Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hey You, Get Off Of My Cloud

The next big thing in computing is “cloud computing.” I see this as a serious danger to our freedoms. Am I paranoid? Hardly. I pay attention to history and I've seen how cloud computing's advocates behave, and this has “CONTROL” written all over it.

“Cloud computing” actually has several meanings. In its most benign form, cloud computing means the use of web-based applications like internet e-mail providers. One level deeper involves the creation of a centralized operating system. In this environment, rather than having Windows or Linux run your system, your computer calls Microsoft whenever you turn it on and anything you want to run gets run on Microsoft’s servers, but you keep the data. In other words, any time you wanted to balance your checkbook, Microsoft does the math, but they don’t keep track of what’s in your checkbook. The third level essentially turns your computer into nothing more than a terminal. At this level, Microsoft not only runs your computer, but it stores your data.

So what’s my beef with cloud computing?

At the first level, I have few complaints. But when you start getting to the second and third levels, you run into practical and control issues.

First, the practical. For anyone who has ever lived somewhere backwards, you know how it stinks to lose your internet. Having lost my internet regularly for a day or two at a time and once as long as a week, I can tell you that it hits you pretty quickly how stupid it is to become reliant on the internet. So why in the world would I want to join one of these clouds? I use my computer to balance my checkbook, keep my contact information and handle my job, through word processing and the such. If all of that is done on the internet and I lose my internet periodically, I lose my access to all of that information. That’s disastrous.

And don’t forget the utter lack of safety on the internet. How many times have we heard about 50 million credit cards being stolen from some commercial site and posted in Russia? No hacker worth a plugged byte is coming after your data. But if your data is sitting in a pile with the data of 200 million other people, then suddenly you become a tempting target.

But most troubling are the control issues. In the past few years, we’ve seen evidence that the tech companies are little Nazis. Google spies like the Stasi. Microsoft is obsessed with even the smallest details of how you handle your system -- make a change to anything they don’t like and they’ll issue a new version of Windows that stops you in your tracks. Facebook doesn’t believe in privacy. None of them have had a problem with deleting politically incorrect content, and don’t forget, each of these “good liberal companies” has surrendered to totalitarian regimes like China and Pakistan with barely a whisper of complaint.

How happy will you be when you sign in one morning only to discover that the book you were writing is gone because you used a word Google doesn’t like. I guess you should have read their policy on “hate speech” a little more closely. And while we’re at it, your music library is gone because they’re pretty sure you didn’t have a license to upload those songs. Oh, and those pictures of your kids, they look kind of porny to our administrator, expect the child services people to call you today. Hey, at least we didn’t pass those around like the ones of you and your spouse! And while we’re breaking bad news, your insurer was quite interested in your diary, how long did you say you’ve had that itch? Not to mention that our advertisers paid us to scan your data looking for things that might interest you, but their analysis of your in-depth profile says you might be a bad credit risk.

Many people have learned the hard way that information is power. The Germans learned this under the Nazis and the Stasi. The Russians learned it under the KGB. When an organization can learn intimidate details of your life, they control you. And I don’t even mean blackmail. I mean that giving one organization the power to know everything about you lets them determine what you can buy and sell, what jobs you can hold, how to handle your health care, whether to send the police to watch you, and even lets them intrude on how you raise your kids.

It makes no difference if this is the government or private companies. For one thing, these companies have shown that they are willing to blur the distinction between public and private to guarantee their profits, and governments are more than willing to make that trade off for power. But even more importantly, with the database-ization of the world, every company you might want to deal with, and the companies that make it possible for you to deal with them (like banks and credit card companies), can buy access to these databases.

Should we loan you money? No, our data says you’re over-extended. Should we give you insurance? No, our data says you might be a health risk. Should we give you a job? No, our data says you hold unpopular opinions.

