Reader OB submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I am in the process of scanning all of our tax returns older than seven years and am considering storing them on Google Documents. Do you consider that safe, since they contain a lot of confidential information? Thanks for your opinion.
To answer your question, I contacted Timothy B. Lee who is a computer science researcher at Princeton University. Here’s what he told me:
It really depends on the user’s tolerance for risk and what her other options are. If you place confidential information on Google Docs, the risks include: Google being compromised by hackers, Google itself using the documents for nefarious purposes, your account being compromised, governments or other third parties requesting and obtaining access to the documents, and Google losing your information. None of these outcomes are very likely, but they’re all risks to keep in mind.
Personally, I wouldn’t put confidential information on Google Docs because I keep regular backups of the data on my hard drive and I’m vigilant about the security of my machines. If you run a business or are in a profession where you regularly handle confidential data, you have an obligation to do the same in order to safeguard your customers’ confidential data. But I know that, in practice, ordinary users don’t always follow these best practices. For those users, there may be a larger risk of losing information in a personal hard-drive crash or malware infection than having something bad happen to data in Google Docs. So trusting Google Docs may be a rational, calculated risk.
If you do decide to put confidential information in Google Docs, you should strongly consider signing up for 2-step authentication. This is a free service that greatly improves the security of your Google account. It won’t protect you from all the threats I listed above, but it will at least protect you in case a malicious party gets your password.
Thank you, OB, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope Timothy’s information helps you come to a solution that is best for you.
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