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When it comes to the increasingly competitive cloud storage space, few companies have the name recognition of Dropbox. The company is in the business of holding on to your personal files so you can access them from anywhere, or easily share them with others. And that’s where things can get complicated. As soon as you hand your private files over to another company for safe keeping, legal and privacy issues come into play, which is why understanding Dropbox’s customer contracts is essential for any user of the service.
Fortunately for all of us, Dropbox is one of a number of companies that has updated its terms of service and other legal documents to make them easier for non-lawyers to understand. Still, the language is overly verbose simply because the point of these documents is to cover all the bases. If you want to sue Dropbox for some reason, you’ll need to the read the docs in full. If not, here’s what you need to know.
Dropbox doesn’t own your data
Unlike Facebook, for example, uploading documents to Dropbox does not give the company the right to do what it wishes with them. You own your data, not Dropbox. And the company promises not to use your data for its own purposes.
And you don’t own other people’s data
After the commandos swooped in with helicopters and raided Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom’s house earlier this year due to allegations of criminal copyright infringement, online file storage companies like Dropbox have had to become extra vigilant about combatting attempts to use their services for piracy. Because of this, Dropbox must point out the embarrassingly obvious fact that the right to retain full ownership of the files you upload to Dropbox only applies if the files are yours in the first place. If you upload anything that belongs to someone else — especially to a major corporation — expect to have your files deleted. (See Dropbox’s full copyright protection policy here.)
Losing your data (not Dropbox’s problem)
It’s possible that Dropbox might have a server meltdown and lose your stuff. Because of this, Dropbox makes it clear that you should always keep a backup of any file you upload to you Dropbox on a local hard drive. If you don’t, and your files are inadvertently deleted, that’s not Drobox’s problem. You’ve been warned.
Dropbox has the handy feature of automatically generating links to files you upload to your online storage locker. You can also share entire folders. If you do this, the people who have access to these files will be able to change them. Don’t freak out at Dropbox if someone to whom you’ve shared access screws up a file or deletes it — it’s not Dropbox’s fault.
What you can’t do
Dropbox allows you to upload everything from Word documents to video files, and share them with (basically) whomever you like. But there are a number of things you may not do with, or while using, Dropbox. They are:
- No hacking Dropbox, or using Dropbox to hack other sites or services
- Don’t use Dropbox to spam, phish, or spoof people
- No spreading viruses using Dropbox
- No harassing people using Dropbox
- Don’t share “unlawfully pornographic” material, or anything that promotes hatred of any kind
- Don’t create a bunch of email addresses to boost your free Dropbox storage through its referral offers
- In general, don’t break the law using Dropbox (in any way other than the illegal crap listed above)
Try to use Dropbox for any of these purposes, and you’ll probably have your account cancelled (or worse, depending on the infraction).
You may delete your Dropbox account anytime. And Dropbox can drop you anytime “without cause.” But if they do plan to cancel your account, the company will attempt to give you fair warning first, and help you get your files off the system before you lose complete access.
If you do delete your Dropbox account, all your files will be deleted (not retained, like some companies do), save any pending legal action that involves your data or files.
What Dropbox collects on you
Simply using Dropbox means the company has certain information on you. This information is collected in a number of ways: providing personal data yourself, uploading files, collecting data through use of the service, collecting data through cookies. Here is the complete list of what Dropbox may collect about you, or the people you share files with:
- Email address
- Credit card number (if you pay for service)
- Billing address (if you pay for service)
- Email address of anyone with whom you share a Dropbox folder
- Email address of anyone you refer to Dropbox
- IP address
- Browser type
- Website visited prior to arriving on Dropbox.com
- Location data
- Mobile device type (if applicable)
- Wireless carrier information (if applicable)
- Date and time of transactions
- All files you upload or download from Dropbox
How Dropbox uses your data
For the most part, your information is used to either simply provide you with the service (i.e. you pay to have 20GB of storage space, so Dropbox takes your credit card info), or to improve the service (i.e. if Dropbox receives error messages anytime someone tries to access its service through a particular browser).
It also uses some of this data for its own analytics purposes. Dropbox uses Google Analytics. You can choose not to have your data accessed by Google Analytics by clicking here.
Further, Dropbox may reach out to you with deals and other promotions, but you can opt out of that by changing your account settings here.
All that said, Dropbox may share some of your information (name, email address) with third-party applications, but only if you choose to use those applications. (For example, some apps allow you to access more than one cloud service account, including Dropbox.) If you use those apps, you are subject to their terms and policies, and Dropbox isn’t responsible for what they do with your data.
Sharing with police
Like any company, Dropbox is subject to laws. And part of that means it may turn over your files and customer data to the police, if they ask for it. At present, the laws on the books allow police to gain access to a suspect’s files without a warrant, as long as they have been stored for 180 days (six months) or more. This may change in the near future thanks to a new bill in Congress.
Still, some companies demand a warrant before turning over your info to the cops. We’ve reached out to Dropbox to see what their policy is on this, and will update this space once we hear back. (See Dropbox’s comments below.) Regardless, if Dropbox does turn over your files, it will remove the encryption added to your files by Dropbox for security purposes. But if you upload files with your own encryption, the police will have to do the decryption themselves.
Update: Dropbox has responded to our request for comment with the following clarifications: “To obtain non-public user information, law enforcement must provide the correct legal documents required for the type of information being sought. Dropbox carefully reviews these requests to ensure they comply with the law.” The company adds that, “Our policy is to require a search warrant when responding to government requests for content information under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.”
Odds & ends
Dropbox isn’t for kids under 13-years-old. And if it finds out any of you youngsters are using it, your account will be deleted. Parents who find out about a child’s Dropbox account can email the company (firstname.lastname@example.org) to complain.
Dropbox abides by the U.S. – E.U. Safe Harbor Framework and the U.S. – Swiss Safe Harbor framework, which prohibit the transfer of personal data to certain countries, and in certain ways. You can learn more about those regulations here.
None of this should have come as any surprise — it’s all standard stuff. But if there’s one key lesson to take away from all this, it is: Don’t use Dropbox to do anything illegal. Live by that rule, and you shouldn’t have any problems using Dropbox. Unless, of course, Dropbox gets hacked — which could happen. So make sure to keep a backup of your files, encrypt anything that’s top-secret, and remove files of that nature from Dropbox as soon as possible.