This is the world cloud computing promises; it makes Big Brother look like a Keystone Cop. And if this weren’t the case, tell me why Facebook fights so hard keep privacy advocates at bay, why Microsoft cares if I want arrows on my icons or not, why Google is roaming the earth illegally collecting data, and why Microsoft’s ads about cloud computing lie to you. . . they make you think they will give you new programs you can’t get at home (although you can), and they never once mention who gets their hands on your data. I wonder why that is?


DUQ said...

I'm cautious too about giving up my information, because I don't want other people to have it, but I hadn't thought about someone like Micrsoft wiping out my data because they don't like what's in it. That seems to be a pretty real threat too.

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, That's definitely my concern. Facebook wiped out the Everybody Draw Mohammed site (data and all) because they thought it was insensitive. What's to keep them from deciding that a book you're writing or a diary you're keeping on line or whatever doesn't merit the same treatment?

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

This sounds a lot like the old days of "dumb" terminals--those green/amber displays that were connected to a mainframe or mini-computer. The computer in the giant air-conditioned room did all the work, and the "dumb" terminal just served as the interface. In my first job in IT, X-Terminals were all the rage--dumb terminals that were able to do windows. I don't know why anyone would want to go back to those days, except to have more control over end users.

I use MS-Windows (and hate it) because I'm too lazy to install Linux. But it's nice to know that those independent solutions exist, and I think they still will in the world of Cloud Computing. There will be a large group of sheeple who go along with the Apple's and Microsoft's and give up their independence, but there will be alternatives for the smaller number of us who want to remain independent. Bring it on! :-D

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, That's exactly what it sound like to me. It sounds like they want everyone basically using a terminal. And they spin it in terms of (1) it will save money, (2) it will be more efficient, and (3) it will make programming easier because they can install it on everyone's system at once.

But none of that offsets the danger of putting users under the control of the providers -- especially since these providers have more than proven that they're willing to use that type of control to force people to comply with their view of the world.

Unknown said...

Andrew: It sounds very dangerous. But I won't worry about it, because it's so sophisticated. I still think the internal combustion engine is black magic, so this is far too scientific for me to fret over.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Sadly, that's a position a lot of people will take -- it's so complicated, I don't understand it, and there must be rules that protect me, so why not. Yep. Disaster in the making.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

I've heard the consumer advocate radio host Clark Howard talk about the Google Apps which allow you to run everything on the Google servers, as well as store your data there, and I want no parts of that, especially given Google's politics. They entice people with these free apps, and I don't think the average person realizes the privacy he's relinquishing.

But yeah, this certainly could reduce the costs of computers. Like X-Terminals, your new computer would have just enough smarts to boot itself up and connect to the Internet, and the operating system would essentially be running remotely. This wasn't possible even a few years ago because high-speed internet wasn't widely available. But now that it is, a whole new world of central control is possible. No thanks.

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, No thanks indeed.

Not only has the internet made it possible to create these terminal-computers, but it's also given birth to a whole new world of data gathering and digital spying. Make no mistake that the more information you give to someone like a Google, the more control they have over you -- especially when you need to go to them to get your data.

In terms of their politics, that's the even creepier part. They act like they're "good liberals" who want to bring fresh air, peace, love, happiness, individuality and co-existence to everyone. . . but then you see the other side. You learn about the spying, the incredibly anti-competitive tactics, the heavy lobbying and intermixing with government, the quick surrenders to totalitarian regimes, etc. Then you hear about all the invasions of privacy and deletion of blogs/pages/etc. that had opinions with which Google or Facebook disagreed. And then you get someone like Microsoft who goes out of their way to force their will upon Microsoft users even at the smallest levels, and tries to drive out anything that gives you an alternative.

Suddenly, you realize that these people are selling the image of freedom and happiness, but are really totalitarians at heart. That should scare people a lot.

CrispyRice said...

The real problem is that enough people will willingly sign up for all this stuff because "it makes my life soooo much easier!" and eventually, the few who want to opt out won't be able to.

