Files in a pile

File Storage Services: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Just about everyone uses cloud file services like OneDrive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others, but have you ever considered the pitfalls of these services? Were you even aware that there were any? Let’s explore these services and what you need to know to make the best use of them and understand how your actions, or inaction, could lead to unexpected results.

The Good

These services provide easy, reliable, and inexpensive access to your files from the devices you use the most. Most of them have a free tier with a worthwhile storage quota, and their premium plans can include very large quotas for a relatively small fee.

All of your files stored in these services can be synchronized with your computer, tablet, smartphone, and even other electronics like your TV. They make finding your files where you need them very convenient. Once configured, not much thought has to go into using the service. The files are synchronized with a folder on the device and using them is largely the same as using any other file on the device.

One notable function of many of these services is the ability to have is the ability to place only references to a file on the device, rather than a copy. This allows for you to have seamless access to your files without it taking up capacity on the device. It even allows you to have more data available to the device than it could otherwise even hold since it just downloads the needed files as you access them.

These services can certainly help us be productive by having continued access to our files. Making use of them and understanding their quirks is key to success without having an unexpected data loss.

The Bad

One of the major sins of offering information solutions like these is providing a false sense of security. Telling the users that they “have nothing to worry about” and “you’re completely safe” are recipes for disappointment and maybe even disaster.

It’s important that when using these services, you understand how it works on the given device. We’ll focus on their use on a computer as that is the most commonly used device. These services have an application on your computer that keeps the root folder in sync with the service. When a file is changed in the folder on your computer, the application running on your computer sends the updated file to the service. Similarly when it has been changed on another device, the application brings the copy to your computer.

Unfortunately, this mechanism leaves room for failure. Most notably, if the sync application isn’t running, your files will not be sent to the service. If this condition persists for a long time, you might find yourself losing valuable information if the copy on your computer is deleted or your computer’s drive fails.

This is of particular concern if you only really use one device and the files that are synchronized are not shared with others. You might go for a very long time, days, weeks, or even months, without realizing that there’s a problem because there’s nothing stopping you from using the device. It might only be noticed when a consequence of the condition affects you.

It’s important that if you’re going to use these services, that you know how to check the status of the service. They all typically have an icon near the time that indicates the general state of it, as well as an indicator on each of the files and folders synchronized by the services. One of the best indicators of a problem is when the status indicators disappear from the files, but many fail to even notice they exist, so they certainly don’t notice when they’re missing. If you’re going to rely on these services, familiarize yourself with how to check their health.

The Ugly

With ease of access comes ease of exploitation. Far too frequently people fall for phishing schemes. When they disclose their credentials for the accounts that hold all of their files, then they’re giving the attacker access to all of their files. Many people fail to take seriously the threat falling for a phishing scheme presents; they view it as an inconvenience. However, when you have the private details of your entire life or business accessed by a malicious actor so easily, doesn’t it become more than just a nuisance? It’s far from being just an embarrassing email to your contact list.

Failing to notice that your device isn’t in sync with the service can lead to disaster. On more than one occasion we’ve seen users reliant on the service as their resiliency strategy. It’s not a bad strategy as long as your files and not so much the configuration of your device is the most important facet. However, when the user’s device failed, they lost months of files because they didn’t know that the sync was broken. They either didn’t notice the warnings or failed to understand their significance and ignored them.

Lastly, if you’re using these services for your business, make sure you use the business class version of the service. Free services come with no support, which basically means no ability to quickly contact the people behind the service. For most of them, the only thing that dictates who controls it is who knows the password. If a malicious actor changes your password, recovery information, and security questions, you can expect a nearly impossible uphill battle in getting your files back. You don’t want to be in that position when you need those files to run your business.

These services can be a great resource to improve your productivity, but just like anything else useful, like driving a car, if you’re not familiar with the operation, it can lead to disaster. Take the time to familiarize yourself with how they work so you can be prepared to address issues as they happen rather than having them evolve into a disaster.

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