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The 'Cloudy' Skies Corporations Want to Sell You

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It's the nature of the shallow, consumer-driven, dream-drunken culture our society tries to impose on us that we popularly adopt terms without knowing what they mean and, more often than not, they don't mean much of anything.

Such is the case with "the Cloud".


The Fictiional Cloud with Pen and Coffee
(Image by All State)
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The Fictiional Cloud with Pen and Coffee by All State


Most people who use computers believe they know what it is except that everyone seems to have a different definition. From a satellite-based storage system to a virtually invisible network to a collection of hard drives all over the world to a new form of storage that doesn't require computers to...whatever new definition pops up this week. In any case, you have heard of the "cloud" and probably aren't sure what it really is.

This week, click here">the Army announced it would be putting its Defense Cross-Domain Analytical Capability -- a database storing various kinds of "security-relevant" information -- on the Cloud. This surprising development indicates a level of maturity for Cloud computing that could be important for us all, in a contradictory way. We are closer than ever to being able to build a completely de-centralized and privacy-protected Internet network and that is a development we all should be actively supporting. Unsurprisingly, it's a development corporations are frantically seeking to prevent or control.

To understand all this, you have to first understand what "cloud storage" actually is and to do that you have to divert your eyes from the sky. That's not where you'll find it -- no satellites or "non-wired data transfer" or invisible storage devices. It's not the complete break with previous Internet technology some think it is. In fact, it's not even new.

A "cloud" is nothing more than a bunch of computers linked by a network. There's no consensus about how it got its name, although companies are more than happy to avoid correcting people's misinterpretations. But we know how it was developed. It's a simple "protocol" (a system of computer commands) that allows for the automatic and rapid sharing of information across a network based on the division of files into smaller packages. In short, while you think you claim a precise place for all your files (a kind of personal hard drive in space) when you rent a piece of the "cloud", you're giving your files to a provider so they can be chopped up and stored on several computers in the provider's network.

This allows a provider to use its space efficiently and serve up your stored files quickly. If a particular storage computer is being overloaded with attempts to store information on it or retrieve information from it, the traditional storage computer would slow down or even crash. But with Cloud technology, the provider can route your request to many computers on which your file is stored and "distribute" the demand with each storage device on the network taking on a bit of the "load". It's a like a team pulling a heavy object and it all happens automatically and in a flash.

Neat, huh? Companies sure think so and click here">they're selling the service aggressively. They also have all kinds of products that afford an expansion of the basic storage services. For a higher price, for example, you can store your own software or share the software you and other cloudsters routinely use. So with this enhanced Cloud product, your computer's hard drive can be almost empty.

This is a newer version of an old protocol called "dumb computer networking" in which your computer is not much more than a screen, a keyboard and a connection to the central server. All the computers on the network use that server as their hard drive. That's the way a lot of companies still work, keeping their employees from using their own workstations for personal communication (or writing a novel on company's time) and also making "owership" of that data unquestioned and unassailable. When they use the Cloud, it's as a back-up of their data.

That's also the way most individuals use it although they store stuff on their own hard drives. For them, the Cloud provides a safe and secure back-up storage that's immune to the data-loss resulting from that dreaded incident all of us have experienced: the hard drive crash.

If that sounds particularly attractive and without a down-side, a question might pierce that illusion. Do you have any private data, stuff you don't want anyone else to see or files you want to own without sharing? Do you store any of that on a cloud? Then it's not private anymore and, legally, it's not completely yours. Your data is now in the hands of a big corporation that moves it around, divides it, backs it up and stores it in places you don't know exist.

If the government demands for that data or some lawyer manages to get a judge to subpeona it, it is no longer yours. It will be consolidated and handed over almost immediately. In fact, even if you cleverly decide to erase all your Cloudy data the second you learn of the subpeona or seizure order (through one of those http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_security_letter">National Security Letters), you have absolutely no assurance that your data won't be available. It's been backed up in ways you know nothing about and, even if you erase it, it probably is still someplace on the Cloud network.

The recent decision ordering Google to http://www.cnbc.com/id/100781516">turn over data demanded by National Security letters means that companies will turn information over. If one the richest and most politically connected technology companies on earth can't win that one, very few companies are going to even try. And the privacy policies that accompany Cloud contracts simply don't protect your datas. Here, for instance, is part of the http://www.dropbox.com/privacy">privacy statement from DropBox (more or less what they all say):

"We may disclose to parties outside Dropbox files stored in your Dropbox and information about you that we collect when we have a good faith belief that disclosure is reasonably necessary to (a) comply with a law, regulation or compulsory legal request...If we provide your Dropbox files to a law enforcement agency as set forth above, we will remove Dropbox's encryption from the files before providing them to law enforcement."

That make you feel safe? In case you're wondering, a "compulsory legal request" can, and frequently is, a letter from an FBI agent demanding the files.

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Alfredo Lopez is a member of the This Can't Be Happening on-line publication collective where he covers technology and Co-Chair of the Leadership Committee of May First/People Link.

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