By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Senior Director of Academic Computing and User Services and Deputy Chief Information Officer for University Information Technology
All Your File are Belong to Us*
This month, the latest thing on the Internet is cloud storage. Perhaps you haven't needed to store your cloud, or perhaps you don't even own one, however, that's not what we're talking about here. Cloud storage refers to Internet services that allow you to store your files and information on remote sites managed by some third party, usually a commercial interest of some kind. Cloud storage services are not new. In Internet terms, you might say they are even mature, since they've been around for over a year or more. But, with the recent announcement of Google's entry into cloud storage, named Google Drive, the cloud storage market became much more visible.
On the face of it, Internet cloud storage seems like an ideal service. These companies are providing 2-5 gigabytes of storage for you to use and it's at no charge to you. They'll make a bit of money if you decide to "upgrade" to a larger amount of storage space, but you'll get the benefit of having all of your files available to you wherever you happen to be and from whatever Internet-connected device you are using. You can also easily share files with others on the Internet, some of which might be to large to send by e-mail.
What could go wrong?
We recently had a very real example of what can go wrong when in January 2012, the U.S. Government shut down a cloud storage service known as Megaupload. The rationale for shutting down the site was the accusation that it was being used to host "pirated" copyrighted materials such as movies and music. If you were a Megaupload user and didn't have other copies of your files, you are out of luck. Reports indicated that all content could be deleted leaving users without copies of their personal online intellectual property. It seems that cloud storage can be as ephemeral as clouds in the sky. You can't be sure when they'll be blown away.
Even if you are not under peril from the U.S. Government, there are other concerns regarding cloud storage. Dropbox.com is one of the more successful services, but has had questions raised about its security standards and practices. Dropbox.com has also documented that their service is not FERPA or HIPAA compliant. While neither of these issues may be grounds to totally dismiss their storage service as useful, it does bring home the point that care should be taken as to what you store in the cloud versus what needs to stay in house -- that's either your personal house or your employer's.
A very old rule of e-mail that this column has documented is "assume permanence and ubiquity." Permanence comes from the fact that most of what we do in the online world is backed up or replicated at some point. Even if you think an e-mail is long gone, it may remain on some backup tape somewhere or in some archive. In the case of Google, they save everything and claim the right to use it even if you terminate your use of their service. Ubiquity comes from the fact that once you let something loose on the Internet, you potentially lose all control over that resource. All it takes is one rogue copy to be captured and the whole world can know your business. In the new world of cloud storage, the permanence and ubiquity role again comes into play.
In spite of the potential pitfalls, cloud storages services remain really useful and convenient. Some common sense can help you take advantage of such services without placing your personal intellectual property in peril. Never use cloud storage for personal or private information, either your own or information at your place of business. Never use cloud storage for proprietary information that you don't want others to have. Never use cloud storage for information for which you don't have explicit ownership.
In the future, there may be standards that develop to help assure the privacy and integrity of files store in the cloud. Internet 2, the higher education research network, and Box.com have announced a partnership to promote and develop cloud storage for educational institutions, including developing methods for ensuring security and privacy along with easy access. In the meantime, it's best to tread carefully when walking in the cloud.