Is Your Head in the Cloud?

You see the term "cloud" floating around (no pun intended) a lot: cloud computing, cloud storage, cloud services. The"cloud" is just a lofty way of saying "a bunch of connected computers" that might include your own computer and definitely includes other people's (and companies') computers.

In its broadest definition, the cloud is any combination of devices, computers, appliances, and machines connected on a network. There can be small, private clouds, and large, distributed, open clouds; clouds for enterprise use, clouds for consumer use.

Services such as DropBox, iCloud, Amazon Cloud, Facebook, Shutterfly, and Google Drive are examples of consumer cloud services and cloud storage -- convenient, and often free of charge. Some services are so conveniently offered, that it is tempting to sign up and start storing. As with any service, however, there are risks. What can go wrong in the cloud:

  • Data breaches (someone you didn't authorize has accessed your information)
  • Data loss (your data has become irretrievable)
  • Denial of service (someone is keeping you from accessing your data)

Knowing these risks helps you shop for services that are striving to protect you and your data.

There are considerations to make before choosing cloud services, especially services that are free. After all, once you trust your information to the cloud, it's no longer completely under your control. So exercise as much control as possible. Do your homework for each service you create an account with, checking for these important markers of security practices:

Sharing settings. Cloud services let you determine who else can access your information, but sometime those controls are a few clicks deep. Find those controls and be deliberate about who gets access and whether you permit them to share access with even more people. In particular, if your cloud provider lets you share access to your online folders, be sure you know in detail how this works. Can others read only or can they change the file? Will you know who changed a file last? If you share the file with a group, do you know who all is in the group? Are you notified if the group changes? Does the service allow you to make files public and, if so, are personal details (name, account, email, etc.) visible on that file if a stranger looks at it?

Encryption when uploading or downloading data from the cloud. Make sure that your browser or app requires an encrypted connection before you upload or download your data. Look for the "https://" or the padlock beside the URL in your browser like this:

Image of Encrypted HTTPS lock 

Your options for data protection and recovery. If the cloud provider is hacked or loses your data, will this be remedied? Well, if it’s a free service (as many online services are) you get what you pay for -- so be aware!

Password management: The key to your castle in the cloud. Cloud services require a password to access your files, so make it a good one. True, it can be a hassle to remember a strong password but it's an even bigger hassle to have your information stolen. And if a service offers two-factor authentication, use it.

Choosing life on the ground?
The more sensitive information is, the more you may want to keep it down here on terra firma (on a single computer with a back-up copy). At a minimum, University of Dayton data protected by law (medical information, personal identifiers, financial data) should not be stored in the cloud. For UD work, Novell is your most secure option. For personal data, be very deliberate and do your homework to find solutions that offer appropriate levels of security for the kind of data your are giving access to.