretically (and fairly easily if someone made the effort) be recovered many months later.

Regarding other agencies or companies with access to this data? Nah .... the only way the NSA or somebody could access it is if they have employees working at Google. Unlikely. And even if they do, do they have root access on the servers in question? Not likely. As someone else mentioned, theoretically the government can get access through a subpoena process. But from a practical perspective do these people have willy-nilly access to John Anybody's data? Nah.

The only people who theoretically intercept your data when you upload it are the system administrators and operations engineers who work at the companies that provide the network backbone for the internet: such as UUNet. I know for a fact these people for many years have scanned internet traffic for illegal content, because years ago when I lived in Virginia I interviewed with UUNet for a job which involved this work. They offered the job to me, but I didn't take it because I accepted a job elsewhere at the time.


This is more of a comment than an answer, but apparently I'm not allowed to comment yet. If you're concerned about the privacy of your cloud storage, you may want to consider Tresorit as an alternative to Google Drive. It offers client-side encrypted storage & syncing, so the Tresorit engineers aren't even supposed to be able to tell what files you're storing there, let alone their contents. It's also hosted in Switzerland to take advantage of that country's strong privacy laws.

Of course, it has the same downside as all true encryption, which is that if you lose your password, there's nothing they can do to help you.

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    I have already considered numerous alternatives, but haven't find any suitable yet. By suitable I mean, trustworthy. I have plenty of problems with Tresorit: "You agree that Tresorit may also transmit any data stored by You to a third party if Tresorit has a reason to believe that it is required..." that sounds pretty strange given their Zero Knoledge Policy. Another problem with them: "we might use trusted third parties, like Microsoft, to provide the Service." Microsoft trusted party? :/ Those are some of my concerns with Tresorit. (These quotes are from Tresorit Eulas, etc)
    – gen
    Commented Jul 8, 2014 at 19:36
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    What I do as a rule of thumb is use AxCrypt to first crypt the sensitive files on my local hard drive, and then I upload them to Dropbox (or Google Drive or whatever). This gets you as close as you're gonna get to "true" data privacy in the cloud. It doesn't matter whether Google keeps your files or not, because from a practical perspective nobody can decrypt them except you. notice I say from a "practical" perspective. Theoretically maybe someone can break your encryption, but when you consider all the variables involved, it's just not gonna happen. Commented Jul 9, 2014 at 18:24

Apart from statements like NSA has your data when uploading it is based on the assumption that your data being on your disk is not somehow accessible. Like others stated, if your data is encrypted in a strong manner on your disk and uploaded in the same way I would regard the online version more safe in terms of redundancy (google is managing the replication and backup of their cloud). Stealing or breaking your machine with your data then has no effect.

If your data is not encrypted you still assume at this moment, that your data is totally secure on your disk and not accessible from the NSA. Depending on your operating system this might not even be the truth. Even if you can guarantee that your OS is free of any spyware, there is a chance that you cannot say the same for the channels through which you obtained the data. Being uploaded to google certainly allows easier access to data but I would not regard it as a "none to full exposure" in that way.

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