Is Your Data Safe With An Online Provider?
Article by Rick Leinecker, July 18, 2006

Google is best known as a search engine, but in recent years they've added quite a few additional services such as email, news, maps, and specialized searches. One of the newest services to be introduced is Google Spreadsheets, a full-featured online spreadsheet application.

Spreadsheets are a great software tool for collecting and managing numeric data. Most people use it for financial information such as budgets, expenses, and payroll.

Instead of owning and running Microsoft Excel (or any competing spreadsheets), you can log on to Google Spreadsheets and do your work there. It's free and carries most of the spreadsheet functionality you'll need.

For many, the free cost of Google Spreadsheets is a compelling reason to use it. For me the most compelling reason is that I can access my data from any Internet-connected computer. I love being able to enter expenses for a trip from my hotel room without having to wait until I get home. I forget fewer items that I can claim when I record them every day while traveling.

If you have a business, sharing spreadsheet data may be important. Say, for instance, your partner is in Indianapolis and you are in Baton Rouge. In order to share spreadsheet data, you'd have to either send it back and forth (usually via email), employ a networking device that allows remote sharing (such as a Virtual Private Network), or implement a third-party data sharing solution. But if you use Google Spreadsheets, you don't have to worry since Google maintains the data on its server and gives you easy Web-based access from anywhere.

All of that sounds pretty good, right? It does until you start thinking about the privacy of your data. I'd like to mention several concerns. My first question would be "can someone else get my spreadsheet data?" The answer is that in order to get your spreadsheet data, someone would have to have your password. It's the same question if you work somewhere and have sensitive spreadsheets on your computer. My answer is that your data is as safe as your password - follow safe password procedures and you're okay. (I talked about safe password practices awhile back.)

My next question is whether or not Google will examine the data in any way. Google makes a lot of their money through advertising. While there aren't any ads on Google Spreadsheets right now, it's inevitable that they will because they have to somehow pay for the service. Internet advertisers are looking for ways to display well-targeted ads. If your spreadsheet is about your kids' soccer schedule, will Google give you ads for sports gear? If your spreadsheet contains your home budget, will Google give you ads for home accounting software?

My third major concern involves big brother. You must have heard about the subpoenas that were served to Google so that the federal government could get all of their search records. While these aren't attached to specific users, it's unsettling to me that even the anonymous search results are now being examined by our federal government. Can the government subpoena spreadsheet data? What if your spreadsheet shows that you've cheated on your taxes? Will you get audited? What if you create a hypothetical spreadsheet about a business you want to start and it has rosy projections? Will you be under suspicion for tax evasion? These are all important questions.

After weighing all of the concerns I've conveyed to you, I decided that for me Google Spreadsheets are a tool I'm comfortable using. The chances of someone hacking in to get my data are slim, I don't really care if I get advertisements, and I don't think the government will get or even want my spreadsheet data. So the incredible convenience that online spreadsheets offer is well worth the trade off. You can go to Google and take a look to decide for yourself. (You can take a short cut to it by going directly to spreadsheets.google.com.) If you don't already have a Google account, you'll have to create one. And while you're there, you might also see some other services that Google offers that might interest you.

We've only been talking about Google to this point. All online services that store and maintain your data have the same concerns. And my decision would be the same for them, too. I would lean towards trusting them to maintain enough security to protect my data. I would, however, draw the line with information that was highly sensitive. Say, for instance, I had an invention that could make millions of dollars; I wouldn't save it on a remote server. In general, I trust online providers to keep my data safe, but for very sensitive data you can't be too careful.

This is the scoop on data safety with online providers.