There’s a trend for agents to upload their contracts and other critical documents to Google Docs — what in heaven’s name are they thinking?

At the Real Estate Connect and National Association of Realtors conferences, I have repeatedly heard agents say that they are using Google Docs as the way to store the documents in the cloud (i.e., not just on their computer or on paper).

In fact, several agents said that they now do everything in Google Docs. It took all my willpower to keep from raising my hand and asking, "What are you thinking?"

If you’re currently using Google Docs, you may want to consider other options. Here’s why.

Shane Bowlin, the general manager of our company, said it can be "impractical for business use," and instead recommends Dropbox. Of course, some real estate companies do find value in migrating "to the cloud" in adopting Google Apps, including Google’s Gmail and Google Docs (see a tech column by Tom Flanagan published earlier this week: "Moving real estate to the cloud and beyond").

But Dropbox, which allows you to create a folder to share files with various parties, or an online transaction tracking platform, may offer enough value and versatility for some companies.

Dropbox allows you to have a main file that is open to the escrow, title and mortgage professionals as well as to you, your clients and the other agents, for example. You could also set up another folder that only you and your clients can access.

To put a file into Dropbox, all you do is drag and drop it — as you would with other files and folders on your computer. It’s incredibly fast. There’s no waiting for your computer to slowly upload and download documents, pictures and videos.

This is a huge time-saver for everyone involved in the transaction. Furthermore, you control the level of security. You determine who has access to your Dropbox.

Some have expressed privacy concerns about using Google Docs. While the debate about who owns real estate listings data has been waged for years, fewer seem to be paying much attention to what extent Google (or Facebook, for that matter) is sharing information about your clients and friends without their express permission.

If you haven’t read the privacy policy for Google Docs, here are two provisions that should give you pause for concern:

"Information you provide — When you sign up for a Google Account, we ask you for personal information. We may combine the information you submit under your account with information from other Google services or third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services. For certain services, we may give you the opportunity to opt out of combining such information. You can use the Google Dashboard to learn more about the information associated with your account."

The first issue here is exactly who are the "third parties"? The term "third party" means a company outside of Google. Do you want your information combined with information from companies outside of Google that you know nothing about?

Furthermore, while Google may allow you to "opt out" of this information-blending in some cases, the language here suggests that there are services where you cannot opt out.

Here’s the second provision that I think is even more serious:

"Third-Party Applications — Google may make available third-party applications, such as gadgets or extensions, through its services. The information collected by Google when you enable a third-party application is processed under this privacy policy. Information collected by the third-party application provider is governed by their privacy policies."

Google is spelling it out in clear English that your information, and potentially that of your clients, is not covered under the Google privacy policy once a third-party application is used. Rather, the information is governed by the third parties’ privacy policy rather than Google’s privacy policy.

Furthermore: "This privacy policy applies to Google services only. We do not exercise control over the sites displayed as search results, sites that include Google applications, products or services, or links from within our various services. These other sites may place their own cookies or other files on your computer, collect data or solicit personal information from you."

In other words, these other sites may be tracking you and your clients via the information you provide. If you want to know how bad this issue is, open your browser and see how many tracking cookies are on your computer. The number is usually pretty stunning unless you have all cookies blocked.

The first question as an agent or broker that you must ask is, "How would your clients feel about having their personal information distributed to a third party that does business with Google, especially when you have no idea who that third party is or what they will do with the information?"

An even more important question is, "Do you have an obligation to disclose that your clients’ personal information may be shared with third parties if you are using third-party applications?"

Of course, Dropbox also outlines a privacy policy on its website that includes such language as: "Personal information that we collect may include, but is not limited to, your name, phone number, credit card or other billing information, e-mail address and home and business postal addresses. Personal information may also include information you supply to us concerning your preferences and interests expressed in the course of use of our site."

And Dropbox outlines a series of ways the personal information may be used, including: "to better understand your needs and interests" and "to provide you with further information and offers from us or third parties that we believe you may find useful or interesting."

It’s also important to take care with Dropbox public folders, as information placed there is "automatically available to other Dropbox users and to the general public," and to note this disclaimer: "Dropbox will have no responsibility for any harm to your computer system, loss or corruption of data, or other harm that results from your access to or use of the site, content, files or services."

If you are going to share your information in the cloud, there are great solutions that do not share information without your consent. You wouldn’t knowingly give your client list and their contact information to another agent, and certainly not to a third-party advertiser that you don’t know. Then why would you use a service that provides your clients’ information to third parties without your consent?

You may choose to seek out options that protect your clients’ privacy and do the job more efficiently, in less time and with less effort.

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