Law in the Internet Society

Rise of the Cloud

-- By JohnStewart

Network remote storage based services have been steadily on the rise in recent years. Gmail, Dropbox, iCloud, Skydrive and many more have been collectively marketed as “cloud” based services whereby a 3rd party company hosts a variety of data files that had traditionally been stored on our personal storage solutions. In the past, one either purchased a larger hard drive for their computer or set-up a network attached storage device to access personal files. As broadband speeds (both landline and mobile) have increased so has the ability to more easily access files remotely.

In an effort to promote adoption of these remote storage solutions, and consequently encourage users to permit files to be stored on the companies’ storage, the services have been touted as a convenient way to store and access a user’s files across devices without the trouble of setting up a home server solution. As consumers embrace “the cloud” a careful examination of exactly what data, how that data is being stored and the company’s motivation for storing is essential to determine whether or not the supposed convenience is worth the privacy sacrifice.

Motivation Matters

Accessing data that resides on a remote hard drive via a network has long been the core function of the internet. More recently companies have found that offering remote storage services is a good business opportunity for a variety of reasons. A brief look at how these services vary, what data they capture, and what motivates the companies is important.

Google is at its core an advertising company, and as a result it is in the business of knowing as much as possible about everyone. The more information they have about an individual the better they can target ads and the more money they make from selling ads. Google’s product offerings present serious privacy concerns given the breadth of data they both actively collect (such as retaining search queries) and services they offer that place user data on their servers at the direction of the user (such as Gmail).

Gmail is the company’s most well-known offering and it is also the service that is likely to contain the most sensitive personal information (although arguably location data detailing where you are or places you frequently visit is equally, if not more “personal” than e-mails). One’s e-mail correspondence could range from the very personal – such as communications with loved ones or sensitive work-related information – to benign advertising spam. In both cases your email resides on Google’s servers and while their current privacy policy explains that humans aren’t reading your email they are scanned to better target ads displayed alongside your emails.

The breadth of Google’s other service offerings also make them unique. Their “cloud” offerings such as Google drive place more of your files on Google’s servers, but Google’s ability to paint a complete picture of user activity truly begins to become worrisome when all of this data is tied to a single user. If you use an android phone and Google’s Chrome web browser, have enabled location services, allowed Google to retain your search queries sent from your phone and browser and signed in to all of these things with your Google log-in then all of this data is tied to you, a single user. All of a sudden Google likely knows more about you, your e-mails, your contacts, where you have been, what you search for and when (and can serve much better ads) than probably any single person in your life – this is a very good reason to think twice about using Google’s services, or at least embracing all of them simultaneously.

In contrast, Apple’s revenues are derived from selling consumer products at a premium price (with a mark-up any company would be envious of). Their iCloud service offer syncing functionality as well as network remote storage services for contacts, calendars, photos, music, books and apps. The service is meant to enhance the value and usability of their core product offerings – namely their laptops, ipods, ipads and iphones – and promote a cohesive product ecosystem. That they are driven by a desire to sell more products rather than sell more ads is a fundamental distinction that is important to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to adopt these services. The decision to place your contacts, family and otherwise private photos and e-mail on their servers should give you pause – but there is at least some solace in knowing Apple’s primary motivation is to make your iphone/macbook pro function better together and not to simply know as much about you as possible.

The Lesser of two Evils

At best, the motivations of Google and Apple only help to predict the direction these companies may move in the future with respect to handling your data and what plans they may have for how to use it. However, this is an important consideration and recent developments are illustrative of why motivation matters. When Google changed its terms of service to allow it to track users across its services despite the brief uproar it wasn’t very surprising. This move allows them to better target ads. This also helps explain why Google continues to make as many of its products like Google maps and Google now available on the iOS ecosystem as possible – to capture more user data.

When Apple makes the news it’s more likely to be over a security breach rather user privacy concerns. (That isn’t to say they aren’t criticized for privacy issues) But the fact is that a company built on a business model that depends on collecting and using more of your data and information, compared to one that sells devices and wants to make them work more smoothly together, raises more privacy concerns.

The bottom line is, in a perfect world our data wouldn't be handed over to 3rd parties. However, given people’s penchant for usability and simplicity the fact is, we do. As long as we continue to use these services it is important to keep in mind what data we’re handing over and how the 3rd party is likely going to use that data now and in the future. Apple is by no means a saint but given the trajectory of the two companies I’d be more willing to ditch Gmail and use an iphone and the attendant Apple services right now than embrace all of Google’s offerings.

***There is also a very real consideration of how much of a fight the companies put up when governments ask for data but that isn’t the focus here.

- John Stewart


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r3 - 11 May 2013 - 15:30:26 - JohnStewart
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