Let’s pretend that you’ve decided to grab all the bits and bytes of your online life and pull them back to the ground. You’ve decided to leave the cloud for good.
It’s a fun thought experiment! Give it a try. Because what you’ll find is that leaving the cloud now is actually pretty hard. Maybe I’m an edge case, but the number of things I currently have stored online – on far-flung servers, in whole or in part – include: my e-mails, instant messages, contacts, music, browsing history and bookmarks, interview recordings and transcripts, article drafts and research, passwords, instant messages, every photo I’ve ever taken with my phone or DSLR, my family’s home movies, books, video games, movies, television shows, and that’s just the preliminary list of things I came up with during a few minutes idle thought, not counting all my phone and laptop backups that include all of this and more.
In other words, many of us have passed the point of no return. Even if you don’t store everything in the cloud, it’s very likely there’s at least a few things you do. Online storage doesn’t just augment our offline storage anymore; it’s now replacing local storage in a lot of ways too.
As a result, it’s not so simple to say that we shouldn’t trust the cloud anymore, and that whatever happens to us is our fault if we do. It’s an argument ignorant of the online-only reality consumer technology is hurtling toward more and more every day. Already, the cloud is the primary data store for a lot of people, for better or worse. Is it really so unreasonable to expect that the privacy, security and protection of our data should keep pace?
That said, people should know that many online services are insecure, and that data they store, send and receive online can be intercepted and hacked with relative ease. Many people don’t know better, but maybe we shouldn’t expect them to. Not everyone should need to be an expert on security and encryption, and the argument that people should “know better” if their accounts get hacked isn’t fair because the list of potential vulnerabilities gets longer every day – that two-factor authentication wasn’t enabled, or their password was too weak, or their security questions were too basic, or that they used an insecure WiFi hotspot and ... I could go on.
Partly to blame are the companies who offer these services in the first place. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, in the battle between ease of use and security, ease of use often wins. There’s a reason, after all, that features such as two-factor authentication or end-to-end encryption aren’t typically enabled by default. It’s why the character limit of your online banking password is so low (and also the fact that your bank, not you, assumes risk in the event of the breach). Even when a service tries to force you into creating a complex password, we’ve spent decades now honing our ability to side-step these rules, reusing passwords and writing them down or using easily guessed security questions that an attacker can use to reset even the lengthiest jumble of numbers, symbols and words.
It’s hard to blame users for having their data snooped and swiped when the baseline level of security for online services is so low.
A commonly heard refrain, especially amongst more tech-savvy commenters, is that we shouldn’t be trusting the likes of Google or Apple wholesale at all. You could set up your own personal Dropbox with a spare computer or internet-connected hard drive at home, for example. Or there are customized versions of Android that strip out all of the Google software and services that send data back to HQ. There are now myriad more methods for sending encrypted files, messages and browsing anonymously than there were in years past.
But there often lies an issue of cost – both in money and time. In March of this year, New York Times author Julia Angwin wrote that she spent more than $2,200 and countless hours trying to protect her privacy in 2013, including subscriptions to portable Internet services and online encryption services. In the process, Angwin asked a good question: has privacy become a luxury good? Some of us know that the services we rely on are vulnerable and insecure, but either can’t or don’t want to pay for something better. After all, how many people can afford to spend money on a dedicated Internet connection to avoid coffee shop WiFi? What of the people who share a computer? Or can only access the Internet from a library or school? Who can’t afford anything more than a Chromebook or entry-level laptop, which trend towards storing documents, photos, music and more online?
When celebrity phones are hacked I don’t think the answer is to scare people away from using the cloud. Also, when someone’s photos or private information are stolen and released, the last thing we should do is blame the victim. Smarter people than I have written about why, and how the knee-jerk response of “don’t take nude photos” is absurd advice. We shouldn’t be telling people not to do something or use something on the Internet.
That doesn’t necessarily mean blindly trusting companies such as Google and Apple with our data, but it does mean finding a way to enjoy similar benefits as the services those companies provide in a way that’s easy, simple and most important of all, safe. There’s no reason why two consenting adults shouldn’t be able to send photos of whatever to one another, particularly when the technology exists to better secure all the cloud stuff we live with now.
The cloud has made the Internet genuinely better, and many of the things we use, and love, possible. I think we should recognize that the cloud is here to stay; that, at the moment, some parts can be insecure; but that, we should be learning how to make the best of what we have while pushing for something better. It’s one thing to be cautious, but another to try and live your life offline again like it’s 1999.