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Web OS Meltdown

Your data is in someone else's hands. -PGP Corporation CTO Jon Callas
Photograph: Robert Cardin, Marianna Whang
The scenario: You receive a series of e-mail notes. The first attaches a compromising photo from your college days. The second excerpts an interoffice e-mail message containing confidential details of your company's merger negotiations. The third replicates a nostalgic letter that you recently sent to an ex-flame, whom you ran into at your high school reunion.

The fourth e-mail demands that you send $50,000 to an offshore account within 48 hours or your spouse, your kids, and your boss will get copies of the other three messages. You have no idea how you got targeted, but someone with the keys to your online life is trying to use your past against you.

What started in 2005 with Google and Microsoft Windows Live suites of Web-based consumer applications later evolved, toward the end of the decade, into online business applications that made having anything but a Web browser on an office workstation unnecessary. Soon afterward, a multiplatform operating system appeared that synced to your TV, car, cell phone, and digital video recorder. Its instant access and ease of use soon had you storing a lifetime's worth of messages, media, shopping lists, photos, notes, and books on third-party servers.

Like countless others, you trusted big-name developers of new OS and Web apps to secure your data. But the volume of valuable information they house has attracted organized criminals who specialize in online data theft. They always seem to find a way to evade the latest security technologies.

You tell your company's chief security officer about the leaked merger e-mail, and she quickly initiates an FBI-led investigation.

The good news: The FBI will soon apprehend a low-level member of the gang, and your company's CTO will work on bringing hosted data services back inside the company firewall. (Wiki collaboration software provider JotSpot started offering this option back in 2006 for firms uneasy about third-party hosting.) The bad news: Your toga party photos are destined to be a big hit on the interoffice e-mail.

Why it might happen: "The biggest worry, which covers everything from Web mail to search to spreadsheets to Web OS, is how much of your data is in someone else's hands and therefore is not really yours," says PGP Corporation CTO Jon Callas. "The entire thing is running on their servers. How do you know what is going on? How much of it is yours? How much do you get to back up or delete? An awful lot of this is insecure."

Even if a company such as Google offers ironclad guarantees never to snoop into or sell your data, you're at risk from hackers, rogue coworkers, and even subpoenas or civil lawsuits filed against your company. Federal privacy laws afford less protection to data held on a third party's server than to data stored on a private hard drive.

"If [government investigators] need a warrant for your house but not your car, then certainly they don't need it for your Web mail," says Callas.

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