I was listening to someone talk about heading toward a cash-less society and how easy it will be to track and control us then. And sure, you can say, "I won't!" But if enough people do, then it's not worth it for a store to deal with the few remaining stragglers.

It's scary stuff, Andrew.

T_Rav said...

"For anyone who has ever lived somewhere backwards, you know how it stinks to lose your internet."


AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, It is scary stuff. And this isn't just a rant, but the beginnings of an idea that we do need to consider privacy legislation in this country that prevents these companies from exploiting this. . . especially since it seems rather inevitable.

I'd like to see a major new privacy law that protects individuals from the government and corporations because there is no freedom when you are forced to rely on others to exercise your rights.

And you're right, this is the sort of thing that becomes inevitable once it starts. Once enough people start doing this, the alternatives start to disappear pretty quickly.

On the cashless society issue, I've actually run into several places that no longer take cash. That sounds impossible, but I assure you it's true -- and try getting a hotel or rental car without a credit card! And you're right, when we get to the point that you need the permission of a credit card company or bank to do business or buy groceries, how free will you really be?

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, LOL! I've lived in some strange places and nothing was stranger than the time I spent in West By God Virginia. I suspect that Bangladesh is more advanced, and when your Internet done go out in WVa, it stays out until it's good and ready to come back on.

If all my data was on a "cloud" at that point, I would have basically had to shut down for 9 days.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Crispy: having worked in IT, I can tell you that there are plenty of programmers out there who have a healthy loathing for everything Microsoft, Apple, Google, et. al. and you can count on them to provide a continuous supply of alternate software. The Firefox browser exists as a direct result of Microsoft's attempt to stifle all competition to Internet Explorer. Linux exists as a direct result of Microsoft's proprietary and buggy operating systems. For those who have enough initiative to opt out, they will be able to.

patti said...

well isn't this topical to my experience today (to those who don't know: today, someone "flagged" my conservative political site as "abusive or spammy" and they didn't even have the courage to show themselves; they did it under the guise of confidentiality.

kinda like wearin' a burka as they troll.

was i contacted to prove i was not abusive nor spammy? nope. flagged and you are guilty, nevermind that i am most assuredly NOT abusive or like even like spam (oh wait...).

funny thing is, there's a work-around and i posted my site anyway (nanny nanny boo boo).

i wear my flagging as a badge of honor: SUCCESS!

getting under libbies skin one entry at a time.

reminder to libs: nope, not gonna sit down. not gonna shut it.

andrew: i'll link this monday. thanks for the info.

AndrewPrice said...

Pitts, I think you're right, but the problem is that once you hit a certain point, the alternatives just don't matter anymore.

For example, when DVDs hit that point, videotapes basically stopped being made -- now downloads may kill DVDs (did you see what Netflix said Monday? they want to phase out DVDs). As cell phones gain, landlines are slowly disappearing. And the same will be true with software. At some point, so many people will be buying these "terminal computers" that you won't be able to get a real computer anymore on which you can install an alternative operating system. And even if you could, merchants might not support it. I had to update my internet browser a couple years back because no one supported my old one anymore.

So while I agree that there will always be people willing to offer alternatives, those alternatives will become harder and harder to use and will eventually be effectively useless.

That's why I think we need to hit this issue up front to make sure that we nip the worst parts in the bud.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Andrew: I agree completely about the totalitarian tendencies of companies like Google. I'm mad at myself for having fallen for the convenience of gmail. Someday I intend to swtich e-mail providers.

And even if we reject Cloud Computing, we still need to be careful of today's traditional apps that can do an awful lot of spying. There's nothing preventing a program (like MS-Office?) from sending a message to Microsoft everytime you run it on your computer (assuming you're connected to the Internet). Maybe at first it's just to let Microsft know how often you use it. Maybe later it's to let them know when you type the words "racism", "socialism", etc. Did you ever notice when you install a software product these days that they often ask you if you want to "send anonymous data about your usage to help us better serve our customers"? How long before they don't even ask anymore?

