The only one who really cares about your data is you!
Once more, yesterday’s Dropbox authentication bug shows a fundamental weakness of centralized services. Dropbox is just a high profile example, but the underlying problem is that of unneeded centralisation.
Every teenager who starts using facebook is told how important it is to wisely choose what to put online and what not, and always be aware that nothing published on the internet can ever be completely deleted any more.
However, the way popular “cloud” services are built today unfortunately just ignore this, and choose a centralized implementation. Which means uploading everything first, and then trying (and sometimes sadly failing, like dropbox yesterday) to protect that data from unauthorized access.
Why? Because it is easier to implement. Yes, distributed systems are much harder to design and implement. But just choosing a centralized approach is inevitably generating single points of failure. I really don’t think we can afford that risk for a long time any more.
It’s not even only a technical problem. It’s a mindset of delegating too much responsibility, which is fatal. Relying on a centralized storage to be “just secure” is delegating responsibility to others – responsibility that those others are unlikely to comply with.
The argument often goes: it’s too hard for a smaller company to run their own servers and keep them secure, so better leave that to the big cloud providers, who are the experts and really care. That’s simply not true. Like everyone else, they care about their profit. If they loose or expose your data, they care about the PR debacle this might be for them, but not for the data itself. The only one who really cares about what happens to your data – is you.
Even assuming the service provider was able to keep your data safe, there’s another problem. As we have heard again in the discussion about Dropbox’s TOS, there are legal constraints on what a cloud service may and may not do. For instance, they may not store your data encrypted such that “law enforcement” cannot access it under certain conditions. Which means that Dropbox can’t offer encryption based on really private keys (only you have the key to your data, they don’t) even if they wanted to.
What they could do, and IMHO must do in the long term, is offering a federated system. Giving you the choice to host the majority of data in a place where you are legally allowed to use strong encryption with your entirely private keys, such as your own server. Only for sharing with others, and only with the data actually being shared, smaller entities need to enter a bigger federation (which might be organized by a globally operating company).
That’s how internet mail always worked – no mail sent among members of a organisation ever needs to leave the mail servers of that organisation. Same for Jabber/XMPP. This should become true for Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter etc. as well. They should really start structuring their clouds, and giving the option to keep critical data by yourself, without making this a decision against using the service at all.
Unfortunately, one of the few big projects that expressedly had federation on the agenda, Google Wave, has almost (but not entirely) disappeared after a big hype in 2009. Sadly, most probably exactly the fact that they did focus on federation and scalability so much and not on polishing their web interface, has made it a failure in the eye of the public.
Maybe we should really do away with that fuzzy term “the cloud” and start talking about small and big clouds, more and less private ones, and how and if they should or should not interact.
Still, one of the currently most opaque clouds is ahead of us – Apple’s iCloud. Nothing at all was said in public about how security will work in the iCloud. And from what was presented, it seems for now it will have no cross-account sharing features at all.
The only thing that seem clear is that all of our data will be stored in that huge datacenter in North Carolina, so I guess that using iCloud when it launches in a few months will demand total trust on Apple to get it right (and as said above – this is a responsibility nobody can really take).
On the other hand, Apple could be foresighted enough to realize the need for federation in a later step, for example allowing future Time Capsules to act as in-house cloud server. After all, and unlike other players, Apple profits from selling hardware to us. And to base a speculation on my earlier speculation (still neither confirmed nor disproved), iCloud might be technically ready for that.
But whatever inherent motivation the big players may or may not have to improve the situation – it’s up to us to realize there’s no easy way around taking care of our data ourselves, and to ask for standards, infrastructure and services which make doing so possible.