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Gmail disruption sends some users calling for backup

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:51 PM

Tens of thousands of Gmail users were mysteriously locked out of their accounts Monday, or could not find any of their e-mails, as a result of a Google bug, a company representative said. The victims - about 38,000 people, or approximately .02 percent of all Gmail users - should have had their accounts restored by the end of the day, Google spokeswoman Jessica Kositz said.

Google engineers are still trying to determine what caused the malfunction, Kositz said, adding that the company plans to issue an explanation by the middle of the week. "Unfortunately, this was a bug on our side, but what we saw was that this involved a really small percentage of our users," she said. "We keep everything on backup. We're taking this seriously, and we're working as quickly as possible."

The tech Web site Engadget was reporting Monday that Google had basically reset people's accounts, even issuing new welcome messages. Kositz said she was unable to confirm any explanation until Google releases its incident report. Google has been updating its maintenance progress on its Web site about every two hours.

The collective panic of Gmail users inevitably tumbled onto Twitter, another Web addiction, where bereft Gmailers groaned about their vanished e-mails or offered help to each other. "My gmail account disabled? horror of horrors! (hiding serious suckiness of situation behind mask of blasé hyberbole)," wrote Kristina Ljubanovic of Canada.

Many Twitterers were suggesting that people should download a service called Backupify, which offers backup support for cloud-based data applications such as Gmail and Facebook. Backupify offers a range of services, some that are free, others that cost $5 or $20 a month, according to its Web site. Competitors such as Carbonite and Mozy offer similar services.

Technology experts said the episode should serve as a wake-up call to those who have become reliant on cloud computing tools and believe their information can be accessed at any time, anywhere. Not so, according to Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to privacy rights in the digital age.

"We think of cloud computing as a bunch of clouds - they're fluffy and white, but it's actually other people's computers, and other people's computers can go down," Cohn said. "By calling it cloud computing, people are really not understanding what's going on and are therefore are making assumptions about the safety and security of their information. It used to be that you would dial up to your Internet service provider, and you would download all your e-mails onto your computer. The only e-mails you didn't have were the ones you didn't pick up."

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