Let me start by describing two approaches to the cloud.
Most of the students I meet at Harvard University live their lives in the cloud. Their e-mail, documents, contacts, calendars, photos and everything else are stored on servers belonging to large internet companies in America and elsewhere. They use cloud services for everything. They converse and share on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. They seamlessly switch among their laptops, tablets and phones. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that they don’t really care where their computers end and the internet begins, and they are used to having immediate access to all of their data on the closest screen available.
In contrast, I personally use the cloud as little as possible. My e-mail is on my own computer—I am one of the last Eudora users—and not at a web service like Gmail or Hotmail. I don’t store my contacts or calendar in the cloud. I don’t use cloud backup. I don’t have personal accounts on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. (This makes me a freak, but highly productive.) And I don’t use many software and hardware products that I would otherwise really like, because they force you to keep your data in the cloud: Trello, Evernote, Fitbit.
Why don’t I embrace the cloud in the same way my younger colleagues do? There are three reasons, and they parallel the trade-offs corporations faced with the same decisions are going to make.
The first is control. I want to be in control of my data, and I don’t want to give it up. I have the ability to keep control by running my own services my way. Most of those students lack the technical expertise, and have no choice. They also want services that are only available on the cloud, and have no choice. I have deliberately made my life harder, simply to keep that control. Similarly, companies are going to decide whether or not they want to—or even can—keep control of their data.
The second is security. I talked about this at length in my opening statement. Suffice it to say that I am extremely paranoid about cloud security, and think I can do better. Lots of those students don’t care very much. Again, companies are going to have to make the same decision about who is going to do a better job, and depending on their own internal resources, they might make a different decision.
The third is the big one: trust. I simply don’t trust large corporations with my data. I know that, at least in America, they can sell my data at will and disclose it to whomever they want. It can be made public inadvertently by their lax security. My government can get access to it without a warrant. Again, lots of those students don’t care. And again, companies are going to have to make the same decisions.
Like any outsourcing relationship, cloud services are based on trust. If anything, that is what you should take away from this exchange. Try to do business only with trustworthy providers, and put contracts in place to ensure their trustworthiness. Push for government regulations that establish a baseline of trustworthiness for cases where you don’t have that negotiation power. Fight laws that give governments secret access to your data in the cloud. Cloud computing is the future of computing; we need to ensure that it is secure and reliable.
Despite my personal choices, my belief is that, in most cases, the benefits of cloud computing outweigh the risks. My company, Resilient Systems, uses cloud services both to run the business and to host our own products that we sell to other companies. For us it makes the most sense. But we spend a lot of effort ensuring that we use only trustworthy cloud providers, and that we are a trustworthy cloud provider to our own customers.
This essay previously appeared on the Economist website, as part of a debate on cloud computing. It’s the second of three essays. Here are Parts 1 and 3. Visit the site for the other side of the debate and other commentary.