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Thanks for the link! Yeah, when I heard your story today, I said, "wow, that's timely!"

The idea that someone can complain about you and the provider just shuts you down (which happens a lot -- Flikr will actually delete photostreams without warning), is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. Why do we want to create a world where people can effectively destroy your business without cause or even stepping out into the light and putting their name to their complaint? And why do we want to put our data, i.e. our livelihoods, our hobbies, our vital information in the hands of companies that are so willing to just shut you down or delete you?

Technology often moves much faster than human ethics, and this is one of those moments where we need to speed up the creation of either laws or codes of ethics that protect individuals from the predatory practices of trolls, governments, and corporations.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I'm glad you're still running!

Lt. Dan said...

Classic old dude shaking his fist at the kids skateboarding by response.

Do not fear emerging technologies. You must adapt, or die. So it goes. Do not agree to every EULA or TOS, though, just to fit into the mold.

The wonderful thing about the internet and the cloud is that everyone gets to contribute, if they want. Use capitalism to create a cloud-based service that does not hinder free speech, does not track usage, etc.

Until then, however, you have no ground from witch to rail against something that requires you to agree to their Terms of Service. It is your choice. It's as if you're mad for being fooled.

AndrewPrice said...

By the way, if anyone hasn't seen the Onion story on Google's "Opt Out Island", it's well worth watching... very funny, but also sadly accurate:

Google Opt Out

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Andrew: I don't agree that the terminal-computers will ever completely replace the individual PC. I could see individual PCs morphing into smaller iPad-type devices, but a PC completely dependent on the Internet would be useless any place where there is not Internet. Ok, maybe a long way down the road we will reach a point of being completely wired. But what about third-world nations? They will still need traditional computers. I just don't see them disappearing for a very long time, if ever.

Lt. Dan said...

"They will still need traditional computers. I just don't see them disappearing for a very long time, if ever."

Traditional personal computers have only existed, as we know them, for 25-odd years. It's extremely short sighted (and telling) when someone claims that existing technology will never be replaced.

Laptops will be the way of the dodo within the decade, and some form of personal computing will more than likely be embedded within the human body before 2050.

This shortsightedness is frightening.

AndrewPrice said...

Lt. Dan, I disagree.

First, there's no reason we can't alert people to the dangers that we see.

Secondly, even if we were to go further and talk about legislation, there's again no reason we need to wait until our houses burn down before we decide to outlaw open fires.

Third, I have never found the waiver argument persuasive. First, our court system is not even handed about waivers -- try suing your phone company some time and you'll see what I mean. Secondly, while I accept the waiver argument at this phase, I don't accept it when a product like this becomes the dominant technology and you are basically faced with a choice of accepting it or falling out of society.

AndrewPrice said...

Everyone, I need to leave, but I'll be back in a few hours. I'll respond to all comments then! :-)

Lt. Dan said...

"I don't accept it when a product like this becomes the dominant technology and you are basically faced with a choice of accepting it or falling out of society."

Like I said, no one is holding a gun to your head. No one said you have to use Gmail. No one said you have to have a Facebook profile. To cry about the injustice of mockery by peers is such a strawman here.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Lt. Dan: Sci-fi movies in the 1960s told us we'd be colonizing distant planets in the 1990s. I'll believe that we'll be living with "borg" technology in 2050 when I see it.

"This shortsightedness is frightening."

So are trolls.

Lt. Dan said...

"640K is more memory than anyone will ever need. - Bill Gates"

Calling me a troll because you are disappointed with Hollywood's depiction of the future is probably the funniest thing I've read today (and it was a slow work day).

