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SCIENCE AND TECH

4 MIN

Should You Trust the Cloud With Your Data?

Consumers know the cloud is leaky – but in the name of convenience, many of us don't care

“I don’t trust the cloud,” said Brian Snow. That’s a sentiment shared by a lot of people who feel that there’s a growing pressure on them to abandon tried-and-true local storage of their precious data in favour of an unseeable, untouchable, and sometimes incomprehensible network of distant machines, collectively known as “the cloud.”

But Snow isn’t just your average consumer; he’s the former director of the U.S. National Security Agency. When he spoke to a crowd of security and encryption experts about his misgivings back in 2010, he foreshadowed the impending storm that was headed our way three years later: Edward Snowden’s revelations that the NSA had been an invisible part of the cloud for many years, listening in on all types of communication and peering effortlessly at documents. According to Network World’s Tim Greene, a fellow conference panellist summed up the reality succinctly: “There's a pipe out of the back of an office at AT&T in San Francisco to NSA."

You would think these revelations would have created a crisis of trust, followed by an implosion of cloud services and a significant retreat in the market value of the companies that offer them. But if consumers and businesses are reticent about the cloud, it isn’t reflected in their investing patterns. We have evidently weighed the risks to our privacy and security (insofar as we’re aware of them) against the benefits and decided we’re still all right with remote servers storing their personal data. Google (a.k.a. Alphabet) is arguably one of the biggest players in this space and its market cap has blossomed, having grown by more than 60% since the 2013 NSA scandal. Amazon, the other monster cloud player through its Amazon Drive product, has seen a nearly identical increase in its value over the same time period. This apparent dichotomy between the fears we express about the cloud and the value we place on the companies behind it can be explained in one word: convenience.

The king of convenience is Google. It was born as a cloud company, with its first and most lucrative product – search – a shining example of how sophisticated algorithms, when connected to vast quantities of data, can deliver an almost magical experience. I’m willing to bet my iPhone that you’ve become so accustomed to using search, you’d be devastated if it went away. You may not think of searching as a cloud service, but the key to a web search’s convenience is its ability to scan trillions of pieces of data to instantly find the one or two web pages or videos that possess the info you’re looking for.  

The company’s next big cloud hit, Gmail, has turned one billion of us into compulsive – and brutally disorganized – hoarders of email. That’s what happens when you combine nearly unlimited free storage and the world’s most powerful search engine. Why delete – or even file – anything ever again? Gmail became early proof of the cloud’s convenience triple-play: anywhere availability, scalable storage and powerful, search-driven content management.

Soon, Google doubled-down on its cloud bet, with a bevvy of new apps like Google+, Google Docs, Google Drive – just to name a few – all of which leverage the strengths of search and Gmail, but also incorporate the convenience of sharing and collaboration, making them pitch-perfect products for millennials.

Google isn’t alone in this space, but its portfolio of products remains unmatched, even as Microsoft (Office 365) and Apple (iCloud) desperately try to find ways to compete that don’t undermine their traditional revenue models. It’s no easy task. Anyone with abundant cash can build data centres and offer consumers huge online repositories for their content, but helping them manage that content remains Google’s biggest strength.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in its newest cloud offering: Google Photos. What was a sub-tool of Google+ until May of last year is now its own stand-alone product with a killer bargain for snap-happy people (basically, anyone who owns a smartphone): free, unlimited online storage for your photos and videos, paired with apps for smartphones, tablets and computers that automate the upload process, and the ability to share individual photos or entire albums with anyone, whether they have a Google account or not.

And as they say, that’s not all: Key to Photos’ value is its integration of search, image recognition, collaboration, and automatic tools like animations – Photos identifies images that were taken in quick succession based on their timestamp, and stitches them together into an animated GIF, among other tricks – which gives users an entirely new perspective on their photos without having to lift a finger (or tap an app). You will also find that Google has the uncanny ability to identify the content of your photos; a search for “bicycles” will quickly reveal how many of your snaps contain two-wheelers.

This is the new world, in which programs and documents that once sat in solitude on your computer, are migrating to the cloud, a place that is quickly becoming the primary location for our digital lives. It’s a trade-off, of course, and some might say a Faustian one. In exchange for easy access, massive storage, and tools that let us do more with our data than ever before, we must trust that this data won’t become vulnerable to misuse. Whether it’s misuse by the company that gave us the tool, or by nefarious outside actors beyond our control, we assume an element of risk.

The companies that provide us with cloud access know we’re sensitive to that risk even as we continue to pay our monthly subscriptions for data storage. Apple is attempting to differentiate its photos service from Google based on privacy – with upcoming changes to its iOS platform, similar image processing to Google Photos will be done on your device instead of in the cloud, thus improving the likelihood of keeping your photos private.

As individuals, we each have to evaluate the evolving safeguards over our data – no easy task for those of us who aren’t technically inclined – and decide if this risk is worth the reward. Personally, I believe it is. Our thousands of family photos now live on Google’s servers, and this article was authored in Google Docs and collaboratively shared with my editor. That said, I try to be vigilant over the ways that this content can be accessed, carefully using the privacy tools that Google provides to manage who sees what. It’s not perfect; there’s still plenty of room for error and loss of control.

Should you trust the cloud? I’m sure Snow and Snowden would still say no. But for those of us who simply want to share family photos and enjoy the peace of mind of an off-site backup, it’s hard to resist the convenience of having someone else do the storing and sorting for you.

Published Thursday, June 23rd 2016

Header image credit: Shutterstock

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