A story I found on r/technology highlights the dangers of tying up your life in “the cloud”; more specifically to trust a company with your personal data. Google, without explanation, shut down a user’s account and all associated services. The person had collected all of his digital life in Google’s various services and the amount of lost data, images, conversations, contacts, documents, etc. was wast:
“You have cut off my communication, disrupted my personal and professional life, effectively stolen vast amounts of my personal and professional data, accused me of something without telling me that I am accused, accused me of something without telling me what it is that you have accused me of, blocked any direct communication with my accuser, and given me no ability to appeal this decision or to speak with someone on the facts of the case.” (source, no longer available)
The person tried every possible way to get in touch with Google for an explanation, but true to being a large company, only replies with standard non-specific answers came back. In frustration, he wrote the long article quoted from above to warn others about Google. This article became widely spread, soon after which a senior Google employee personally engaged himself in the matter, sorting out the problems. He also received an explanation of why it all occurred, posted in a follow up:
“Google employs an automated system to scan user storage for violations of their ToS and in the process erroneously flagged one of the images in the folder as child pornography, it’s as simple as that. (source, also no longer available)”
This time the ending was somewhat happy, but only after gaining publicity and with the luck of getting help by a senior officer.
It’s not the first time Google closed an account without warning though. AdWords is a well-known example of a service where lots of people have had their accounts closed. Many have also been suspended from the new Google+ network.
Other large companies tend to treat their customers in similar ways. PayPal locks accounts without warning. Dropbox security has been flawed. A common problem is that the customer support is often distant from the problem, and not really interested in helping out, just to get rid of the customer as soon as possible. A good example of this is when I wrote to a company asking for help. Being a computer literate I included a detailed technical description of the problem. I got an answer back that was intended to look like a personal written response, but the content clearly indicated that they probably never even read the letter. Likely they skimmed the letter looking for keywords (or worse, a machine did it), and then replied with a template answer…
I want to highlight another problem with cloud services as well. Lately Google has introduced a new, more unified look across its services. Far from everyone likes it though. In addition to the effort needed to navigate the new systems, a number of changes have also been implemented, perceived by some as a downgrade.
Not being able to control when system updates occur can be a big problem for those dependent on the system. At worst, essential functionality been removed. But also consider the amount of time and resources Google is forcing on companies using their products, with confused user trying to navigate among the innovations introduced and needing to call the support instead of doing their work. This is a big a uncertanty that seriously needs to be considered by companies before choosing a system.
When you use Google services, you also agree to the company’s terms. What does it say anyway?
When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works, communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. […] This license continues even if you stop using our Services
We may add or remove functionalities or features, and we may suspend or stop a Service altogether. […] Google may also stop providing Services to you, or add or create new limits to our Services at any time.
Other companies usually have similar agreements. Facebook for example (last time I heard) claims to own all pictures you upload to their servers. As more and more of our lives intertwine with the Internet, this becomes increasingly important to pay attention to. Are you really prepared to go along with the above conditions?
Is the future in the cloud? The Cloud (or Internet as I prefer to call it :-) ) is a wide concept, and it is true that more and more of daily life is making its way online. With this, issues of privacy and security surfaces. Do we trust big business enough to be willing to hand over our lives in their hands?
The story at the top illustrates the importance of spreading your digital habits across different services and to be keeping multiple backups of all your data. Using a single supplier for all services and data is certainly convenient. But when things go bad, you’re screwed.
Both companies and individual users can create their own cloud services. Mail and blogging is easy to set up your own server. Server space can be rented cheaply, and it’s easy to change provider if there is a problem. Setting up your own NAS at home gives you your own “cloud” where you can store all your documents and media, and access it from any computer, both at home and online. Open formats and standards are also worth investing in to make sure you can read your documents in the future. These solutions provide good protection against the problems I talked about earlier. A certain level of technical knowledge and commitment is required though, but probably less than most people probably would think. Just make sure to do regular (automated) backups of all your materials at home and on your servers!