Dropbox speaks out on data security controversy

Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston explains its side of the story on the encryption and terms of service controversy.

Dropbox has been making headlines this week, but not the kind of headlines that companies like to make. A complaint filed with the FTC accuses the cloud data storage provider of deceptive and misleading practices regarding just how secure customer data is. But, Dropbox takes exception to the claims and is speaking out to defend its security policies and terms of service (Tos). Dropbox readily admits that it has altered the terms of service, but it rejects the idea that the terms were changed to backpedal on security or move the line in the sand as it relates to Dropbox data protection.

No, according to a new Dropbox blog post, the ToS is not fundamentally different than that of any other online entity -- Google, Skype, Twitter, etc.. Dropbox says the ToC was modified to clarify some points and make it easier for Dropbox customers to understand -- especially when it comes to explaining the specific circumstances under which Dropbox might disclose information to law enforcement. "We felt our old TOS language was too broad, and gave Dropbox rights that we didn't even want."

Dropbox also stresses that customer data is not just handed over to law enforcement at the drop of a hat. First, there is only an average of one such request per month -- out of 25 million customers. Second, Dropbox has a stringent vetting process to ensure that any such data request is legally sound, and in the event that a request doesn't stand up to legal scrutiny Dropbox will stand up for the rights of the customer and protect the data.

I spoke with Dropbox founder and CEO Drew Houston who explained that Dropbox is acutely aware of security concerns, and it appreciates the responsibility it has to protect the data its customers entrust it with. With 25 million customers, keeping the data safely protected from unauthorized access is no small feat.

That said, there is a balancing act between security and simplicity, between encryption and usability. Dropbox data is protected in transit by SSL, and is secured at rest on Dropbox servers using AES-256 encryption. But, encryption is a complex concept that even seasoned IT veterans are sometimes intimidated by, so Dropbox manages the encryption keys rather than expecting customers to understand how to maintain and use their own private key.

But, organizations or individual customers that want better data protection and are comfortable managing their own encryption solution are welcome to encrypt their own data as well. There is nothing stopping Dropbox customers from encrypting their own data using something like Truecrypt, in which case Dropbox would have absolutely no ability to decrypt or access that data. The tradeoff, though, is that when that customer loses their own encryption key, there will still be no way for Dropbox to decrypt or access the data, and nothing that Dropbox can do to help a user recover their data.

Dropbox has been up front and transparent about the strengths and weaknesses of its data protection mechanisms. There are threads in the Dropbox forums dating back three years showing Dropbox support personnel informing users how the Dropbox encryption works, and threads in the forums where Dropbox explains that only certain key employees have the ability to access encrypted data, and only in strictly defined scenarios.

As with any story, there are at least two sides, and the situation can look entirely different if you just take the time to look at it from the other perspective. In writing my earlier post about the Dropbox data protection controversy, I took strides to downplay the ominous overtones of other media coverage and give Dropbox the benefit of the doubt, but some of the assertions made are still inaccurate and do a disservice to Dropbox. To be fair, I should have reached out to Dropbox directly for their side of the story in the first place.

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