The Safe Way to Save Data OnlineLaura Rich
Maybe you’ve seen this error message on your computer: “Oops … the system encountered a problem (#700).” Or this one: “Arrggh! Our tubes are clogged!”. Or, sometimes most distressing of all, a notice that a site will be shut down.
These are no ordinary messages. They’re attached to online services that store your mail and contacts (Gmail); photo collection (Flickr); music (Lala) and more. When the computer servers on these sites -- and others like them -- go down, you lose access to your data, and you can’t do anything but wait.
More people are storing information on the Web than ever before -- 143 million in 2009 alone, according to ABI Research. That number is expected to grow to 160.6 million by 2015. Naturally, companies are coming out with new services that store files away from your computer and external drives, or “in the cloud.”
The rewards -- and risks -- of cloud computing
With this rush to offer cloud services comes unregulated risks that have caught the attention of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC has set its sights on the question of who owns the data on the servers and what happens to that data if you decide to discontinue using that service. Earlier this year, the FTC asked another government agency, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to look into what cloud computing means for individuals -- and whether the government needs to step in to protect you from cloud computing service providers.
“The storage of data on remote computers may ... raise privacy and security concerns for consumers,”wrote David Vladeck, head of the FTC's Consumer Protection Bureau, in a letter to the FCC. The FTC is concerned that the collection of data stored on a server could mean that your personal information is aggregated with other consumers’ to draw conclusions and sell to advertisers.
Although these issues still have months -- if not years -- to be resolved, cloud services are still a viable option for data storage. You just need to know how to keep your data safe.
How to protect yourself
“There are most definitely ways to protect yourself as a consumer,” says Jeffrey Payne, CEO of Coveros, a security consulting firm that analyzes software for risks. “While some risks are difficult to address, others are easily dealt with by anyone savvy enough to use Gmail.”
The World Privacy Forum suggests taking these steps to understand a service provider’s plans for your data:
- Read the Terms of Service before placing any information in the cloud. If you don’t understand the Terms of Service, consider using a different cloud provider.
- Don’t put anything in the cloud you would not want the government or a private litigant to see.
- Pay close attention if the cloud provider reserves rights to use, disclose or make your information public while you’re using the service.
- Find out if, when you remove your data from the service, the cloud provider still retains rights to your information. Consider whether that makes a difference to you.
According to a study by Harris Interactive, 80 percent of respondents had security concerns with cloud computing. Knowing what the risks are -- and how to avoid them -- will make cloud computing a breeze.
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