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Guest Thinkers

Is Your Head in the Clouds?

Last week our narcoleptic Lenovo laptop dozed off into permanent slumber. Not terribly saddened at its untimely demise, we nonchalantly recycled it (using and bought ourselves a shiny new Mac.  Five years ago, the scene would have unfolded far more dramatically: panic about lost work when the computer didn’t switch on, long calls with melodically accented tech support in India, and alternate sadness and anger at not backing up documents on a CD-ROM. Today, we worry about no such calamity because all our personal and work data are in the cloud. Wait, all our personal information and all our work documents are sitting in the office of a corporation??!! Did we have our heads in the cloud too? 

Companies have made a lot of money based on our instinctual desire to enjoy instant gratification and avoid work (euphemistically referred to as “convenience”). Animals love basking in the sun, picking each other’s lice, and in general, spending a warm afternoon doing nothing. Humans are not that much different. Take the simple example of food. We’d rather buy frozen dinners than go through the trouble of cooking – something that has directly contributed to our widening girth and McDonald’s bulging revenues. Keeping track of our digital information – an increasing trove of health, financial and work data – is time-consuming and overwhelming. The ease of seamlessly moving from iPad to PC to airport self-check-in is irresistible, and relies on storing information in one place (the cloud) which can be accessed by multiple devices.

Nicholas Carr celebrated cloud computing in his prescient book The Big Switch, in which he compared the birth of the electricity grid to the birth of the cloud – the computing grid. The electricity grid sparked multiple innovations and disruptions. The cloud would do the same, Carr predicted. The analogy works for the most part, but fails in one crucial aspect: there is far more private information encoded in your cloud documents than in your electricity bill.

There are three things you should consider when you are putting your data in the cloud: security, privacy and access. Make sure that your site has received a stamp of approval by magazines which regularly comment on cloud security. Speak to your cloud provider about where it stores your information. This is critical for understanding the privacy constraints your data will face: in European countries, it is far harder to share information with corporations than it is in certain parts of Asia. Finally, think about access: are you comfortable with the idea that your provider can literally take away all your documents with the flick of one big switch? Unless you keep a local copy of your data, you are completely vulnerable to the company’s infrastructure, financial health and malevolent tendencies.

Let’s be honest: even after briefly considering all three points, convenience trumps circumspection. If Google’s new operating system Chrome will allow all applications to run in the cloud, and save us from bug-ridden Microsoft system, that is great news! After all, isn’t Google’s motto: “don’t be evil”? Even if they do capture some personal data, “So what?” you may think. “I’m not a criminal. I have nothing to hide.” If you’re talking to a friend in China, and Skype’s operating partner TOM is logging your text messages (as discovered in 2008), what’s the big deal? You’re discussing basketball, not the Dalai Lama.

If only life were that simple. Your chit-chat and your documents can be used to influence your buying behavior, raise your health insurance premiums, put you on a no-fly list, and even make you a suspected terrorist. You may not think you’re saying anything of consequence, but your opinion will not matter once you’ve revoked the equivalent of your Miranda rights:

“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you. Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”

Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain has railed against the irrational exuberance surrounding the cloud. He urges extreme caution and regulation to control oligopolistic corporations that have such deep insight into our lives. Zittrain correctly fears that the democratic and generous spirit of the Web will suffer as we find ourselves herded into black box programs that influence our access to information, tools, and our own data.

Even though the Web affords us instant gratification as we graze over web pages, and upload pictures, videos and documents in real-time, it is imperative to consider the long-terms consequences of our semi-private online existence. Silicon Valley giant Andy Grove once noted a telling characteristic of personal and corporate success: “only the paranoid survive.” So think again: you may have something to hide after all.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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