Category Archives: Dropbox

Cloud services: Data security questions for researchers

Services like Dropbox and Google Drive can be very useful for researchers conducting research across institutions to share their files and work on projects together. They are easy to use, are low cost, or even free  but some of the security aspects are overlooked. Some people keep their whole lives on one or another of these services.

I've written before about the practical pitfalls of using the free services for collaborative projects (2GB+2GB does not equal 4GB but 2GB). Sharing your dropbox with others is more like moving extra people into your house rather than building an extension.

Researchers working for universities and other institutions make strong commitments to participants about the security of their data, but we rarely stop to think about the security of the data we use. Electronic data security is much more complex than the days of locking up the data in a secure filing cabinet.  There are obvious advantages of electronic data shortage, mostly notably that the data is unlikely to be wiped out by an catastrophic event such as a fire.

A few months ago I ran a session with a few colleagues on data security. I'm not a data security expert, but I know that security is important and  the consequences of a breach can be serious. In my session I asked my colleagues to look on the internet and find out the answers to each of these questions about a cloud storage service or any other service which relies on large amount of your data.

All you have to do for this activity is allocate each person or group a service: For example one group could look at Dropbox, another at Google Drive etc. and then answer the questions about each one.  As well as cloud services we also looked at services such as the questionnaire service surveymonkey and Wordle, a service which produces pretty word frequency pictures.

These are my questions if you wish to use them yourself (no special expertise required).


Why might you choose this program/service?
Where (geographical location) is your data actually saved?
How/ how often is the data backed up?
Under what legal jurisdiction is your data held?
What are the risks of using this program/ service to maintain data?
What steps can be taken to mitigate these risks?
What are the risks of using this program/ service to participants in our research?
Are there different risks for a free service compared to a paid service from the same provider?
How easy was it to find the answers to these questions?

Any other comments or questions?


Websites you can look at include:

Clouds (basic free + paid services ) Dropbox, OneDrive, GoogleDrive iCloud. These are the better known ones, but there are also lots of smaller providers.

Research service: Surveymonkey, BOS online survey tool. 

Project/ file sharing Sharepoint, Basecamp

Home solutions Owncloud,  WD cloud

Other stuff: Wordle

No solution is going to be perfect on all counts, but knowledge about the various services is surely an ethicalnecessity as much as it is a practical problem.

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Why you shouldn’t use personal Dropbox accounts (or similar) for collaborative projects

I don’t like to write posts on why you shouldn’t do something, but this practice has a special place in my personal Room 101. I like personal Dropbox and similar services, but trying to use free accounts to work on shared projects to save a few quid is not a worthwhile economy.

Some organisations use personal Dropbox accounts to share data on collaborative projects. This article tells you why you shouldn’t. I’ve used the example of Dropbox here, but most of the competitors (e.g. OneDrive) work in much the same way.

Free space on Dropbox is limited to 2GB per user. However, as the saying goes, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

How Dropbox works differently to a disk drive

How space on a physical hard drive works

Imagine I have a 2GB disk drive on my desk and Milly has a 2GB disk drive on her desk. We each have 1GB of data on our disk drives. Between us we have 4GB of space, of which 2GB is used. Suppose then Molly comes along and wants to put her 1GB data onto one of the drives. Molly put her 1GB onto my drive. So now on my desk is a 2GB drive with 2GB of data and on Milly’s desk is a drive with 1GB of data (with 1GB of space still free). Milly, Molly and I all need access to this 3GB of data. If I need to access the data on Milly’s drive I unplug the drive from Milly’s computer and plug it into mine and use the data and vice versa. So between the three of us we have 3GB of data plus 1GB of space.

How Dropbox works when sharing fires

Suppose now want to share the 3GB of data through our Dropbox account. Milly, Molly and I find out about Dropbox. We each set up our own 2GB account. We agree to share our files. 2GB+2GB+2GB=6GB so we have plenty of space for our 3GB of shared files, right? That’s basically Dropbox is, isn’t it?

So first I upload my 1GB of data to my Dropbox account. My Dropbox account says that I have used 1GB of my 2GB space. Great! I share the 1GB of files with Milly and Molly and they accept my invitation. However, they suddenly see that they have 1GB of data in their own Dropbox too and they haven’t put anything in yet! Milly does the same and all three of us have 2GB in our Dropbox. Molly tries to share her files, but she can’t—there is no room.

Mandy then comes along to work on a project with Milly. Mandy has 1GB of data in her Dropbox account. Milly has given up trying to get access to Molly’s data so just has my data and her own data in Dropbox. She can’t accept Mandy’s invitation until she deletes something. She decides to delete my data so she can accept Mandy’s data (as Mandy’s data is now more important). Now Milly needs to ask Molly and me to send her individual files to work on from our so we can put them back into our Dropbox.

So 4 people with 4GB of data and seemingly 8GB of space only actually have 2GB between them for shared files.

The wrong solution

Ok, so what we really need is more space. Because we we’ve introduced a lot of people the good people at Dropbox have given us 4GB space instead of 2GB. This can now work as we now each have 4GB of space and 4GB of data to share. But this isn’t a long term solution. Along comes a colleague from Australia who wants to share 1GB of data with me and I need 5GB of space. I will have to either buy new space or hope Dropbox gives me some more. Either way I get wound up and don’t have access to the data I’m supposed to see.

Part of the problem here is that 2GB is very small amount of data in the 21st century. Photos, videos, and audio recordings take up a lot of space so 2GB gets filled pretty quickly. I have a 1TB hard drive in my home Desktop which is about half-full. To really keep all our data safe we each probably need about 500GB of space. Dropbox know this of course and know they you want to pay your further storage (fair enough—it’s their business and they’re good at it).

A better solution

For a team project we need one big space to which everyone on a project has access. So instead of hitting the limits of lots of individual Dropbox accounts (or similar) we need a single big space (500GB+) of which we (and our collaborators) can access through our own passwords. A solution like Dropbox for Business (from £11pm for, 5 users, unlimited space) is in order.



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