A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jan 25, 2017

Who's Overseeing the Cloud's Data Overseers?

Nothing is forever, especially - as everyone should know by now - the inviolability of your data. JL

Andrew Hill comments in the Financial Times:

In the 19th century, banks made bold promises about their longevity and impregnability. Even if  not prone to fire, flood and theft, they still periodically succumbed to fraud, mismanagement, crisis or cyclical downturn. There is little reason to suppose their modern cloud-based counterparts are immune from similar threats.Certain types of information should be ring-fenced from companies with short-term profit targets and fallible managers.
 As a long-time user of a Jawbone fitness band, I often get vibrating alerts from the device on my wrist. The wake-up call I received from a recent news story was different: Jawbone was scrambling to secure its future, the Financial Times wrote, and had repositioned away from lifestyle products like my wristband. The fate of the company is of little direct interest to me. But the destiny of the data I have entrusted to it certainly is. What would the uncertainty mean for my millions of logged steps and hours of recorded sleep?Even if you do not take your humble exercise databank as seriously as I do, you are in future likely to entrust many more important insights into your personal health — not to mention images, videos, financial information and other sensitive material — to companies’ cloud servers.Attention focuses on how companies secure data against hacks and leaks (not brilliantly, judging by news of breaches at Yahoo among others). But I worry almost as much about the more fundamental question of who will conserve my information and grant me access to it for as long as I like.I am still haunted by what happened after I decided, in the early 2000s, to upload my first digital photos to the online gallery run by Kodak. I reported on the company at the time, so I had a professional reason for understanding its online products. But I also reckoned that if one photographic company was going to survive the first dotcom bust, it would be George Eastman’s century-old institution. Kodak certainly believed it would endure. A cloying 2005 commercial, still available on YouTube, imagined the Kodak Gallery as a physical space, visited by awestruck children and policed by liveried museum staff, guarding your memories. “Keep it Forever, Keep it Kodak” ran the tagline. Seven years later, with Kodak already under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, I got a curt message from its UK gallery giving me less than a month to download my photos before they were “permanently deleted”.  The US gallery, meanwhile, transferred my pictures to Shutterfly — one of the new entrants whose services I had shunned in favour of Kodak — where they still sit. But I have become phobic about technology “upgrades” and corporate activity that may touch on my presence in the cloud. When the FT switched email programs, I was not quick enough to transfer archived messages that are now beyond reach. When Ancestry.com, the genealogy site, was bought by a private equity consortium in 2012, I worried about the future of my carefully researched past under new ownership. So far, so good — though I doubt the same buyout specialists will keep my ancestors safe forever.My fears are not unusual. The recent demise of Vine triggered anger among users, as they contemplated the potential loss of their carefully crafted six-second videos. Twitter, Vine’s owner, allowed them to download their work, but if you have not already saved your clips, it is too late. Vine, at least in its original form as a social network, faded to black last week.Regulation is one way of allaying fears of virtual neglect. In the US, a 1996 act ensures portability of personal health information. Jawbone, which is said to be close to receiving new funds, seeks to comply with such laws and says it has no intention of allowing its consumer service to be disrupted.If the alternative to keeping your data on hard drives is a leaky shoebox in the sky, it seems sensible to have terrestrial back-up. Another, more far-fetched possibility is that not-for-profit cloud utilities develop to steward our data, as it becomes obvious that certain types of information should be ring-fenced from companies with short-term profit targets and fallible managers.A more prosaic solution is just to keep your data on hard drives and USB sticks. They are still vulnerable to loss, decay or accidental disposal (I have a neat set of unreadable floppy disks with copies of some old personal computer files). But if the alternative is a leaky shoe box in the sky, it seems sensible to have a terrestrial back-up.Younger generations are said to have no interest in hoarding possessions. It is conceivable they will treat their data with similar indifference. But the Vine furore suggests they will place exaggerated value on their information and that they assume its custodians will always exist and will always do the same. As my Kodak experience shows, that would be a big mistake, and not a new one. In the 19th century, banks made bold promises about their longevity and impregnability, often embodied in the pillared bombast of their headquarters. Even if those institutions were not prone to fire, flood and theft (which they were), they still periodically succumbed to fraud, mismanagement, crisis or cyclical downturn that put customers’ deposits at risk. There is little reason to suppose their modern cloud-based counterparts are immune from similar threats.

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