By Charlie Martin
Rumors of Google’s new ‘cloud’ web storage application, the so-called “G Drive,” have been around for years – but now, at last, they appear to be real. So, the question now is: Do you really want it?
The advantages are obvious: move your data into Google’s cloud, and you can use Google applications and storage from inexpensive “netbook” computers.
So on the one hand, your data is accessible from everywhere, stored nearly for free, on systems managed by Google. But on the other hand, your data is only accessible through the Internet, and access is solely through applications and services provided by Google.
As good as Google’s search product has been, Google isn’t infallible, as the recent hour-long outage proved. What’s more important, though, is the risk that having your data in someone else’s servers might present, especially when it can be combined with your information, or others. In computer security, this is known as an aggregation problem.
Think of it like this: You have a letter to your insurance company on your G Drive with your name and your insurance ID, which is your Social Security number. You’ve also stored your electronic bank statements, and a spreadsheet containing your monthly budget. Assuming you’ve been reasonably careful about passwords, none of these alone is a risk. But someone who can access your G Drive through a flaw in Google’s security might be able to combine them all, and then transfer your bank balance to their account in the Kyrgyzstan Mob Bank and Trust.
A subtler criminal might instead capture many bank accounts from many people, and arrange transfers of a few dollars each, randomly. Most people wouldn’t notice; the ones who carefully balance their checkbooks and savings statements every month will notice, but for an error of only a few dollars, most banks will just issue a corresponding credit and forget about it. Until and unless they realize it’s happening over a large number of their accounts on a regular basis – that it is, in fact, a criminal conspiracy — it might go completely undetected.
Manage to crack a few million accounts, and it could add up to significant money in just a few weeks.
The risks presented by this kind of worldwide search and aggregation aren’t really new — in fact, the ideas were being used shortly after 9/11 in the “Total Information Awareness” program. What’s different is that with personal data moving into a “cloud” — whether it’s Google’s G Drive or other services — data mining operations like TIA or its criminal counterpart would potentially have far more data to search, and far more opportunities to capture private information. What’s more, data stored at a Google facility isn’t legally protected in the same way your personal files at home are: a warrant can give the government access to the data without you being notified at all.
So what’s the solution? Very few people will willingly spend a thousand dollars for a home computer if they can use a hundred dollar computer in its place, and very few really consider the privacy issues until they’re forced to confront them through a fraud or identity theft. People will move their data into the cloud, for the convenience and the cost savings.
So the answer will have to have two parts. There will need to be legal changes; ideally, your data in the cloud should be as protected from search and seizure as paper records in your private residence. We can expect law enforcement authorities to resist this.
The second part will be technical. Data encryption is easily available, and the current standards such as AES are strong enough to defeat even the NSA (at least as far as we know.) There are a number of difficult problems, like how to manage keys, that aren’t yet solved. But now that cloud services are becoming more and more common, there will be a big market for encryption and security products that can cooperate to protect your data.
Until these things happen, though, it’s probably best you not commit any data to a cloud like Google’s impending G Drive that you’re really concerned about. As convenient as it may seem, the risk is just too much.