Modal Semantics in the News

Mon May 16, 2011

Wired reports on the brouhaha surrounding the security of Dropbox, a geek favorite (I am including myself). Dropbox used to say that

Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files, and when troubleshooting an account, they only have access to file metadata (filenames, file sizes, etc. not the file contents).

Now they say

Dropbox employees are prohibited from viewing the content of files you store in your Dropbox account, and are only permitted to view file metadata (e.g., file names and locations).

Any normal natural language user would interpret these two statements as distinct, I would think. (not) able to is a modal typically understood as talking about what is practically possible, while prohibited is all about things that are practically possible but circumscribed by rules and regulations.

Dropbox takes the heroic stance that the statements are equivalent:

In our help article we stated “Dropbox employees aren’t able to access user files.” That means that we prevent such access via access controls on our backend as well as strict policy prohibitions.

As Kratzerians, we’re used to modals being heavily context-dependent, but I think Dropbox has almost no leg to stand on. Does anyone care to defend Dropbox’s semantic analysis of able to?