Andrew, stepping away for a bit, I see we are having different conversations. I agree that the public should be alerted to poor practices from ANY business, and I agree that such business should be held accountable and hopefully held to a higher standard. I just have little patience for the cars in the slow lane, is all =)

patti said...

lt dan: omgosh! are you calling the older than 35(?) crowd the slow movers on the internets (thanky al gore!) highway?!

i agree i know little about this technology, but as andrew stated, i think it's good to give a head's up about the worst parts.

now, stop honking and go around me whippersnapper!

T_Rav said...

Get off my lawn, Lt. Dan!

Tennessee Jed said...

very interesting post, Andrew. I hadn't hear the term before, but in my old and curmudgeonly way, have kind of instinctively understood the potential threat.

Joel Farnham said...


I am not that worried. I said a while back. Become good friends with a hacker. Those guys won't put up with it. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Lt. Dan, My point is not to stop cloud computing or to stand in the way of innovation. My point is that we need to protect the rights of individuals in the process.

And I stand by the idea that an opt-out is not an answer. It maybe an answer now for something like cloud computing, just like I opt not to have a Facebook page, but at some point, this service can become vital to existing in society.

Take electricity. Without electricity, you are stuck living in the woods. Suppose the electricity company wanted to keep copies of your DNA or wanted to be named the beneficiary on your life insurance. Under your argument, that's just the way it is because we could always opt out of electricity. But how practical is that?

Right now cloud computing is easy to avoid because it's a small service. But what happens if we get to the point where being able to use a word processor or accessing the internet requires you to join a cloud? At that point, it's a lot more like the electricity example than the Facebook example.

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, "go around me whippersnapper!" LOL!

T-Rav, Get off my lawn! LOL! I almost used that in the article! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think the threat is real whenever you combine a technology that potentially gives people a lot of control over others AND an operator of that technology who has shown a willingness to control people.

I think this is the kind of issue that we need to start thinking about in terms of creating privacy laws or codes of ethics before this gets too far. That's been going on in other areas, like medical records, and it should probably go on with other kinds of data. Indeed, even beyond this particular issue of cloud computing, the amount of data being gathered on people right now is staggering, and there need to be controls on that to keep the individual from being crushed.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Hackers? What's a hacker? Just kidding. It's going to be interesting to see what happens in the future regarding hackers v. the establishment as it seems that hackers are starting to get political.

Ed said...

Andrew, I'm suspicious about anybody who want my personal information. This is no different.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, It's hard to blame you.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Excellent post, Andrew!

I concur. It's like the patient rights thing. One could say if you don't like how a hospital treats you go somewhere else, however, as you mentioned, there may be times you can't go somewhere else.

The disability act is another (sort of) example. Although I think in many cases it has gone too far, in principle I'm for it, but only as long as it ain't abused or used for ridiculous lawsuits (which it has been in it's present form).

Whenever private companies have the power to stifle or take away our rights and our liberties there must be common sense ethics imposed at some level.

Why do many politicians demand warning labels showing what's in food, how many calories, carbs, fat, etc., even at restaurants but say nothing about warning labels and plain speaking "fine" print of these user agreements for companies like Google?
I mean, really, who can understand that stuff, assuming you have several hours to read all of it to begin with? I'm usually more confused after reading it.

If the owners of Google or Microsoft were conservative this would be headline news, the msm would be running it as top stories, politicians would be screaming about the unethical (and often illegal) practices of these companies, and the ACLU would go so far to oppose them that they would pull some of their employees away from defending NAMBLA to fight them!

We should be wary of any company that would sell out the liberty of tens of millions of people to make a few extra bucks.
Google has no qualms working with the commies to suppress liberty.

There was a time that our politicians wouldn't have tolerated that kind of anti-freedom behavior, or companies like GE working with Iran.

Obama and Holder have chosen to look the other way with barely a wrist slap at google's illegal practices, and then take them at their word they won't do it again without any verification or follow up!
Gee, I wonder why?

If a company wants to data mine or sell your information they should be required to ask outright, in plain-speaking bold print, and tell you what the information will be used for and the bad consequences that can happen as a result.

