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Being given access to a Google Docs document associates your email address with the right to read the document. Does it matter? And how long is this association?

A friend sent me an email containing a sensitive legal document in the form of a Google Doc. I did not ask for this document. I did not and do not want it. I deleted the email containing the document, but I can still view the document in Google Docs. It seems that my email address will now forever be associated with this document on Google records. I suppose that it's useless to try to get Google to remove this association. Because of this, I will never use Google Docs in any way. My question is: Is there any way to predetermine if an email contains a Google Doc? If it does and if I don't open it, will my email address still be forever associated with that document on Google's records?

There are a few misconceptions in this question that I want to clear up.

There are also a few questions that simply cannot be answered.

But I do want to cover the privacy and security issues that it raises, because my gut reaction is that you're overreacting by forever avoiding Google Docs.

Sharing a Google Document

The most common way to share a Google document is to simply grant access to it to the owner of a different Google account.

"In a very real sense, it's out of your control from the start."

Being given that access, the documents that others have shared with you are visible when you then later log into your own Google Docs account.

This is fundamentally how Google Docs is designed to work: a single copy is maintained on the web and the document creator has the ability to share that document with other Google account holders.

It is possible to have Google Docs mail the document as an attachment, but the relationship to your ability to view the original isn't clear when that happens. Delete the email and that attachment is gone. But, because you are able to continue to view the document, I'm assuming that your own Google account has been given permission to view it at least one way or another.

Removing Access to a Shared Document

There are two basic approaches to removing the document from your own Google Docs: ask the owner to un-share it or remove it yourself.

In order to share the document with you, the document owner had to explicitly permission it with your Google account. What has been shared can be un-shared. Simply ask the owner to do that and it should disappear from your file listing.

If you're not willing to contact the document owner, or if he's not willing to remove you, then the next best thing is to remove the sharing yourself.

In your Google Docs home page, mouse-over the document in question and, to the right of that document, an "Actions" label will appear. Click on that.

Actions you can take on a Google Doc

Click on "Remove from my Documents list" to make it go away.

What Does Google Track and Remember?

To give you access to the document, your friend had to give the email address of your Google account to Google and essentially say "this person has access to this document". I believe that's what you're referring to when you say that your email address is "associated" with this document.

If someone chooses to share a document with you using Google documents, that association happens whether you even get the email or ever open the document - or for that matter, if the person even bothers to tell you at all. That person has associated your email address with the document.

In a very real sense, it's out of your control from the start.

Google also has the ability to note whether you've ever looked at the document that was shared with you, when you did, and perhaps even for how long. It's just a web page, after all, and web servers typically log access.

How much of that do they actually keep? And for how long?

We don't know. Google's not saying. And even if they did, the answer could change at any time. I'm pretty sure that it wouldn't be "forever" as the amount of data that might be kept across all Google users would be enormous. Then again, one of Google's strengths is its ability to handle incredible amounts of data on a daily basis, so we really just don't know.

About all we do know is that it'd probably require a court order for Google to reveal whatever is does know.

Google Docs is a Red Herring

The problem is that it's not just Google Docs.

Someone could have emailed you the document as an attachment in Word. That associates your email address with the document as well, potentially across multiple ISPs as the email makes its way to you, with no Google Docs involvement at all.

Heck, someone could have walked up to you and shoved the paper in your hand while filming it all for "proof". That associates more than your email address, that associated you with the document.

In either case, I wouldn't see abandoning email or all paper documents as a result.

Now, if you feel that there is a risk in your situation, then absolutely discuss it with your attorney.

I'm no lawyer, and this isn't in any way legal advice, but I'm certainly not worried about any adverse implications from passively receiving or being given access to some document that I didn't ask to receive.

I'd delete it & move on.

And I certainly wouldn't abandon a useful tool such as Google Docs over it.

Article C4801 - April 20, 2011 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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1 Comment
Mike Crutcher
December 22, 2011 4:13 PM

If I share a document via Google Docs, is there anyway to tell if/when it's been opened and read by the recipient?

You can see the revision history (under the file menu) but I know of no way to get at teh access history.

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