Don’t let privacy get lost in the clouds

For the London Free Press - July 12, 2010 Read this on Canoe

So-called ‘cloud computing’ can be valuable — but it can also come with risks

Cloud computing - essentially providing computer services over the Internet - is a growing trend.

Ontario's privacy commissioner recently released a report dealing with privacy issues that arise from the cloud.

There are many definitions and debates over just what cloud computing is, but it entails storing your information and/or running software on computers belonging to others that you access over the Internet.

For example, instead of creating this column using word-processing software installed on a computer in my office and saving it here, it could be created and stored in the cloud from any computer using services such as Google Docs, or Microsoft Office Web apps.

It is a compelling model, as it can provide advantages in cost, simplicity, portability and scalability.

It can, though, pose issues around things like privacy, confidentiality, security, business continuity and disaster recovery. The importance of those issues vary depending on how the particular cloud product works, what it's used it for, and how mission critical it is.

The privacy commissioner's discussion paper - Modelling Cloud Computing Architecture Without Compromising Privacy: A Privacy by Design Approach - discusses relevant privacy issues.

The report discusses a variety of different models included in the term "cloud."

The report sheds light on which types of risks are associated with different types of "clouds," some of which are riskier than others from a privacy and security standpoint.

The decision to use cloud computing is one each individual or business must make bearing in mind the type and sensitivity of their information, how valuable that information might be and whether local copies can be saved.

Since the loss or compromise of sensitive data can be incredibly damaging to an organization, careful consideration is required.

It's important for organizations to take time to review what type of cloud model they intend to use, and whether it's adequate from various perspectives, including operational, cost, access and privacy.

The type of data stored by an organization may change over time. Organizations evolve and sensitivities change. Re-evaluation of an organization's cloud model at regular intervals, or when major projects occur, will help ensure data is kept in an appropriate manner.

The bottom line is that it's important for anyone using cloud-based services to understand how that particular service operates and what promises it makes concerning privacy, security and continuity of data. The importance of those factors will vary depending on the nature of the information involved, and how critical the service is to the user.

If it is not adequate, either negotiate to make it adequate, or go somewhere else.

This report, and a previous white paper entitled Privacy in the Clouds (both available on the web at are helpful for potential users to understand and deal with privacy issues that arise from the cloud.

They are also useful to help anyone providing cloud-based services deal with privacy issues for their services.

Ideally, providers will design their services to be privacy-friendly from the outset - an approach the commissioner calls "privacy by design."