Computers

Dangers associated with cloud computing are mounting

August 12, 2012 

The cloud is going to be a big part of your computing life whether you like it or not. One reason you’ll like it is that your files will stay synchronized between your desktop PC and the various gadgets you carry with you, like tablet or phone. One reason you won’t like it is that using the cloud means giving up a large measure of control to big companies who will store your data.

Worried? Expect the good and the bad of cloud computing to dominate the news in the next 12 months. Apple users are going to see the iCloud become a major part of the user experience across all Apple devices, while Microsoft is folding its SkyDrive service into the next iteration of Office to synchronize settings, templates and documents. Google already offers a complete office suite available online and Amazon’s cloud options include 5 GB of free storage, competing with Dropbox to snare the interest of mobile-minded users needing desktop files.

But the danger signs also are mounting. What happened to Mat Honan should give all of us pause: Honan, a savvy tech journalist, had his Google account taken over, then deleted. His Amazon account was compromised, after which the hackers broke into his AppleID account and erased all the data on his devices, an iPhone, iPad and MacBook. Honan blames himself for linking these accounts too closely together, but it turns out the hackers used “social engineering” – pretending to be Honan himself – to talk Apple technical support into resetting his account.

And there’s the rub: Cloud computing means we have to trust the big companies who provide the services to keep us safe, and if they drop the ball, we’re left with a big cleanup and a potentially devastating loss of data. In Honan’s case, information the hackers got from one account (Amazon) was used to fool Apple support and that opened up the floodgates. All this follows Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s recent loss of one of his calendars on Google, a Web-based schedule that vanished into thin air because of a third-party application.

Unhappy customers

Wozniak isn’t happy with cloud computing and neither are some Dropbox users, who learned that passwords and user names from some of their accounts had been compromised, apparently the result of poor practices inside the company itself. This isn’t the first breach for Dropbox, and it brings to mind social network LinkedIn, which is still dealing with the ramifications of exposing millions of user passwords through lax security and then lagging in informing its users.

What to do? We’ve talked often about using good passwords – a combination of letters and numbers – and never using the same password on two different accounts. But where the cloud is concerned, even the best passwords can’t protect you from sloppy handling on the part of the services you use. The problem is worse when, as with iCloud, we tie our actual devices to cloud accounts, meaning you could temporarily lose control of all your hardware if attacked.

Teaching experiences

So we’re vulnerable, and there is no sign whatsoever that the move toward cloud computing is going to slow down. By and large, the big providers are doing a good job of handling security, but along the way we’re going to be seeing incidents that turn into teaching experiences for Apple, Amazon and the rest. Make no mistake, the cloud’s advantages are huge, so great that it will be hard to operate effectively across a wide range of devices without cloud options enabled.

But giving up control to companies in the cloud makes us reliant upon the practices and processes of those companies. We need to hold their feet to the fire when something goes wrong to insist on better performance. It also would help if some of these companies would, rather than just touting the wonders of their user experience, make a much more public effort to explain the challenges of the cloud model and how they intend to deter future hackers.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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