Will Cloud Computing Kill Privacy?

As cloud computing speeds ahead, privacy protections are too often being left in the dust.

Loosely defined, cloud computing involves programs or services that run on Internet servers. Despite the buzz surrounding it, the idea isn't new--think Web­mail. But huge benefits, such as being able to gain access to your data from anywhere and not having to worry about backups, have led more people to leap to the Internet to do everything from writing documents and watching movies to managing their businesses. Unfortunately, privacy is often still stuck at home.

Behind the Times

Archaic laws that focus on where your information is, rather than what it is, are part of the problem. But a disturbing lack of respect for essential privacy among industry heavyweights who should know better is also evident.

Consider comments that Google CEO Eric Schmidt made during a recent CNBC interview. In response to the question, "People are treating Google like their most trusted friend. Should they be?" Schmidt responded, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.

This kind of "only the guilty have anything to hide" mindset is a privacy killer, and rests on the completely flawed no­­tion that people want privacy only when they're doing something wrong. There's nothing wrong with my taking a shower or searching for information about a medical condition. But it's still private.

It's possible Schmidt spoke without thinking--Google is mum for now on the prospect of issuing a clarification of any kind. But meanwhile, privacy is taking a pounding in other areas, as well.

Last summer, a U.S. District Court judge in Oregon ruled that government law enforcement agencies need not provide you with a copy of a warrant they have obtained in order to read all of your e-mail stored on an Internet server--where most of us keep e-mail these days. It's sufficient to give your Internet service provider notice, according to Judge Michael Mosman.

In his opinion and order, Mosman noted the Fourth Amendment's "strong privacy protection for homes and the items within them in the physical world." Still, he said, "When a person uses the Internet, however, the user's actions are no longer in his or her physical home; in fact he or she is not truly acting in private space at all."

The Cloud of Unknowing

This focus on the physical location of data ignores how people use the Internet. The Internet and cloud computing support a huge range of activities. And there's a big difference between data I post on Facebook and data I store in a Google Doc. Wherever it is, if it's personal data I don't explicitly share, it's private.

If we are to have a sound basis for trusting cloud computing, with its call to store and run everything on the Internet, both laws and attitudes need to catch up to 21st-century reality. Until then, don't expect real privacy online.

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