Surprisingly, I have seen this happen several times. Someone and I share a Dropbox folder as we work on a joint project. Six months or a year later, that someone starts loading documents into the shared folder that clearly are not intended for me. Has the person forgotten that the folder is shared? Has the person forgotten with whom the folder is shared?

Inadvertent sharing is a real danger for lawyers as more and more of us use services such as Dropbox, Box and SugarSync. In my case, none of the documents inadvertently shared with me involve attorney-client privilege or work product. But it seems a safe bet that the day will come when some lawyer will put the wrong document in the wrong shared folder — with disastrous results.

It is easy to determine if a Dropbox folder is shared. Log in to your Dropbox website and look at the list of folders. If the folder is shared, it says “shared folder” next to the name. To see who it is shared with, right click the folder and select “shared folder options.” (Alternatively, open the folder and select “shared folder options” from the top of the screen.)  There, you will see an option for displaying the folder’s members.

Don’t forget that Dropbox installs a mirror set of folders on your local computer in order to synchronize between your desktop and the Web. The folder icons on your desktop version of Dropbox display a little picture of a person to indicate when a folder is shared.

Know How to ‘Unshare’

If you were the person who originally created and shared the folder, you can “unshare” the folder. To do this, open the shared folder options (by right clicking on the folder) and click on “members” to show the people with whom the folder is shared. From there, you can either “kick out” individual members or unshare the entire folder.

Remember that, just as Dropbox mirrored the folder on your desktop, it did the same on the desktops of the folder’s other members. As the owner of the folder, you get to decide whether the other members get to keep their copy of your shared folder.

When you unshare a folder or kick out a member, Dropbox will ask you if you want to let the members keep their desktop copy of the folder and its files. If you say no, the files will be deleted immediately from their Dropbox websites and from their desktops the next time they synchronize their Dropbox folders.

There is a flip side to this. If you have files in a folder that someone else created, you stand the risk of losing those files. If the person who originally shared the folder unshares it, you might lose anything you stored there, even if it has been synchronized to your desktop.

The ability to share folders is one of the best features of Dropbox. Just make sure you learn how to share safely.

  • Great post Bob. I’ve seen the same thing happen quite a few times.

    We’ve reached the point where we now create a new folder for sharing and name it using the name of the person with whom we’re sharing (i.e. John Doe Shared). That way we, hopefully, remember what the folder is all about and avoid using it for something else.

    Thanks for the reminder to be cautious. I can’t be reminded enough of how it’s the little stuff like this that can get us into trouble and upset clients.

    Lee Rosen

  • I see where your fears are coming from. I have been using Dropbox for a while now. So far, I am enjoying its services because I store files that re not life-threatening. But in case of lawyers, well, that’s a bit of a scare.

  • Bob,

    Excellent post. Dropbox is wonderful for sharing and syncing, but it is also fraught with danger for precisely the reason you mention. It seems similar to sending an email to the wrong person.

    I have a couple of other tips for dealing with the issue of accidental sharing:

    1. I color the folder names of share folders with a bold, vivid color so they stand out. I use a Mac, but I assume you can do this with a PC also; and

    2. If possible, I create one “shared” folder within Dropbox for shared documents and folders. This provides an extra level of protection to prevent accidental sharing.


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  • Question – how about if you just shared a link – not the same as creating and sharing a folder. How do you know with whom you have shared the link and what do you do, other than deleting the folder/files, to “unshare” in that case?

  • I adopted a method which reduces convenience a tad, but lowers the risk of “forgetfulness:” All of my shared folders are located under a parent folder called “shared.” I never share any other folder which is not under “shared.”
    So it looks like this:

    I just could not stomach the idea that “somewhere,” buried deep, there’ll be a shared folder, I’ll miss the icon and then “drag and drop” something there accidentally.
    The structure above, in my opinion, is a bit more resilient to mistakes (if I’m tired / had a beer / both…)

  • Richard

    I’m new to Dropbox and these posts are really helpful. I do voluntary work for a local museum and have been looking for ways to make our electronic info more widely available. I’d been asking myself exactly the same point as Johanna. The best solution I can think of is to mail the link to myself as well as the intended recipient, and then store my copy of the link in the museum’s records. With Dropbox Pro, you can apparently set an expiry date for the link so that it isn’t ‘open-ended’.

  • Kevin G. O’Neill

    Very helpful topic. Thanks! One additional “Dropbox feedback” thought: It’d be helpful if “parent” folders could be marked to indicate when the folder contains shared sub or sub-sub folders, as the case may be. Right now a folder only shows the shared icon (of two figures), if it itself is shared. In other words, some sort of sharing management system would seem to be necessary. (If one exists I have not learned about it yet.) I should like to be able to click a button and have the entire folder structure “exploded” so I can see all folders and see clearly indicated each and every shared folder.

    • Bob Ambrogi

      Good idea. Thanks for posting.