When we talk about “the cloud,” we simply mean the Internet. It’s a new name for something we’ve been doing for a long time: using the Internet to store and exchange data. Cloud computing, however, takes this concept to a new level. Pair that with the prevalence of Internet threats and you really have to start taking a look at where your data is going.
Increased use of mobile devices only makes matters worse. Vendors are embracing the cloud as a simple way to synchronize between devices of differing manufacturers and models. What is easier for them is not necessarily better for you. I’ll use Apple’s iCloud as an example, although the problem is industry-wide.
Until now, the way to sync a mobile device to a computer was to connect the two with a cord – in the old days it was a serial cable, now it’s traditionally USB. Connect the cable, run your software, and you’re synced. But there are drawbacks to this method, especially when you have to sync more than one device, and it’s not always an intuitive process.
Enter iCloud, which promises to let you sync all your iDevices with ease. Apple’s web site proudly states, in classic Steve Jobs style:
“iCloud stores your music, photos, documents, and more and wirelessly pushes them to all your devices. Automatic, effortless, and seamless — it just works.”
Yes, but what does that mean, exactly?
Where once your data went through a simple cable from your mobile device to your computer, now it traverses miles of network and resides in one or more data centers. Syncing one contact between two devices sitting less than an inch from each other now involves millions of dollars in IT infrastructure. Creepy, when you think about it, and not very environmentally friendly either.
Consumers seem willing to make the trade-off, if mobile and cloud revenues are any indication. To be honest, I don’t think most people think about it. This complacency can easily lead to increased security risks. Imagine the stuff on your phone: contacts, calendars, all sorts of information you’d never trust to a complete stranger. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you using cloud services to sync. New services like iCloud let you sync even more information. Pretty soon everything you do on an electronic device will be on the Internet.
Or has that already happened? I described my recent experience evaluating iPad RSS apps and my realization that the only decent products, not to mention all the award-winners, required the use of Google Reader. This means that you have to put all your feeds – the blogs and web sites you subscribe to – on the Internet. Never mind the free speech issues and Big Brother implications that the government could watch and/or censor what you’re reading, what if I don’t want to put my feeds in the cloud? They only need to reside in two places: my computer and my iPad.
But the apps with the features I wanted required Reader, so I held my nose and accepted the inevitable. That is becoming the only option if you want the functionality these products promise. A few – a very few – vendors include options that allow you the same functionality without using the cloud, but the process often feels like a kludge. They don’t want you to do it that way. They want you where it’s easy (and cheap) for them to deal with you and your data.
I’m in IT, so I’ve got computer security on the brain. The average person doesn’t and that concerns me. For most people technology is a black box that they hope, as Jobs said, “just works.” The cloud makes that easier, but at what cost? I think it’s important that we think about the implications of technology before diving headlong into its use.