Google Drive Privacy Guide 2020

Do you use Google Drive? If you use Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, Google Forms, or Google Drawings, the answer is yes. Nearly 1 billion people use Google Drive. Think of how much of your data is stored by Google!

Google Drive makes it simple to share files and collaborate on files. However, in my experience, most people have no clue who has access to their files, or what they can do with them.

Google Drive integrates with many other websites and apps, making it easy for you to grant third parties access to your files. I’ve found that most people don’t think carefully before granting such access, and they rarely think about that access once they’ve granted it.

For these reasons, you must take the time to set your security and privacy settings in Google Drive. Let’s walk through them.

For some settings, I don’t have a recommendation related to security or privacy, so I don’t describe them in this guide. For those, feel free to keep the default, or choose based on your preferences.

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Improve Google Drive Privacy Through Google Drive Settings

Open Google Drive. Click the gear icon in the top right, then click Settings.

Offline: Google Drive has an option to sync files to your computer so that you can edit them offline. You should uncheck/disable this if you share your computer with others, or they may be able to access your offline files when you’re not around.

Manage Apps: From the menu on the left, click Manage Apps. You’ll see apps that are connected to Google Drive. For any you no longer need, click Options > Disconnect from Drive.

google drive privacy settings

Sharing Files

You can share a file with specific people, or publicly (with anyone).

To share a file, right-click it in Google Drive and click Share. Or, if you have the file open, click File > Share. You’ll see two options:

  • Share with people and groups
  • Get link
Google Drive Share with people and groups

If you choose Share with people and groups, start typing the name or email address of a person you want to share with. Select the person. If you want to, repeat to add another person.

Next, choose what that person can do with the file:

  • Viewer: Can view, but can’t change or share the file with others.
  • Commenter: Can make comments and suggestions, but can’t change or share the file with others.
  • Editor: Can make changes, accept or reject suggestions, and share the file with others.

If you click the gear icon in the top right, you’ll see the Share with people settings which you can optionally set:

  • Editors can change permissions and share
  • Viewers and commenters can see the option to download, print, and copy

Learn more about these options.

When you’re finished, click Send (or Share, if you unchecked Notify people).

Pay close attention to who you share files with, and what you allow them to do. Share with as few people as is truly necessary, and give the lowest level of access that is truly necessary (follow the Principle of Least Privilege).

If after clicking Share you choose Get link, you can change the link from Restricted to Anyone with the link. You can then choose what a person who clicks the link can do with the file.

  • Viewer: Can view, but can’t change or share the file with others.
  • Commenter: Can make comments and suggestions, but can’t change or share the file with others.
  • Editor: Can make changes, accept or reject suggestions, and share the file with others.
Google Drive Share Get link

Keep in mind that anyone you send the link to could share it with others, so people you don’t intend could get access to your file.

You can also share folders, but be certain that you want the sharing settings to apply to all the files in the folder. Also, the settings apply to any subfolders (folders inside the folder), so be careful of that too.

Learn more about sharing files.

Unsharing Files

When you no longer want to share a file, click Share, then, click the person’s permission (such as Editor). Then, click Remove. Look under Get link. If it says Anyone with the link, click it and change it to Restricted.

Learn more about unsharing.

I think most people don’t realize that when you delete a file you’ve shared, the person or people you’ve shared it with can continue to access the file until you permanently delete it. To prevent this, you need to either unshare the file before you delete it, or go into your Trash and permanently delete the file. Learn more about deleting shared files.

Google Drive Privacy: Using Google Drive Safely

The security of your Google Drive largely depends on the security of your Google account. Be sure to learn from my Google Account Security and Privacy Guide.

If you use someone else’s device (computer, phone, tablet, etc.) to log in to Google Drive, be sure to log out when you’re finished! Otherwise, the other person can use Google as you after you leave.

Google can see/read any file in your Google Drive, regardless of your sharing settings. If you have a particularly sensitive file that you don’t want Google, the NSA, or hackers to access, you have a couple options:

  1. Send/share it without using Google Drive. Use Firefox Send or an end-to-end encrypted messenger, such as Signal or Wire.
  2. Encrypt the file on your computer before putting it in Google Drive. If you have a Mac, you can create an encrypted image. For Windows, Linux, or Mac, you can use VeraCrypt or other file-encryption software.

If you regularly need to put sensitive files in cloud storage, you should consider something like Boxcryptor, which encrypts your files inside Google Drive (or Dropbox, OneDrive, and others). Or, consider a privacy-focused, encrypted cloud storage option rather than Google Drive. The right one for you will depend on your storage and collaboration requirements. A few to consider:

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Regularly review the third-party apps that have access to your Google Drive (see Manage Apps above).

It’s a good idea to limit the files you keep in Google Drive, just in case someone gains access to your account. Regularly delete files you no longer need. They’ll go to Trash, where they’ll sit indefinitely. So you should also regularly permanently delete files from Trash.

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