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Google products, such as Google Drive, are so universal that many people rely on them without little thought to their security. But could Google Drive's ubiquity be its greatest liability?
The Google search query 'Is Google Drive secure?' reached a 10-year high in the United States earlier this year. So if you've recently started asking yourself whether you can trust the digital products you use daily, you're not alone.
Internet users increasingly feel responsible for their own cyber safety despite not understanding how to take measures to safeguard themselves. In a survey, 43% of respondents said they are not able to effectively protect their personal data, despite 82% saying they would be willing to act to protect their privacy.
This article will explore what you need to know to determine whether you can trust Google Drive with your files. Read on to learn about the security risks associated with using the app for storage and how to mitigate them.
Google Drive is Google's cloud storage product, part of the Google Workspace suite. The complete workspace includes Gmail, Calendar, Meet, and Chat as well as content creation products such as Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
Google Drive is free for personal use and includes up to 15GB of free storage that is shared across all Google products. This means that emails stored by Gmail also contribute to your Google Drive storage space and documents you create in Docs are saved to Drive automatically.
Because it's free and easy to use, Google Drive is the default cloud storage option for many Google consumers. It is among Google's most widely adopted products, with over a billion users.
You can take many factors into account to assess the security of Google Drive, but you can simplify this task using the fundamental principles of information security.
Will my data be protected, private, and accessible to me? These are the questions you will most likely want to answer.
Like all cloud service providers, Google Drive encrypts the files it stores to keep them safe. Encryption protects your files from being altered or read by using an algorithm to temporarily transform the content into complex code. The encrypted files can be decrypted with a key, unlocking access to their original form for the keyholder.
But not all encryption methods are equally secure. When evaluating the strength of encryption, you might ask:
How complex is the code (encryption algorithm, key length)?
Who holds the key (asymmetric or symmetric)?
Asymmetric or symmetric
Google Drive uses symmetric encryption, meaning a single key is used to encrypt and decrypt the content. In this context, that means Google also holds the key to decrypt your files. What’s more, it’s possible, though not likely, that the key could be stolen.
Google Drive uses the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) algorithm, which is common and considered secure, depending on the bit key length.
Google Drive uses two bit key lengths. A longer and more secure one (256-bit) when your files are more vulnerable in transit and a shorter one (128-bit) when your files are at rest.
Security is a means to an end – to keep you safe from threats like theft or injury. Online threats to our privacy are increasingly considered worth protecting as well. After all, a violation of your privacy, where intruders see your private information, content, or behavior, is the first step in being able to exploit it.
If security is a means to protect your privacy, then it's prudent to consider how well Google defends your privacy in the first place.
Other internet users
While Google Drive is very difficult to hack, a minor error on your part can inadvertently open the gates to your private content. We’ll cover this in more detail in the next section.
Your country’s government
In general, Google must obey the law in the countries it operates in. In the United States, for example, that can mean having to surrender users’ content stored on Google Drive.
When you agree to the Google Drive Terms of Service, you give consent to Google to review and potentially remove your content. Your private data is in Google’s hands.
For the most part, accessibility is Google’s strength. It is easy to access your Google Drive whenever you want, so long as you can log in to your Google Account.
However, unless you enable special settings and download an extension in advance, you will not be able to access your Google Drive offline or directly from your desktop. And should you have a question or require assistance with your account, you’re largely on your own. Google doesn’t offer dedicated support for free accounts.
Your content can be compromised in two ways when it's stored in Google Drive. First, a targeted attack from a cybercriminal or bad actor who wants access to your content specifically and second, being exposed by a larger-scale Google Drive hack.
In both cases, Google products' ubiquity and multipurposeness become a liability. When you store private photos, personal documents, emails, and even passwords in one place, you have a lot of eggs in one basket, making your Google Account a juicy target for hackers.
Most data breaches involve a human element. In that sense, Google Drive carries many of the same risks as most apps that rely primarily on single-factor authentication. For example, an intruder can steal your device or guess your password using social engineering or other kinds of hacking.
