Playing it safe

Advances in technology have brought “the cloud” within reach of anyone who uses a computer, which is just about all of us.

The cloud refers to any kind of hosted service provided to a computer user over the Internet. For example, the cloud allows you to back up and store data on the Internet. You can retrieve your data anytime and from anywhere, as long as you are using a device with Internet access.

According to Penn State Harrisburg associate professor of computer science Linda Null, cloud computing is the “future of Internet technology.”

In addition to ease of access, the cloud can reduce – even eliminate – the cost of backing up and storing your data. Instead of spending money on an external hard drive, you can store data up to a certain amount for free through cloud providers like Dropbox.

But as Null points out, these advantages come with a price of a different kind – your data is less secure.

3 Mile Island, Herold Denton, and Dick Thornburgh
Spring/Summer 2014

A quick Internet search can uncover news of numerous cases of data breaches, lost data, and data becoming unavailable to cloud users. In January, a software update led to the disappearance of messages and contacts by Gmail users. Fortunately, Gmail had backed up the information so the loss amounted to a temporary inconvenience, Null said.

Sometimes the consequences are more serious. A few years ago users of a cloud service by T-Mobile lost all of their data because it hadn’t been backed up properly, Null said.

The incidents are happening more often, Null said, because of the sheer volume of information being uploaded to the cloud.

“There is much more data out there for people to get to. They may be doing it on purpose, it may happen accidentally. But the more data out there, the more chance that data can be breached.”

So how do you protect yourself? 

Find out where your data is stored. Your provider may be U.S.-based, but the company could be storing data in multiple sites around the world where U.S. laws and regulations don’t apply.

“If someone breaches my data in India and their laws are different, how do I take care of that,” Null said. Better to know the answers before your data is jeopardized.

Read the fine print in those service level agreements that providers ask you to check – those agreements that most of us don’t read.

“They say ‘we will do the best that we can and that is pretty much all we can do. We aren’t really going to guarantee anything,’” Null said. “You are outsourcing your data and apps but not outsourcing the liability. It’s really important that you look at those agreements. You really aren’t protected very much if something does happen.”

When it comes to uploading data, don’t just file it and forget it.

“How many of us go back through Dropbox and check to see if the files we put out there two years ago are still there and are not corrupted?

I don’t. I figure it is not my job, but it is sort of our job because it’s not the provider’s job,” Null said.

Check to see what your cloud provider offers when it comes to encrypting data. “They are working more and more to protect privacy,” Null said. “So if the data is breached it will be encrypted and there won’t be a problem.”

Greg Madden, Penn State Harrisburg’s associate director of information technology services, adds other advice – don’t rely on just one cloud provider. “Use two different services so if one goes down you still have the other one,” he said. “Use one to back up the other.”