Dropbox is a brilliant cloud based service (i.e., your data stored on someone else’s server) that automatically backs up your files and simultaneously keep the most current version on all of your computing devices (Mac and Windows, laptops, workstations, servers, tablets and smartphones). It is highly efficient for giving you access to everything from everywhere while maintaining an off-site backup copy of every version of every document.
And like anything with that much power, there are risks. Using this type of syncing and backup service without understanding the risks and rewards is like driving a Ducati motorcycle without peering into the crystal ball of accidents that take the lives of bikers every year. If you are going to ride the machine, know your limits.
… all files stored on Dropbox servers are encrypted (AES-256) and are inaccessible without your account password. Quote from PCWorld
But there is an even bigger issue that this exposes about the world of cloud computing in general: anytime your data lives on a device that you don’t own, you lose a certain amount of control over what happens to it. Here is just a sampling of factors that can affect the privacy and confidentiality of your cloud-stored data:
- The cloud service provider changes their Terms of Service (like Dropbox just did) to cover their legal bases, making your data less secure without your even being alerted. This happens almost every week with Facebook, which changes privacy terms constantly. When you log back into your account, you are automatically agreeing to the new Terms of Service (and probably not reading the tens of pages of legal jargon).
- The provider is bought out by a new company (possibly one overseas) or has its assets liquidated (the most valuable assets are generally information), that has different standards for data security and sharing. You, by default, are now covered by those standards.
- The security of your data is weak in the first place. Security costs money, and many smaller cloud providers haven’t invested enough in protecting that data, leaving the door wide open for savvy hackers. SalesForce.com might be well protected, but is the free backup service or contact manager that you use?
- Your data exists in a more public domain than when it is stored on internal, private servers, meaning that it is subject to subpoena without your being notified! In other words, the government and law enforcement has access to it and you will never know they were snooping around. This isn’t a concern for most small businesses, but it is still a cautionary note.
So does this mean we should all shut down our Dropbox, Carbonite, iBackup accounts? No. Does this mean that corporations should not implement the highly scalable, dramatically efficient solutions provided by the cloud? No. It means that both individuals and businesses must educate themselves on the up and down sides of this shift in computing. They can begin the process by realizing that:
- Not all data is created equal and that some types of sensitive data should never be placed in someone else’s control. This is exactly why there are data classification systems (I subscribe to those used by the military and spy agencies: Public, Internal, Confidential and Top Secret).
- Anything of immense power comes with costs, and those costs must be calculated into the relative ROI of the equation. In other words, the answer here, like most complex things in life, exists in the gray area, not in a black or white, one-size-fits all generalization.
John Sileo writes and speaks on Information Leadership, including identity theft prevention, data breach, social media risk and online reputation. His clients include the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, the Federal Reserve Bank, FDIC, FTC and hundreds of corporations of all sizes. Learn more about his motivational data security events.