What’s the Best Way to Use the Cloud to Store Personal Data?


Cloud storage can be a worrisome proposition, particularly as our digital archives grow. Should you back up everything to the cloud, or just some things? Is there data you shouldn’t store in the cloud? And which services should you trust?

No definitive blueprint exists for proper care of your archives, but there are a number of strategies to consider as digital security becomes more of a concern. The Wall Street Journal hosted an email conversation with three experts on cloud storage and the security and privacy issues around it: Alexis Hancock, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Ray Lucchesi, president and founder of Silverton Consulting, a storage consulting-services agency; and Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who lectures on public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Edited excerpts follow.

WSJ: What are your own personal cloud storage strategies?

MR. SCHNEIER: I’m old-school, and almost never use the cloud. I keep my email, photos, documents, calendar and everything else on my computer. I make backups on USB drives in my home and office. I sync data between my computer and phone with a cable. Mostly I do this because, as a privacy advocate, I don’t want to give Google, Apple, Microsoft or anyone else my data. But partly I do this because I want to be in control of my data­what computer it’s on, how it’s secured, when it’s deleted, and so on.

Sometimes it’s a pain. My calendars don’t automatically sync. Backups don’t happen magically in the background. Sharing photos is a lot harder. When I broke my iPhone and had to buy a new one, I had to manually reinstall all of my apps. But my tech life is centered around a single computer I take everywhere, and a single phone that doesn’t need access to all of my history. I understand that I’m an outlier in this regard.

MR. SCHNEIER: So many people I know keep everything in some company’s cloud. Often they’re all-in with the company that makes their smartphone. If they have an Android phone, they’re using Gmail and Google Calendar. They store their photos and contacts with Google, and have their documents and spreadsheets in Google Docs. If they’re an iPhone user, they use all the parallel systems that Apple provides. Some people mix it up, but it’s still likely to be some corporate behemoth that is hosting their data free of charge. People do this because it’s convenient, and because it’s the easiest thing to do. Keeping your own data is work. Setting up a private cloud is work. Even trying to integrate between several vendors is work.

WSJ: Is there any reason not to put your personal data in the cloud? Are you more likely to lose data you keep on a hard drive than data on the cloud?

MR. SCHNEIER: For almost everyone, the cloud is more reliable. It’s automatically backed up. It’s safe from ransomware. It’s almost certainly more secure from theft. For most computer users, the cloud is a win. There are just two costs. One, you pay the cost of the cloud provider spying on everything you do­and using that information against your interests. And two, you accept the risk of the provider denying you access to your data at any time for any reason. For most of us that’s not going to happen. But if you run afoul of their policies­maybe by writing something political in a way they don’t accept, or posting a picture that shows more human skin than they accept, or by having a name they decide they don’t trust­they can cut off your access permanently. This isn’t as true if you pay for your cloud, but it’s still a possibility.

WSJ: Is there anything you would specifically advise keeping off the cloud?

MR. SCHNEIER: Most of us have no choice whether or not our data is in the cloud. Every interaction I have with any merchant on the internet is stored in the cloud. Even if I buy something in a store, the data is in the cloud. My financial information is in the cloud. My health information is in the cloud. My photographs aren’t, unless I send them to someone. I started this exchange by saying that I am one of the few people who keeps my email on my computer and not in the cloud. But most of my email is still in the Google cloud, because most everyone I communicate with keeps it all there.

Categories: Text, Written Interviews

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.