The difference is that with Google Drive, you may be more vulnerable to behavior that puts your precious files at risk. That's because Google products are more likely to be impersonated by cybercriminals to trick you into clicking.
In 2020, up to a quarter of all phishing attempts that impersonated brands pretended to be either Google or Amazon. A follow-up from Q3 of this year still puts Google in the top five most spoofed brands.
In addition to brand spoofing, cybercriminals are working hard to exploit users' trust in Google products. For example, an email security company reported that hackers found a new way to exploit the comment feature to deliver malicious links through Google Docs.
The volume of users and the depth and quantity of personal data stored in Google's servers are extremely valuable to state-sponsored actors. For that reason, Google is perpetually under attack.
Back in 2010, a massive cyber event originating from China attempted to access activists' Gmail accounts using a highly sophisticated attack. Since it succeeded at stealing Google's intellectual property, this incident remains among the most infamous acts of cyberwar.
State-sponsored attackers have not stopped targeting Google since. This year alone, Google published on its threat analysis blog the details of 18 attacks. Notably, the Russian hackers behind the SolarWinds attack used Google Drive to deliver malware. Later, an Iranian government-backed hacker group deployed a hacking tool called HYPERSCRAPE to access emails stored in Gmail. Just last month, Chinese hackers made Google Drive the vehicle for a spearfishing campaign aimed at governmental and academic institutions.
Most breaches involving Google Account credentials do not result from a security breach at Google itself, but that doesn't make them any less harmful to users.
For instance, in 2014, five million Gmail addresses and passwords ended up on a Russian Bitcoin forum. A large-scale breach at the time, it is now dwarfed by present-day statistics — in February of this year, a leaked database revealed a whopping 200 million Gmail addresses and passwords.
Finally, Google doesn't have a perfect track record of protecting user data. In 2018, the company accidentally exposed the private data of 52 million Google+ subscribers to their developers.
The fact that the human element is present in most breaches can be used to your advantage, so long as you're willing to be hyper-vigilant about your cyber hygiene.
Start by brushing up on cybersecurity best practices. It is essential to educate yourself about common cyber threats and the tactics used to get access to your accounts, such as phishing.
Since your Google Account login is the gateway to Google Drive, you should do everything you can to secure those credentials, including:
Using a strong, unique password.
Enabling multi-factor authentication.
It's worth regularly checking whether your account credentials have been compromised. When in doubt, change your password at least once a year.
To protect your content stored in Google Drive, like private files and documents, security experts recommend encrypting them yourself before adding them to the cloud. However, doing so might be confusing, time-consuming, or both.
There's an easier way to get top-notch security without compromising ease of use.
For ultimate security, migrate your content to a private vault that's protected, backed up, and always within reach.
Like in Google Drive, you can drag and drop files into your cloud, neatly organize them how you like, and get direct access to them from anywhere. The difference is that, with NordLocker, you stay in control of your content with the highest possible privacy standard.
End-to-end encryption: True E2EE means that there is no time period, however brief, when your data is unencrypted in transit.
Asymmetric: NordLocker doesn’t hold the key to decrypt your content, only you do. NordLocker uses only the strongest AES bit key in combination with xChaCha20-Poly1305 and Ed25519 algorithms to ensure that your files and information are kept safe.
Zero-knowledge architecture: Unlike Google Drive, no one besides you, not even the NordLocker team, can access your vault.
Desktop encryption: With NordLocker, your content is encrypted before it leaves your device, keeping it inaccessible to other users on shared or public computers.
Get access anywhere: You can access your content safely on an unlimited number of devices.
24/7 support: Get help from dedicated professionals whenever you need it.
Protected back-ups: Even if your device gets damaged, lost, or stolen, your data stays safe.
John believes that the best things in life are simple. He uses the same approach when he’s writing about online security. John says that his #1 pet peeve is phishing scams. Ironically, his favorite non-work related activity is fishing.