A Cautionary Tale: When Google Decides To Hold On To Your Personal Data And Won’t Let Go
We trust Google with our personal data every day: What happens when they won’t let us take it when we need it? I’ve recently had just such a scenario. I am a big Google fan – I use them as my search engine (of course), Chrome has been my primary browser for years, I’ve been managing my photos using Picasa, Google+ is my social network of choice, and I’ve been using Android smartphones exclusively since the Gingerbread days. So you could say I’m very much entangled in Google’s Web. Nothing to worry about, I thought, thanks to Google Takeout. I’ve since discovered otherwise.
Google Takeout’s Promise
“It’s important that you have control over your data,” extolls Google Takeout – a Google service committed to letting users own their information and export it. It further encourages us to “research the data export policies” of your destination, in case you plan to migrate your data. I was heartened by this positive and sane approach to my data – it is mine, so it was nice to see Google and I see eye to eye on this.
The data in question was my photos – hundreds, if not thousands, of photos taken using my smartphones over the years, and automatically uploaded to Google+ courtesy of the service’s wonderfully easy sync feature. Getting my information was just a matter of scrolling down the long list of data types and ticking the box next to my photos:
I clicked the large Create Archive button, to then be greeted by an encouraging progress bar, crunching away at my data. Soon, I would have a large ZIP full of my family photos from over the years.
When Takeout Goes Wrong
As you’ve probably guessed by now, data export failed. And failed. And then it failed some more (I am nothing if not persistent when I want my data):
This screenshot is just a sampling of my failed attempts – there are more. Note the lack of detail – here’s what you get when you click Show archive details:
So, I can see that it failed when trying to export my photos. Thanks, Google. Not to worry though, you also get an error message via email:
Just as informative: No link to support, and not even an error code. “Your export failed, how sad,” says Google.
The export page does contain a link to this generic survey because Google wants to know how they did. I filled it in, but nobody contacted me (surprise!).
The Trump Card: I’m a Paying Customer
Unlike most Google Apps users, I actually pay Google for the pleasure of using their email and other products. I do this not because I need extra space or any paid features, but because I want to be eligible for support when I need it. This was just such a time, so I called the Google support hotline (yes, there is such a thing), entered my PIN number, and got a friendly and knowledgeable support rep on the line.
The rep listened to my issue and sounded genuinely interested and caring. He put me on hold while he went to check on things, and when he got back, informed me that despite me being a paid customer, Google will not be able to offer me support – because data export is not a “core service.” That’s right – Google wants you to own your data, but not quite enough to call export a core service.
The rep then sent me the following email:
To make a long story short, being a paid customer did not help me at all here. When I truly needed support from Google on something I consider quite important, I did not get it.
Try, Try Again
With few options, the next day, I simply decided to try my luck with the export tool yet again – this was my fifth attempt. The stars must have been aligned just right, or Google’s servers were having a good day, because shortly after clicking the big red button, I got this:
That’s right: Sweet, sweet success. My data was waiting for me on Google’s servers, packaged up in three large ZIP files (2GB each). It may be due to my support request – perhaps Google had an engineer look at the issue and figure out what went wrong. But even if that’s what happened, Google never let me know about it – I did not get an email saying my issue will be addressed (just the opposite, in fact). So I will chalk this up to blind luck and dogged persistence.
The Takeout Message
Annoying as this may be, my point here was not to vent but to offer useful information. Google is using their takeout service and their Data Liberation Front as talking and PR points – we’ve even linked to them before . These are easy for Google to tout, because most users would never actually go through the trouble of exporting their information. But when you do try it, and it fails, that can be a learning opportunity. Here is what I’ve learned:
- Never trust Google with all of your images, or other personal information. They may not be there when you need them – keep external backup copies. Dropbox’s auto-upload feature is a good idea, but there are other auto-upload solutions as well.
- Being a paid customer does not guarantee you’ll get support when you really need it.
- When things inexplicably fail, sometimes it pays to just retry, retry, and retry, with boneheaded determination.
If you have any other insights from this little story, or have your own Google Takeout stories to share, I would love to hear them in the comments.