Even law enforcement can't do what google has done without due process.

Patti: a few years ago my blog disappeared. I contacted google several times and I finally got a response that basically said they had no idea what happened to it and that I must've "accidently" deleted it or there was a problem with my computer.

Now I back up my stuff even though I'm not as active as I used to be.
I doubt I was ever big enough for google to care about deleting my blog and I have no evidence they did, but who knows? Maybe they got a few anonymous complaints.
At any rate, I highly recommend backing up your blog just in case.

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, Good points. I've had experience in drafting the kinds of warnings/waivers you're talking about and I can tell you that the idea is to hide the really bad stuff deep within the fine print and layer it in ambiguity so that no one really knows what's going on.

There is a legal movement out there that's recommending changes to the law so that releases that aren't in plain English will no longer be valid. I think the idea is a good one, but the application of the law is problematic. Unfortunately, abuses are driving this, and that's always a bad basis for laws being created because they end up over-doing it.

But even beyond that, the "you have a choice" argument only works for me when you do have a choice. Sure, I don't need to buy my groceries at Store A, but I have to buy them somewhere. And when all of the grocery stores start imposing requirements that threaten individual rights, that's when it's time for the law to step in.

And in truth, we do that all the time. The law, for example, won't let you waive your right to be injured by an unknown danger in a product. It won't let you waive your right to have medical malpractice done to you. Etc.

I generally fall into the libertarian side of economic policy, but I do recognize that an ordered society sometimes requires laws to protect the rights of one group versus another when the ability of a group to protect themselves is very low and there is no natural check on the other for taking advantage of that situation.

AndrewPrice said...

Ben, By the way, the law enforcement issue you raise is an interesting one. There are strong limits on law enforcement, but law enforcement has been trying to get around those limits by hiring private contractors to work for them. Usually the courts ends up rejecting the attempt and holds them both to the requirements set for government action, but not always. This could actually become a bigger issue as more government functions are farmed out.

Ed said...

I was thinking about this article when I saw a cloud commercial last night and it's funny because they really did sell it as "if you join a cloud, then you can finally do something like manipulate pictures or watch television on your computer" -- all things you can already do. At no point did they ever mention Bill Gates will get to sleep with your data!

BevfromNYC said...

Just a non sequitor to Lt. Dan - We rarely see the what we lose as we advance. You know what we will never have again? We will never find a handwritten letter left carelessly in the bottom of a box written by our great grandmother expounding on the topic of her times. Those discoveries are lost forever on a hard drive in the bottom of a landfill never to be seen again.

As we rush to more and more advanced technology, we are losing our history and humanity with our privacy.

So advance carefully to your rush to the brain implant phase...

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's one of the things I find troubling. Whenever someone goes out of their way to describe their product as something it isn't or to hide what it really is, that's troubling and they know that it will trouble people. I'm not saying they need to lay out all the warts, but the more they try to paint a product as something it isn't, the more suspicious I become.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, Excellent point.

I'm not in favor of stopping the advance of technology, in fact, I've often spoken of how great I think it is to live right now where science is doing all this neat stuff. But we should always keep an eye on the things that we are giving up.

I actually equate this with LPs. When they first started switching from LPs to CDs, we were told that this would only be a good thing, but soon people realized that LPs produced a much warmer sound that was disappearing. So people started preserving them, and soon enough people were doing it that the LP made a comeback. Now we have the best of both worlds because someone paid attention to what we were losing and had the foresight to decide that there was value in still offering "the old fashioned" stuff.

But too often, we just toss the old out the moment we get the new. And in particular, where a market is controlled by a small number of players, that tendency becomes really strong because there are no small players who think it's worth their time to offer products to the niche market.

I'm not sure what the answer is or even if there is an answer, but it is something to consider -- don't throw away something beautiful just because you can find something efficient.

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