The Dylan M. versus Google incident, ten years later

So it was ten years ago this month I wrote two posts about one Dylan M. and the sudden disabling of his Google account over some photos (under the titles “When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm” and “Warm bodies are still smarter than silicon (When ‘the cloud’ delivers a thunderstorm, part 2)“). The first post concluded with the advice to back up data on USB flash drives and use optical discs for long term archival, while the second post discussed more of the aftermath and how it’s a bit heavy handed for Google to disable an entire account over just one image which arguably isn’t even their business unless it’s being shared with the public.

Everything in both of those posts is still true today, more or less. There’s been an unfortunate move away from optical discs, and it’s a bit harder to find recordable CD and DVD media these days. As for me, I was lucky. Some time ago I was able to buy both the drive and discs I’m using at Target. (I find it easier to use an external DVD-R drive due to the arrangement of my laptop on my desk.)

I’m not sure if Target is still selling the drives or the media. I do remember the last Walgreens I checked was not selling any optical disc media at all. They also weren’t selling USB flash drives either, so it may just have been that one store. I don’t particularly like buying from Amazon when I can avoid it, but they appear to be selling both the drives and media. Best Buy was selling at least the drives online as well.

Unfortunately this move to obsolete optical disc media goes back to Apple and their sudden refusal to put optical disc drives in their computers. On a laptop I can kind of get it, as space is precious and there is the option of an external drive (like the one I’m using). On a desktop, though? Space is not the issue, though I can see forgoing an optical media drive for cost reasons (especially if the money saved is instead going toward a larger SSD, more RAM, or more CPU).

I also mention my luck with failing USB drives. I have since had a few more USB drives fail on me, and at least two or three SD cards give up the ghost. For short-term copies, they might be good enough, especially given how hard it can be to archive larger files on optical discs. (Though, as I write this, external Blu-Ray recorders have come down to around $100-$150. Of course, the media can still be expensive. My spot price check shows a 10-disc spindle of 100GB BD-XL at $52, or $5.20 per disc, from one supplier.)

The key lessons remain the same. If it’s important, make backup copies. Make and use multiple accounts for cloud-based services if your situation warrants (and the terms of service allow). If you go this route, you should have one for the mainstay of your personal then activities, one or more others for riskier activities. Keep them separate, ideally using separate computers or devices and never mixing them up.

You should not assume anything is private when companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Adobe, etc are running the service. Companies often analyze and use your data to figure out what kinds of ads to serve you elsewhere (particularly in the case of Google and Microsoft).

Finally, if you can’t touch it (or the device it is stored on), you don’t really own it. Sometimes this is close to unavoidable (email and web hosting in particular, at least for the majority of people). Still, back up your email and, if you have one, your website. (Don’t forget to also make a copy of the database if your site has one.)

It’s really unfortunate that things really haven’t changed on this front. If anything, I think the situation has gotten worse.

They used to teach an actual computer literacy course as part of the middle school curriculum. (The school I went to for sixth grade would have had me take a full semester of typing–on typewriters!–as a prerequisite to the actual semester of computer literacy. Thankfully, the school I was transferring to did not.) Now, the technology literacy (as it is called now) is woven into other courses. As an acknowledgement of the increasing role technology is playing in our lives, this makes sense.

I do remember learning about backups and things like ethics as part of computer literacy. I’m not sure if today’s students still learn about these things. (Of course, I would hope they still are.)

When “the cloud” delivers a thunderstorm

(NOTE: in the time it took me to get this post ready for publication, Dylan did get his access restored. I will be following up with the conclusion of the story, which raises more points for discussion than I wanted to add to this post.)

I have been cautious with regard to the new wave of “cloud-based” services. I keep backups of all my data on my own media. And I’m sure some of you laugh at me as old-fashioned. Well, wait until you read this story.

A recent post to Consumerist tells the story of Dylan M. (he is identified only by first name in the article; the last initial is on his Twitter account) and the sudden deactivation of his Google account.

Dylan was a happy user of Google’s services for the last seven years, until 2011 July 15 when he found his Google account was deactivated. Dylan has lost “approximately 7 years of correspondence, over 4,800 photographs and videos, my Google Voice messages, over 500 articles saved to my Google Reader account for scholarship purposes… all of my bookmarks… over 200 contacts… my Docs account… my Calendar access… [which includes] not only my own personal calendar of doctor’s appointments, meetings, and various other dates, but I have also lost collaborative calendars, of which I was the creator and of which several man hours were put into creating… saved maps and travel history… my website, a [B]logger account for which I purchased the domain through Google and designed myself” according to his Twitlonger post.

Dylan goes on to write he has been a loyal fan of Google, encouraging the company he works for to use Google Business Apps and purchase storage with Picasa, and encourgaing his friends and family to open a Google or Gmail account and use Google’s Chrome browser. He also goes on to slam Google for behaving in such an abusive, monopolistic fashion.

Note that Dylan went to Twitter to air his greivances? Remember that at one point rumor was that Google was about to buy Twitter? This incident is a prime example of why such an acquisition would have been a disaster for the computing public. Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

So, how do we protect ourselves from what happened to Dylan? Back up your data to a storage medium you physically control, whatever that may be. Keep multiple copies of things that are truly important. Back up everything as though Google’s (or Microsoft’s, Apple’s, etc.) datacenters will lose everything for everyone (or at least everything for you) sometime in the next week.

At the very least, it is a bad idea to trust one company (such as Google in Dylan’s case) with everything. I’m not sure if one can, for example, run both the Delicious and Google Bookmark plugins without fear of conflict. I know that a Gmail account can be accessed via IMAP and backed up using tools such as archivemail for Ubuntu. I don’t use Gmail for truly important email, but if I did, I would back it up with archivemail --copy --all and the appropriate URL and other switches.

If I am ever a significant adopter of cloud-based services at all, it will be a relatively late adoption. With the ubiquity of USB flash drives which can hold upwards of 4 gigabytes being easily affordable (some, such as this one made by LaCie even resemble a door/car key and can easily be carried on one’s existing keyring), I see no reason to put important data “on a server somewhere” which can go down when I least expect it. I have known of exactly two USB flash drives to fail during the timeframe I have used the technology; one (mine) was because I used it like a small hard drive for an Ubuntu install (it actually lasted for almost a year, though it did corrupt quite a bit of data during that time), and the other (my mom’s) failed due to a defective USB hub, apparently melting something plastic on the connector to the point where it won’t even insert into a USB port. My first USB flash drive, a 32 MB Memorex model (which at the latest probably dates from 2005), still works and has been used for everything from moving small quantities of documents to a boot medium as recently as this year.

That said, I still recommend optical discs such as CD-R, DVD-R, BD-R (recordable Blu-Ray), etc for long-term archival of data, particuarly data that should definitely not be changed after it has been written such as legal documents.

As noted above, Dylan did get his Google account back. However, the circumstances under which it was shut down deserve a rant of their own.

[To be continued…]