Private and Secure Cloud Storage Alternatives to Dropbox and Google Drive

Looking for a better cloud storage option? We got you covered.
Odin Odin (54)
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We store everything on the cloud. From treasured family photo albums, to music and films, to secure tax documents, a huge amount of our life rests in off-site storage containers in what is probably the greatest show of unrequited trust in human history. Apple’s iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox — these tools have become nearly ubiquitous with being a functioning member of society. But these technologies also come at a price.

The big tech companies all have major pitfalls in one area or another of data privacy. Out of all of them, Apple does the best, though despite it’s repeated insistence on its commitment to privacy, even that company has glaring issues. Google and Facebook are currently the worst, with their entire business model built on the aggregation of your personal information alongside the information of millions of others. But storage companies like Dropbox have problems as well.

You don’t want to be putting your important tax documents and copies of your passport in your unencrypted Google Drive or Dropbox!

Dropbox provides solid security for the average user, using strong encryption protocols for data that is in transit and at rest. As long as you have a strong password and also have two-factor authentication active on your account, you’re relatively safe and secure. But Dropbox employees can still access your data for a wide range of reasons, from “tech support” to using that data to improve their systems.

The same, in a more major way, is true for Google Drive. Drive is easy to use and functions as the de facto collaborative software for a huge portion of the population, but Google provides that service in order to furnish easy access to a huge aggregate of profitable meta-data.

These practices leave a whole range of various potential holes open for misuse of that data. Again, maintaining good security practices on your end will help a lot, but the truth is that data breaches do happen all the time and the type of security you use for your files is going to matter increasingly over the next few decades.

Zero-knowledge encryption

Basically, this just means that your information cannot be read by anyone but you — not even the company you are storing it with. Normally, a copy of your password is stored by the company you’re renting cloud storage space from (and these can be hacked or misplaced), but with zero-knowledge encryption you never hand over your password —just a code that proves you know your password, which is checked by a complex mathematical equation.

The main downside of zero-knowledge encryption is that it reduces the ease-of-use of cloud storage. A fully encrypted cloud storage provider will limit your ability to share files with others and even preview live files like photos and video within the cloud. With zero-encryption, you also have to keep your personal password (sometimes referred to as your “private key”) secure, because if you lose it, nobody, not even the storage provider, will be able to get it back.

So, it’s a mixed-bag. Right now, current technology forces a compromise between complete privacy and security and ease-of-use with interoperability. That said, at least some of your data needs to be secure — you don’t want to be putting your important tax documents and copies of your passport in your unencrypted Google Drive or Dropbox!

Luckily, there are a bunch of cloud providers that offer zero-knowledge encryption and there are ways to even handle some encryption from your own computer, allowing you to encrypt folders and files within even normal cloud services.

Sync.com
Sync.com

Sync is one of the biggest competitors to Dropbox and Google Drive, providing their users with a powerful base of security, massive storage space, collaborative tools that interface with the Microsoft 365 suite, and all for a lower cost than any of the big providers. In every way, this service is setting the bar for what high-security cloud storage means.

Security

Sync.com uses both end to end and zero-knowledge encryption meaning that any data you upload or download is protected both in transit and at rest, and, furthermore, it means that even sync.com can’t look at your data without access to your private key. Granted, that means that if you lose your key you can never get your data back, but that’s just a solid reason to have a good password manager to store all your important login information in*.

Sync.com also offers full versioning of files, with the free plan receiving 30 days of storage for these versions, and the normal paid tiers receiving 180 days of stored versions. This is the ultimate in protection against accidental deletions, glitches with programs, or the unlikely but terrifying prospect of getting hit with ransomware.

Features

Free accounts start with 5 GB of storage space, full sharing and collaboration support, real-time backup and sync, and auto-camera upload support! But, jump to their lowest paid tier and suddenly the support shoots through the roof, with full Office 365 compatibility, two terabytes of storage space, and unlimited data transfer something very few security-focused services offer. If you’re looking for a collaborative option, teams also get a whole suite of powerful admin features for a very reasonable price (at a minimum of two team members this service is the same as a single solo-account for Dropbox).

Sync.com also offers unlimited file size storage, which is a pretty neat feature you’re not going to find elsewhere too often.

Cons?

If there is a drawback to Sync.com, it’s that there’s no monthly option. You can try their services for free and all their paid services have a money-back guarantee, so there’s no risk, but you do have to pay a lump annual sum. That’s actually fine by me, considering how great their service is.

Likewise, as might be expected from a service that places security-first, some easy sharing options you might be used to with Google Drive are absent — and, of course, there’s no integration possible with Google Drive since that service is fundamentally not secure in a number of ways.

The biggest thing I think Sync.com lacks is support for using your synced material as part of a home network attached storage (NAS) (this means no live linking it to your Kodi player). There is also no support for WebDAV or FTP, which is pretty common for most file-sharing and storage services, but especially those which are focused on security.

MEGA.io
MEGA.io

MEGA is the successor of the old Megaupload service that got squashed due to copyright claims from major corporate lobbyists. The service has got great security features, a massive amount of free storage space compared to literally any other trusted provider, and integration with Mozilla Thunderbird for sending huge files via email easily. There are some issues in the form of high costs and limited collaborative functionality, however.

Security

With full end-to-end encryption and zero-knowledge encryption, MEGA does well on the security and privacy front. Even they can’t read your data. Other more commonplace features, like two-factor authentication, help to ensure that your data is as safe as can be while hosted on their service.

