Sync: alternative to Dropbox and Google Drive for the privacy conscious

There is no question that cloud services have become essential tools in our professional and personal lives. I have found Dropbox and Google Drive to be indispensable for a variety of reasons. However, I have always been ambivalent at a minimum about using them for the storage of sensitive data. I’ve just never been comfortable with the fact that these huge companies’ employees could have access to my sensitive personal financial and health related documents.

I’ve wanted a service that combined the convenience of file synchronization across devices with encryption that I control personally. I don’t want the company to hold the encryption keys. Why is this important? Because every single employee at the company in question who has the ability to access the encryption keys is at risk of social engineering. If there’s going to be a weak human link in the security chain, I’d prefer there be only one: me.

I appear to have found an alternative that meets my requirements after following up on ProPublica senior reporter Julia Angwin’s article on tips for foiling hackers.

Sync* appears to have nearly all of the features of Dropbox coupled with privacy enhancements and pricing that is in some cases better than DropBox (depending on your needs). I’m starting with the free 5GB account to give it a good test drive.

Now keep in mind, in order to achieve greater data privacy, you need to take on some risk. If the company does not have your encryption password, they will not be able to recover it for you if you lose it. Your data will be unrecoverable. But then—that’s kind of the point.

* This seems to be a case where I actually need to include “dot-com” without irony to disambiguate the service

Google Docs are Not Docs

I recently had a pretty awful learning experience with Google Docs. I learned that Google Docs as you see them on your local hard drive are not actually documents.

The source of the confusion is the UI

I assumed that the documents that I saw synced to my local Google Drive folder with extensions like .gsheet or .gdoc were spreadsheet and word processing documents that were saved in Google’s proprietary file format, analogous to the way that a .docx or .xlsx are Microsoft Word and Excel documents. This is not the case. I learned this the hard way.

I was doing some organizing and I decided to move some Google documents out of my Google Drive folder temporarily. I wanted to archive some files while keeping a select few in Google drive. I figured I’d be able to drop any important ones back into my Google drive later. After all, I perceived them to be standalone documents that could always be edited with Google Sheets or Google Docs. I imagined that all I needed to do was upload them to Google Drive to edit them. Once I had moved the Google Doc “files” in question out of my Google Drive I emptied the trash to free up storage space on Google Drive. This was my fatal error.

Later I dropped some .gsheet files back into my Google Drive folder, and waited as they synchronized. I went to open a large .gsheet I had been working on which I planned to continue working on, and… I got a 404 Error: File not found. What?!

I spent some time troubleshooting to make sure everything was syncing properly. I assumed a sync error must be the issue. When I realized everything was syncing fine I desperately started searching for a solution to my issue. Many hours of work were missing and I needed my data back. I learned that was that I was completely screwed.

Locally stored Google Drive “documents” are not documents

A bit of research led me to an awful realization: Google docs on your local hard drive are not documents. They are essentially links to Google server-based versions of those documents. If you remove your Google documents from your Google drive folder (believing that you have safely copied your data) and then empty the trash on your Google Drive, the files will cease to exist and will be unrecoverable! The “copies” you made are not the data. They just copies of links to the data. And in this case, that data is now permanently deleted.

Why would this be the expected behavior?

I felt completely confident that my redundant backup systems were safely squirreling away the contents of my google drive. A loss of data like seemed to me to be impossible.

I feel justified in blaming the User Experience in this case. I really don’t know how I could have anticipated the result. I believed I had taken all the precautions necessary to protect my data. I do not accept that this was my mistake.

I discovered that the minor catastrophe of my personal experience was dwarfed by some of the truly awful experiences other people have had. One victim purchased the domain in protest. I feel for him. I have to agree. Google drive is great until it becomes an absolute fucking nightmare… irrevocably and without warning. 

I hope you are reading this before making the same mistake. If not, I’m sorry you had to learn about it this way.

It appears that the UI of Google Drive has remained flawed in this critical way for years. This ancient discussion I found really serves to illustrate just how confusing this issue can be as the conversation goes round and round with the main issue needing to be re-explained to each new person who joins.

Why does Adobe insist on using the application UI to advertise features?

No longer am I able to discover new features the old-fashioned way: by learning about them when I actually give a shit.

In my opinion, one of the surest signs of a product that has key stakeholders who are out of touch with the concept of good user experience is when you find that the application interface is being used to market features to you at inopportune or irrelevant moments.

I have strongly argued against this practice in my professional work as I truly hate being on the receiving end of it.

Adobe products have recently begun to provide some of the worst examples of this ill-conceived strategy.

It seems that every time I open one of the Creative Suite applications there is a new dialog or palette that I don’t want or need trumpeting some new feature that I am not currently interested in using.

Screenshot of Adobe libraries feature related dialog
Example of an uninvited feature peddling itself in the UI

I’m sure there’s probably a way to turn this nonsense off, but I’d rather spend time writing this post to express my frustration that I will again have to spend time searching for the means of disabling what are essentially application feature pop-up ads.

I have to imagine that the source of this madness is the internal politics of Adobe. Product feature team leaders are desperately trying to promote their particular team’s work within the interface in order increase the adoption and usage of their specific feature within the larger application.

Here’s a crazy idea: people will find out about a feature when it is relevant to them. Maybe they will read about it on any of thousands of industry related blogs. Perhaps they’ll find out about it on Adobe’s website. Maybe their colleagues will recommend it to them. Perhaps they will start searching interface options for that very feature when they need it.

The biggest issue with promoting the feature via the actual application interface is quite obvious: we already bought the software and we are trying to work here!

The moment and means to make me aware of the new feature is not in the middle of my urgent and unrelated task. Using precious screen real estate in the application for feature promotion adds usability insult to injury.

The punchline: I’m paying a hefty monthly subscription fee for this software. 🙁