I received an interesting email recently. I use a computer at the BBC when working on Radio 4’s More or Less, and a BBC colleague got in touch to inform me that his computer was automatically downloading all my personal documents: tax returns; letters to my wife; photographs; the manuscript of a book I’m working on – everything. He hadn’t perpetrated some clever hack. His computer was being force-fed my files like a fattened goose.
A possible cause was Dropbox, a cloud computing service that copies designated folders on your computer and stores them remotely, so that you can access the files from anywhere. You can have copies of these folders on other computers, and if you save or change a file on one of them, all your computers will synchronise. It’s an utterly brilliant idea – provided that some computer somewhere doesn’t decide that not only does it need to keep your office computer in sync with your laptop, but it should also keep your colleagues in sync too.
I called Dropbox, and they protested that it was not their fault – apparently the files had somehow migrated across the BBC’s internal network, and my colleague’s Dropbox account was simply reacting to the fact that my files had arrived on his network drive. It transpires that my colleague had logged on to a computer where I had been sitting; it appears this act of hot-desking gave his Dropbox account access to my files.
It would seem odd for the BBC to set up hot desks that way. And if Dropbox seems to have a decent excuse in my case, the company has suffered two publicised security lapses, one recent and one last summer. But whatever the cause, the sudden appearance of my personal files on my colleague’s iPad and iPhone is hardly reassuring. The whole point of Dropbox, and similar systems, such as iCloud, SkyDrive and SugarSync, is to keep several computers in sync, and many people will – as I do – want to synchronise their computer at home with the computer in their office. Discovering that office IT systems and cloud computing may have an allergic reaction to each other is not entirely a surprise, but it’s a bit of a blow.
This is just one front in a battle that has been intensifying of late – the war between corporate and personal computing. Ten years ago, I was using a decent laptop supplied by my employer and was simply grateful for the free hardware. I think this was common enough. Now I am desperate to avoid the clunky corporate offerings, which are heavy, ugly and slow compared with my smartphone, my tablet and my ultrabook. I want to do my day job on my beautiful toys. Collectively, the Samsung phones, the iPads and the MacBooks of all the other silicon narcissists like me must be a corporate IT nightmare.
But it takes two to make a dysfunctional relationship. I may have been fussily wanting to use my personal technology to do my job, but my employer has joined me in this bungled embrace, elbowing its way into my home. The FT subsidised my purchase of an iPad – which is great for understanding the digital future of journalism, but just wait until you try to log the thing on to the office network. The FT has also embraced the Gmail interface for its email system. This would be terrific if it didn’t cause a conflict with the personal Google account I already rely upon.
I’m spoiled, I know. I am old enough to remember working in offices where there was no wireless, where laptops were prohibitively expensive, and where if you wanted to carry a file around, you saved the little blighter on to a floppy disk. Life was a lot less convenient.
Still, when the man on the other side of the open-plan office can peruse my tax returns and my family photographs, I confess to feeling a little nostalgia for the way things used to be.
Tim Harford is the presenter of Radio 4’s ‘More or Less’