It’s worth noting that MEGA does keep track of more of your meta-data than some services on this list. Though they can’t access your actual encrypted files, they can get a lot of information about your account, including emails you contacted through MEGA (including shared files), basic account settings and your avatar, and the IP addresses of the devices you’ve used to access your MEGA account. They also store information on file sizes of uploaded files. There’s also been some concern over the influence that Chinese business figures have in the company, which shouldn’t matter too much due to the zero-knowledge encryption, but if you’re eager to keep your data as far away from China as possible it’d be better to go with a different service.

Features

MEGA’s smallest plan comes with 400 GB of storage and 1 TB of data transfer allowed per month, and their next tier, which is comparatively priced to Dropbox’s basic plan, provides double those limits. This is also backed up by full file versioning, secure file sharing (through password protection), a private message system, and a secure video conferencing system. You’re not getting anywhere near as much storage space for the same price as a service like Sync.com, but features like chat, video-conferencing, and media playback from within the apps all stand out as desirable features.

Cons?

The aforementioned metadata collected by the service and the potential issues with the business-side of the company might be important depending on your threat model. Their lack of integration with 3rd party applications makes their service a bit frustrating for those who are used to instantaneous collaboration provided by Google Docs.

pCloud
pCloud

pCloud is nearly unique in the field of cloud storage because it offers “lifetime” plans to users. Combined with a large suite of sharing and collaboration tools, this makes it a great option for many… just beware of the flaws, such as the fact that zero-knowledge encryption is an add-on, not a base service, and that using that encryption renders most of pCloud’s impressive sharing options inoperable.

Security

Like with all cloud hosting providers that try to lay claim to privacy and security, the true test is do they offer zero-knowledge encryption? Your data is only secure, after all, if you’re the only person who can see it! The good part is that pCloud does offer this, but the downside is that it’s only offered as an additional product that integrates with your base cloud storage service.

The company also collects a fair amount of usage data from its users, including IP address and information about the devices that access their service. They are based in Switzerland, which has historically solid privacy laws, but that shouldn’t be the only thing one relies upon. There have also been a number of complaints on Reddit by users who feel they had their accounts deleted unfairly due to misidentified copyrighted material showing up on their accounts. pCloud representatives stated that accounts aren’t “deleted” in such cases, merely suspended for review, but that begs the question: how does pCloud know what you’re uploading? The answer comes in the form of a “hash” a unique coded identifier that corresponds to a piece of data, such as a pirated film. The owning company will release hashes of their films to services like pCloud who then use automated monitoring to detect data being uploaded with such a hash. This isn’t pCloud’s fault, by the way, but is a problem inherent in laws like the DMCA and the EU directive "Article 13".

This shouldn’t be an issue unless you plan on doing nefarious things, but it’s a point to consider for many users looking for truly private service.

Features

Media players are where pCloud excels, especially within the realm of a built-in audio player that allows users access to advanced search and play functions from within pCloud itself. There are no good app integrations with pCloud, sadly, so it’s not the best application for collaborative work, but it does offer all the usual elements like password protected sharing.

The best part is their “fair share” system that allows one user to share a folder with another, and anything the second user places in that folder doesn’t count against their account — only the original sharer’s.

Cons?

The aforementioned limitations to the zero-knowledge system, as well as automated hash scanning, and the collection of a fair amount of metadata are all bad from a privacy and security point of view. The customer service for pCloud is also notoriously lacking, with no live support and limited responses from their phone support line. You can email, but expect to wait at least a day for a response.

A major annoying feature of their 10 GB free tier is that half of that space is locked until the user jumps through various hoops, like referring a number of friends to the service.

Self-Encrypting
Self-Encrypting

Trusting a service to do all the heavy lifting on your most precious files isn’t a good idea, no matter who they are. The best way to handle encryption is to handle it yourself right from your computer before you even upload. That way, you can maintain zero-knowledge encryption of your files no matter the service you use!

Cryptomator

Cryptomater
Cryptomater

Cryptomater is a free and open source (FOSS) program designed to easily encrypt your files on your computer, including files that you send to the cloud. Being free affords it a nice advantage over competing products that charge for their services, and it’s trusted by users worldwide

Cryptomator can’t encrypt entire discs, nor does the desktop version interface directly with cloud services (the mobile versions, however, do). Once you’ve encrypted your files, you can access them again by using any of the Cryptomator applications. I found this program to be a bit finicky to install, and the mobile versions do appear to cost a one-time fee to download, but it still beats out the competition in many ways — especially because it’s open source and (largely) free.

Boxcryptor

Boxcryptor
Boxcryptor

A paid service, Boxcryptor provides you with super easy client-side encryption, but it goes beyond that by also including encrypted file-sharing capabilities. It also natively integrates with numerous cloud storage providers and a service called Whisply that will allow you to securely share your files with anyone (no matter if they have Boxcryptor or the same cloud storage service).

Boxcryptor does have a superb free plan that allows you to connect to a single cloud storage service and encrypt your files there (or you can, instead, choose to only encrypt locally, which would allow you to still place encrypted files into the cloud but with reduced functionality). Paid accounts allow you to connect to as many cloud storage providers as you wish, as well as work with locally encrypted files.

Verdict

Either service is superb, but Boxcryptor is just a hair easier to use for most people. That said, it costs a pretty penny, and it might just be easier to choose a service like Sync.com that already comes with its own zero-knowledge encrypted folder.

Odin's profile pictureOdin
Joined in 2021 54 guides
Odin Hartshorn Halvorson is a writer, geek, and hopeful futurist. A graduate from Stonecoast MFA, his work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He is the founder of Round Table Writers, an organization dedicated to "writers helping writers." Odin's love of Roddenberrian and Straczynskian ideals leads him to contemplate technology's role in our evolving philosophic landscape, a line of inquiry threaded through both his fiction and non-fiction writing. Learn more at OdinHalvorson.com
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