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Page last updated at 16:39 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 17:39 UK

Cloud computing: Privacy and trust up in the cloud

Online storage service Dropbox
Dropbox is one of a growing number of online services

Fifteen years ago people carried their documents around on floppy discs, then many people switched to memory sticks, and now a few are turning to the cloud.

Cloud computing means the ability to access, change and interact with data on any platform with a net connection, including on smartphones.

These online services require no software purchase and installation and most run via a browser. Users can pick from the growing number of cloud-based offerings, such as Google Docs and Amazon's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2).

Evernote is another system where various pieces of information, such as webpages, business cards and text notes can be collected into virtual and searchable notebooks.

But there are concerns that storing personal data on a server somewhere in cyberspace could pose a major threat to the privacy of individuals.

Phil Libin, Evernote's boss, said his firm offers a two-tiered approach to security.

"Premium users have all of their data go over SSL [encryption], kind of like an online banking site. Free users currently are sending data back and forth just over http - the standard way that the web operates," he said.

"Your username and password is always kept encrypted. We don't see what your password is, we can't unencrypt it - no one will ever ask for it," he added.

Trust value

Dropbox has more than four million customers who can upload digital content which is permanently synced across a number of their devices.

Adam Gross, senior vice president of marketing for the storage service said the cloud needs the trust of users.

Mike Elgan from Computerworld.com
Mike Elgan from Computerworld.com said the cloud needs the users' trust

"I think with any cloud computing service, it's important that the provider have a trusted relationship with those people using the service," he said.

He believes the cloud is "helping people keep their files backed up and safe and secure, rather than the old model where each individual PC user had to be responsible for it alone."

Mike Elgan from Computerworld.com warned users against being too trusting.

"Services say give us all your data and use the applications from the internet, and don't worry about anything, we'll take care of the security. It's a value proposition based on you trusting the provider," he said.

"What we've learned recently is that no matter how trustworthy the provider is, it's never as secure or bullet proof as you might think it is," he added.

Cloud danger

Unlike Dropbox and Evernote, some services do not synchronise data to personal computers and are based solely in the cloud.

An internet connection failure, or infrastructure downtime, is enough to cut people off from their files on these systems.

Many students have become heavy users of the free collaborative online tools that are based in the cloud. This has prompted some colleges to go as far as banning cloud computing completely.

I think with any cloud computing service, it's important that the provider have a trusted relationship with those people using the service
Phil Libin, Evernote

Others like the University of San Francisco have to send out constant reminders that trouble on the net is unacceptable as a classroom excuse.

Chris Brooks, an associate professor at the University of San Francisco, said: "I'll tell students 'this [site] may go down, don't do your homework at the last minute. Just like the library might be closed at 2am on Saturday morning when you want to do your homework'".

"It's another way of learning responsibility," he said. "But I do think you have to be explicit with them that this is not always a 24/7 thing, so plan ahead."

Limited options

Not relying on the cloud entirely is one concern, but critics advise students to ponder on the physical location of their work, issues over ownership, and the rising fees for accessing it.

These factors may have to be taken into account by governments too in the future, and legislation could be needed to define new parameters for consumers.

Moving information to a virtual computer puts someone else in control of security, and there is an ever-present risk from hackers.

Mr Elgan from Computerworld.com said there was a lack of options.

"Keeping data locally or to manage all of its backup and maintenance yourself is also fraught with hazards. The hackers are going to go wherever the data is including on your own system," he said.

"The problems of managing an increasingly complex body of data is very daunting and that's one of the appealing things about cloud computing," he added.

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