Monday, 4 May 2020

The danger of sharing folders in Google Drive - if you don't understand this you may lose a lot of files

I had used google drive and docs for many years in various community organisations and then discovered to my horror an unexpected issue (that resulted in the loss of many significant documents) and, after some searching, a workaround.

Here's an example of the problem....

I created a shared folder in my google drive (MyDrive) for my community organisation as a central repository for all documents of our organisation. Our retiring president had already shared her google drive of docs with me so I moved them across and organised them in the new shared folder that i had created for all of us. 6 months later, the ex-president cleaned up her own google drive and deleted her old folder of community docs, understanding that I had all the docs in the new community shared folder. However, in doing so, she actually inadvertently deleted those documents for us, too.

The problem is that google drive is a bit unintuitive here, from a traditional perspective. So, there is a high risk of people unknowingly deleting key organisational documents. Documents in a shared folder may be deleted from the shared folder even if the owner is only deleting them from their own separate private folder.

Explanation:
When someone in their google MyDrive shares a document with me it looks like I then have a copy of that document in my own google drive but I don't. I only have a link back to the original document. The ownership of the document remains with the other person.

If I delete this document I am just deleting the link. But the original document still remains in the owner's google drive.

However, if the owner deletes the document, it is deleted for me, too! 

The same is the case if I share a folder. It will contain a mixture of documents that I own and documents that others own. If I delete any document owned by someone else, then it is deleted for me only (as I have really just deleted a link to that document). However,  If I delete any document that I own, then it is deleted for everyone.

Another problem is that files and folders in google MyDrive can become "orphaned". This happens if you put a file in a shared folder owned by someone else and then the owner deletes the folder. Your file still exists (because you own it) but you can't get to it through the directory structure. The solutions below will prevent this problem, too.

Some Solutions:
1. Ongoing manual transfer of document (and folder) ownership to a central google account. Then that central account owns all relevant documents and no-one else can accidentally delete them. However, people will often forget to transfer ownership of new documents they create and whoever is responsible for this system will get sick of hounding people. Various other permutations of this system are all labour intensive (but free).

2. Implement Google "Shared Drives"
Formerly known as Team Drives (I wish they had kept this name). Not to be confused with the sharing of folders in google My Drive that I have been talking about above. This is the best solution.

The most important difference is that document control functions intuitively, like a simple file system on a basic home file server. i.e. when you put a document into a "shared drive" then ownership rests with the drive. When a file is deleted it is deleted for everyone. When it is moved, it is moved for everyone. etc

The catch is that you need Gsuite Busines or Enterprise, or Google Drive Enterprise to access "Shared Drives". If you are a non-profit, you may be able to get it for free. Otherwise, the cheapest workaround is to implement a system whereby you purchase a GSuite account (and a new domain for it) and just a single GSuite user account. You then have this user account manage your "Shared Drives" and grant access to other regular gmail users (google calls it something like "users outside this domain") to be "Content Managers" or "Content Editors" or "Viewers" on the various shared drives s/he sets up. This way, you only pay a monthly fee for a single GSuite Business account (about USD$12/mth) plus annual domain registration fee (about USD$10/yr). 

Here's some more about Shared Drives