The Evils of Cloud Computing

by francine Hardaway on February 8, 2009

Like everybody else, I’ve been migrating my information to the Cloud. I started with GoogleDocs, but now it’s almost ALL all there: my social graph, my online banking, my online tax filing, Facebook, Twitter, even my business bookkeeping and some of my medical data. My hard drive is pristine, except for my music and my iPhoto library. For me, it seems like such a convenience to sync everything to MobileMe that it’s been a no-brainer of a switch. Until I heard Brad Templeton, President of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, speak at BIL.

Templeton reminded me that as I had suspected, “cloud computing” began with the mainframe, which made timesharing necessary and popular, because computing time and cycles were scarce and expensive.

Timesharing gave way to the disruptive force of personal computing, and then of client/server computing. Ironically, cloud computing has brought us back to timesharing, albeit in a different format..

Facebook, Templeton says, is the best example of timesharing and its potential dangers. When you use Facebook, your information is not on your hard drive, but on Facebook’s own site. Then Facebook has these other “apps.” They sound so cool and innocent. But every time you use an app, you are granting it permission to take your information and perhaps put it in the wild. As Templeton said, “data exported is data lost.”

Templeton takes this further, believing that data in the hands of third parties does not have the protection of the 4th amendment (the right to privacy). With the exception of certain types of data, such as email and medical information, which have statutory protection, the data we transfer to the cloud stands unprotected.

Using a little hyperbole,Templeton refers to this as “Erasing the 4th Amendment,” and counsels us to at least think about what we’re doing before we rush headlong into what he visualizes as a potential mushroom cloud.

“Should we erase the Bill of Rights so casually,” Templeton asks, “when if the same data remained on your own hard drive, it WOULD be protected.” What’s the rush to get it into the cloud?

Simple. It’s too tempting to migrate and take the chance, , because you miss out on all the coolness if you don’t contribute your data.  You don’t get to participate. Facebook reverses the signup dynamic. You can sign up easily, without much barrier to entry, and without entering much information. But over time, more and more information is added, until Facebook knows everything about you! And then there are those Facebook apps — effectively another company’s web site inserted into a Facebook page, asking to get your data so it can recommend a movie for you, or find you a friend. What have we done?

We are enjoined to consider the balance between privacy and openness, and at least think when we change it. We are really shifting the balance between the public and the private as we speak.

Why does privacy matter? Because in shy people, behavior is different when you think you are being watched (Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) There are two choices: Let the privacy people have their way, or OR, if you want privacy, you can’t use our cool new app. We need something in between.

A long web form is an impediment, but what you make easy to do you make easy to ask for. Thus, ease of use and data portability are really bugs. They make it too easy to ask for information. End-user control inhibits negotiation – you can opt out, but only out of the whole thing. You can’t negotiate which parts of the agreement you want to participate in.

So ironically, cloud computing inhibits the power of the user, even if it makes things more convenient. In the cloud, I can’t make Facebook faster by buying a faster computer,nor can
I switch away without a huge re-export of my data (data portability). Templeton refers to this as BEPSI, the Bulk Export of Your Personal and Sensitive Information. And once data is exported, it is lost.

How all this data in the cloud could be used also frightens Templeton, who says the history of humanity is a long chorus of police states punctuated by a few staccato notes of freedom. We must take care not to build the infrastructure of a police state.

Cloud computing is actually changing the world. Once we put all our data thru somebody else’s pipes, they can throw the lever toward a police state. We probably don’t want to be the inadvertent cause of that eventuality.

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