Is Dropbox Private?

Last updated: May 17, 2015 - 4:12pm EDT

You may be wondering, "Can anyone else see the files and folders that I put on Dropbox?"  The answer is: only if you allow them to by sharing said files or folders.  Below is an explanation of what Dropbox does to keep your files private, as well as what you can do to protect your privacy while using Dropbox.

The Dropbox Privacy Policy

Generally, Dropbox only collects and uses information that you provide to it when you use the service, like your sign-up information (but not your password), file metadata (i.e. a file's properties, but not what's in the file itself), and information on what you've shared and with whom.  Also, Dropbox only gives this information to others when they need it to help you use Dropbox (such as your social media accounts, if you use them to log into Dropbox, though they probably have that information already).  The only real exception is if Dropbox is in legal trouble and is required to reveal information to law enforcement entities as a result.  Though, as long as you aren't using Dropbox to conduct any illegal activities (which we're guessing you probably won't be), then you don't really have to worry about this.

There are some digital security professionals who are worried that the fact that Dropbox holds the digital "keys" for locking and unlocking your files, as opposed to you, means that people at Dropbox might be able to look at what's inside the files that you put on Dropbox.  There are two counter-arguments to this point.  First, having Dropbox hold the "keys" to your files is necessary to allow you to speedily access your files across multiple devices with Dropbox, without having to do an extra security check on your end every time you want to open one of your computer files (which would be a pain).  Second, as explained above, Dropbox has strict privacy policies that forbid its employees from personally unlocking and accessing people's files, or sending people's files (locked or unlocked) to anyone else, unless you explicitly tell them to, or they are required to do so by the law.

If it helps, think of Dropbox as a bank, and think of your computer files as money.  The bank lets you store your money and send it where it needs to go, and while the bank holds the keys to the vault where your money is stored, only you can tell them when to open the vault and move your money around.  Bank employees can't arbitrarily open the vault and steal your money, and the only people with an exception are the police, who can only confiscate your money if you're holding it unlawfully (e.g. it's stolen, owed to creditors, or earned through illegal activity).

Tips for keeping Dropbox private

If you're really worried about how private your actions are on Dropbox, here are some tips.

1. Use a strong password for your Dropbox account.

Though this one's a bit of a no-brainer, it's still worth mentioning.  Your account password is at least part of what keeps your files secure on Dropbox, so make sure that it's a good one.  Use a combination of letters and numbers if you can, and even some symbols.  Also, try upper-case and lower-case variations of letters.  Try to make your password something that isn't too hard to remember, but won't be too easy to guess.  For example, instead of "baseball" as a password, try one like "B@5eb@11".

2. Don't put files with overly sensitive personal information on Dropbox.

This is really more of a common sense thing than anything.  If you put aside the whole thing about "cloud computing", the simple truth is this: when you put files on Dropbox, you're basically putting them on another person's computer for safekeeping.  The question becomes, then: how much do you trust that other person to keep your information private?  Sure, certain things are relatively harmless, such as letters to friends, pictures of family or vacation highlights, and most work documents (heck, we use Dropbox all the time here at Techboomers).  But it's probably not a good idea to use Dropbox for storing things like account passwords, credit card information, or government-issued documents.  Those things are probably best stored by you personally, either in physical form or on a dedicated backup disk.

3. Use the Dropbox website to manage the privacy of your folders.

You can use the settings available on the Dropbox website to remove yourself or others from a shared folder, so that you or other people can't share files in that folder anymore.  You can also adjust the permissions of certain people with regards to a shared folder, so that they can see the files inside said folder, but can't do anything with them.  However, this requires you to upgrade your Dropbox account (see the point below for more information).

See our How to Share Files and Folders in Dropbox tutorial for more information.

4. Upgrade your Dropbox account.

If you get a subscription to Dropbox Pro or Dropbox for Business, you get more than just an increase in the amount of computer memory that you can use to store your computer files.  You also get added security features, such as the ability to set passwords and expiry dates for direct links to your Dropbox files, and the ability to delete Dropbox and all related information from a device in case it gets lost, stolen, or otherwise compromised.  You can also make it so that people whom you share folders with can see the files inside those folders, but can't change them in any way.

See our Dropbox Pricing article for a full list of benefits of upgrading your Dropbox account.

5. Use an alternative to Dropbox.

If all else fails, there are other file storage and sharing programs out there, such as SpiderOak and Wuala, with built-in features that allow you to lock files on your end before you send them into the cloud.  They may not have as powerful and easy-to-use sharing functions as Dropbox, but at least you're in better control of who can do what with your files.

See our Dropbox Alternatives article to learn about these and other alternatives to Dropbox.

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