How to take data with you

Want to download personal data to your computer or transfer it to another provider? Both are possible with Google Takeout, explain Google's Stephan Micklitz and Greg Fair

Mr. Micklitz, Mr. Fair, you’re responsible for Google Takeout. What exactly is it for?

Stephan Micklitz, Director of Engineering on Google’s Privacy and Security team: Google Takeout allows you, for example, to download photos, contacts, emails, calendar entries, or music files stored on Google Drive to your computer or to transfer them to another provider.

Greg Fair, Product Manager of Google Takeout: My wife and I have two children, and, like most parents, we have a lot of photos of them – 600 gigabytes of photos, to be precise. When our hard drive containing all these photos crashed, I was very glad that I’d also saved them in their entirety to Google Photos. I could then use Google Takeout to simply download the pictures onto a new hard drive.

Greg Fair Smartphone

Google Product Manager Greg Fair is responsible for Google Takeout, which enables users to not only download their data from Google, but also transfer it to other providers.

How do people use Takeout?

Fair: Mostly to back up all the data they store on Google Drive.

Micklitz: Which is somewhat irrational, because the data is actually far more secure on Google Drive than it is on most of our home storage devices.

Fair: At home, the cat might pee on the hard drive, or the kids might break it, or there could be a fire. At Google, each file is stored several times on different servers. It couldn’t be more secure.

And yet you also still back up your data on a hard drive, Mr. Fair!

Fair: That’s because my wife uses image editing programs where it’s just not practical to have the images in the cloud.

At Google, each file is stored several times on different servers. It couldn’t be more secure.

Greg Fair

I see.

Micklitz: But I, for example, don’t use programs like that, yet still save back-up copies of all my pictures on a hard drive. It’s my data, so I want to have a physical copy.

Why the “irrational” behavior on your part?

Micklitz: We have a very personal and emotional connection to photos. They’re linked to so many memories. As a user, I don’t want to be in the position where I’m relying on a single company to keep my photos safe – even if it’s a company I work for. That’s why portability services like Google Takeout are so important, as they give our users the ability to retrieve their data at any time – even if it’s in the cloud.

Since when has portability been an important topic for Google?

Fair: For over a decade. We started off by developing individual data portability services. Then, in 2011, Google launched its centralized solution: Takeout. We’ve integrated more and more Google services since then, and today, Takeout supports more than 40 of them.

While many users download their data to their computers, they rarely transfer it to other services. Why does this imbalance exist?

Fair: Today, users can transfer data from Google to Dropbox, Box, or Microsoft Office 365 – and vice versa, of course. Many of our competitors don’t yet offer this possibility. To try to change that, we launched the Data Transfer Project in 2017 and officially announced the project in July 2018. This is an open source project that provides companies with free code for portability functions, enabling seamless data transfer from one service to another.

Micklitz: Suppose a start-up develops a great new service. It would be too expensive for a small company to create its own portability solution. Instead, it can go to the Data Transfer Project and transfer the corresponding codes into its own software.

Director of Engineering Stephan Micklitz (right) is responsible for global privacy and security at Google. He studied computer science at the Technical University of Munich and has worked at Google’s Munich office since late 2007.

But how is it in your interest for me to change to another provider?

Fair: We want you to use Google services because they’re the best, not because you think you can’t use your data elsewhere.

The General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force in May 2018, contains provisions on data portability. Did you have to customize your data download tool to meet these specifications?

Fair: When we first read the regulation in 2016, we realized we were already doing pretty well in terms of portability. Even back then, we’d been working intensively on the topic for quite some time.

Micklitz: We think it’s good that this topic is finally getting the attention it deserves. At the moment, portability is still a niche area that doesn’t interest many users. But we believe this will change in a few years.

My children should have snapshots from their childhood, just like I do.

Stephan Micklitz

Why?

Micklitz: People are only just starting to store their data in the cloud. But let’s say a company goes bankrupt and your data is stored on that company’s servers. You’d want to know you could retrieve this data. It also has to do with the topic of data durability. My children should have snapshots from their childhood, just as I can look at my parents’ yellowed photographs.

Do you want digital photos to have the same durability as analog photos?

Micklitz: Yes. This is also an aspect of data protection in the broader sense – that I will still be able to use the data I store today in 50 years’ time.

Photographs: Conny Mirbach

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