Cloud Computing: How safe is your cloud

This post originally appeared on the SkillStorm blog:
Update: this morning it was anounced that the data will remain on Megaupload's site for two weeks, but access is still denied to users

US prosecutors of file sharing host Megaupload have announced that files may be deleted as soon as Thursday. According to the charges, files hosted by Megaupload (actually hosted on third-party storage sites) include pirated materials. But the files also include millions of personal files, such as home photos and videos that have been inaccessible to their owners since Megaupload was shut down. These personal files will be permanently deleted leaving many people to ask, “How safe is the Cloud?”

Stats from the cloud

According to a Forrester Research report last year, cloud computing was predicted to “grow from $40.7 billion in 2011 to more than $241 billion in 2020” (Sizing The Cloud by Stefan Ried, Ph.D. and Holger Kisker, Ph.D.) With the unveiling of many companies own cloud services, including iCloud, the Amazon Cloud, and now Business Cloud Services from Blackberry, the prediction may have fallen short. So, how do you ensure that your data is safe from shut downs, hackers, and just your run of the mill invasion of privacy?

Well, let’s start by putting things into perspective:

Very few of us actually put much thought to our own security online:

  • Most people are using an email system that runs through the web, whether it’s your basic online Yahoo! or Gmail account, or an IMAP or POP3 email that is delivered via a desktop client such as Outlook or Apple Mail. So, most people can associate a certain level of risk to their email. In other words, it is feasible (although not likely) that your email could be hacked.
  • Along the same lines, one in every seven minutes online is dedicated to Facebook, the much loved social networking site where we share photos and videos without hesitation on a daily basis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to google your name and find photos that you perhaps hadn’t considered “public.” The cloud is a lot more secure than many places your photos are already seen.
  • Our cell phones carry amazing amounts of data and we take them everywhere we go. At some point, isn’t it inevitable that we may lose a cell phone, along with all of the data, phone numbers, photos and video that are embedded within? But if it’s in the cloud, it can be downloaded on to your new phone and there’s no need for the mass “I lost my phone…” text.

Backing up files is the only way to ensure that we won’t lose them.
Since the dawn of computers we have been told to back up our systems. Some of us learned the lesson back in college as a computer crashed mid way through a paper, but most of us still don’t back up as frequently as we should.

  • External hard drives are costly and cumbersome. Carrying around an external hard drive is not a good idea because it’s at the same risk as your original computer. So, you drop your laptop bag into a river and there’s a good chance your external hard drive went swimming too. Not to mention the inconvenience. If you’re in a meeting and need to access a file, pulling out a hard drive, plugging it all in and searching is inefficient. Accessing data in the cloud is faster, lighter and just plain easier.

So, how do we protect our info in the cloud as best as possible? It’s fairly easy, once you know what to ask.
Here are the questions to ask yourself before making a cloud commitment.

1. Is the cloud host a valid company?

Is the host a cloud company or a file sharing company – if it’s easy to share the files, it might be a red flag. To validate a cloud host, be sure that they are in fact a cloud host. Ask yourself if you know the name – is it Rackspace, iCloud or Google Docs? Are they publicly traded? This should give you a sense of security.

2. Do they offer you large amounts of space?

iCloud provides a small amount of cloud space for free, and larger amounts for a fee. You will burn through space faster than you expect, so be sure you can always upgrade.

3. Can you access your files easily?

Remember the meeting? If you need something unexpectedly, can you access it at any time, by logging in remotely?

4. Is your data encrypted?

By ensuring your data is encrypted you can protect yourself from inside hacking, meaning employees of the cloud host that have access to your files will not be able to read those files as they will all be encrypted.

5. Your password.

It might seem obvious but choose a tough password to crack. It’s hard to keep up with all of your online passwords, but this one should be different to any others, should not be saved on your computer (or smartphone), and should not be easy to guess – avoid birth dates, kids names or initials, pet’s names or places you lived.

Check the terms and conditions and get the hard drive anyway!

Yes, the cloud is better than a hard drive, but nothings perfect. Most of the time, your terms and conditions with the cloud provider will clearly state (as they did with Megaupload), that you are at risk of losing data. So, get yourself a large hard drive as well as the cloud and back up your entire system now and then. That way, when aliens attack and bring down your wifi, you can still access the video of your son’s first birthday party from the comfort of your own home.


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