You can’t use a computer or other networked device these days without hearing about “the cloud”. Cloud file storage means that your computer, phone, or tablet uploads files to some company’s computer servers via the internet. The advantages include: a) saving storage space on our own device’s hard drive or flash memory, b) you can access your files from other internet-connected devices you own without having to make copies, c) other people can access your files with your permission (like photos you want to share), and d) you can backup your files and not worry about them being lost if your computer implodes. Sounds like a good deal, right? Cloud services usually offer free storage up to a certain limit, and then let you buy more space if you need it (because who ever deletes files anyway?—well, actually some cloud services do, but we’ll get to that).
More and more software companies are moving away from selling software to you in favour of having you subscribe to their service (like Adobe’s iconic Photoshop), with all of your work-in-progress automatically stored “in the cloud”, of course.
There have been problems. Business servers can be damaged or hacked or shut down if the company goes out of business. Internet services can have outages. But it’s some more insidious features that have kept me away from cloud storage.
If you’ve ever had an Apple iCloud account and wanted to cancel it, change to a new one, or just sign out, you’ll have seen a warning that documents stored in your iCloud account will be deleted from your local computer.
What?? Why? Whose files are they anyway?
Something similar can happen if you subscribe to the music streaming service, Apple Music. In fact, people who weren’t careful have apparently lost thousands of tunes they purchased, created, or got elsewhere, because of the strange way Apple does these things. In the case of iCloud, I’ve read that you can’t actually delete an account—your files all remain on Apple’s servers in case you ever want to sign back in. And Apple isn’t unique—a number of services had to backpedal because their terms of agreement seemed to suggest they would own the data they stored. So the biggest players now expressly state that they do not claim ownership…except they still act like they do.
Again, whose files are they? You thought they were yours, but once you’ve uploaded them to the cloud, a company can delete them from your own computer and then hang onto them for as long as they like.
No thanks. Extra hard-drives aren’t that expensive.
So where will all this lead? Well, it will take some determined lobbying to stop this trend, and I don’t see anything like that happening. People blindly accept the situation because of the convenience it offers, just like they willingly give companies access to huge amounts of private personal information for “reward points” or other paltry incentives. I don’t understand that either. But since hardly anyone objects, we have to assume it will only get worse, and soon all of the electronic documents, photos, music, and other forms of creativity and entertainment you produce or consume will be under the control of others.
Don’t expect it to stop there.
Eventually our phones and tablets will be replaced by devices that directly interface with our brains. Our minds will have internet connectivity, with the ability to access all of that information and entertainment by the power of thought. Now we upload our photos to the cloud. Maybe by then we’ll depend on it to store our actual memories. And when we do, who will have control over them? I think you know the answer. We’re willing to hand over custody of personal documents and pictures for the sake of a few gigabytes of free storage, so it’s not realistic to expect we’ll balk at such things when we’re offered the ability to practically relive that Bruce Springsteen farewell concert we loved so much, note by note, anytime we feel like it.
Just as long as we don’t opt out of the storage company’s service, or do anything else to cross them, and as long as they don’t go out of business or succumb to a malware attack. Then it’s ‘bye bye memories’.
The two Total Recall movies were based on a Philip K. Dick story called “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, but that was about implanting fictional memories for fun. What about when a company makes you subscribe to their service to be able to access your own memories? Or when you’re able to learn specialized job skills using direct information downloads to your brain, but the training company can take those skills back if you stop paying for them? Or if you’re a creative type and you want to keep working on that epic fantasy novel you’re writing but the cloud server is offline, or there’s been a glitch that erased a couple of chapters, or the service wants half the royalties if the novel ever sells…or…or…? Are you getting the picture?
Whose data is it anyway? Unless you’re keeping it totally under your own control, that’s just not so easy to answer anymore.
This blog post doesn’t even touch on the other risks of cloud computing, like cyberattacks and weak security among users. If you want to read more, here are some starters from InfoWorld, Business News, and Information Week.