Jul 15

Will government data greed kill the golden cloud?

The revelations from Mr Snowden about the US Government’s hidden abuse of, probably, its own citizens and, certainly. of non-US citizens have been an eye-opener. Those operating ‘in black’ (the ‘black state’) invariably prefer secrecy to transparency (much as happens with black economic activity that does not pay taxes). The consequences, however, of being caught out are likely to be profound, and probably not at all what anyone expected, with one being certain aspects of cloud computing — a case or government data greed potentially many golden clouds.

When you are transparent and ask for what you seek, then you will often receive what you want. The US and, almost certainly, UK governments (and probably many more) prefer to hide behind hidden and possibly quasi-legal processes. If their populations start to object and take action, governments have only themselves to blame. If they had asked, none of this might be a problem. But the net result may yet be that those same governments will have less information than they could have had and that this information will be costlier to exploit. This will occur, however, only if ‘the little people (aka the electors)’ each take small actions which cumulatively become large ones. This what may also kill the cloud business model of many organizations.

Some examples are worth considering. Take Facebook. Unless you are an avid Facebook user, which millions are, why take any unnecessary risks. I am trying to delete my Facebook account (it takes less than a minute to create and up to 2 weeks to delete an account), just to remove any future potential. Take Microsoft. Over the past months it has been updating Hotmail and introducing Outlook.com, along with Office365, etc. In doing this,Microsoft has made a reasonable stab at improving its services, so much so that many were converting to Outlook.com with Skydrive and Skype attached. Now that it is clear that Microsoft had actively been facilitating access to its customers’ data to NSA, even before Outlook.com was launched (a as revealed in the Guardian — see http://bit.ly/155Nwb2) then anything to do with Microsoft online has become thoroughly suspect. It is time to delete Microsoft cloud offerings. Take Google. The same applies, although more thought is required here because of the Android device connection. Nevertheless something will need to be done, probably deletion of the Play Store accounting information and creation of anonymous accounts — which will reduce app income. The same applies to Yahoo. Apple and iTunes are little different.

You begin to see a pattern?

While business requirements will likely necessitate one approach, which may be more tolerant of services that can be accessed, there is no excuse for accepting this for one’s personal data. Doing something about the latter is easier to say than to control, however.

Amazon is an interesting variation. For reading Amazon has for many become a necessity. E-books have replaced p(hysical)-books, whether read on a tablet or smartphone or other device. The dilemma is simple. Should one give up e-books, and all that has been invested in purchasing those e-books? Or should one reluctantly accept that what Amazon knows may be available to those who think they need to know you like sci-fi or history or romantic novels. In the Amazon instance there are probably multiple answers which include having separate accounts in Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, amazon.it, etc. plus seeking explicit assurances from Amazon (if it does not voluntarily offer these to protect its future income stream) that data in Europe, for example, will adhere to European data protection standards. This is probably not sufficient, but may suffice until better answers appear.

Now consider the implications of the above.

Let us start with some of the companies named. Without a great deal of effort on any user’s part the amount of information about each individual is constrain-able. What should worry organizations like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and many others is how this might impact their business models if sufficient people take similar actions. Just as Economics Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugmann has observed, if one family decides to save $5000 in a year, that may make economic sense for that family. If, however, a nation of (say) 50 million people (think Spain) with 20 million family units all decide to do the same in the same year, that removes $100B of spending, which is enough to put even a Spanish-sized economy (c $1.5T) into unintended recession. The business models of these companies could suffer unless they can credibly demonstrate they are not the lackeys of the black state.

Moving on, consider cloud computing. At a corporate level this is accelerating. At a personal level, thus far, it has been somewhat of a damp squib: the lack of Apple’s usual success with its iCloud is only one example. That does not mean that Apple, and Amazon/Facebook/Google/Microsoft/Yahoo/etc have stopped seeking ways to encourage personal users to accept their visions for personal cloud usage (whether for email, photos, music or whatever). But all those efforts could come to a grinding halt if personal users start to think through what they can do to reduce what is available to the black state. Personal cloud computing as an objective might even just be blown away by the unintended crosswinds of uncovered secrecy which in turn could impact many commercial investments and initiatives.

Indeed, the more that one thinks about what could happen, if the voting population understands and acts, the more the effect could be amazing:

  • p-books, and bookshops, might come back into fashion
  • the whole tablet and smartphone market might lose its appeal
  • traditional, offline, GPS/maps solutions may recover popularity (if only so that the online map providers no longer know where you are)
  • whole swathes of advertising which assumes ad-platform providers know where people are could evaporate
  • the traditional PC comes back into fashion rather than being supplanted by cloud storage, because people have confidence in their own devices (this is akin to why people buy cars rather than rent them — when renting often makes more financial sense for most in urban areas).

But it goes far further. Expect the rapid evolution and rapid adoption of a series of specialized services that will assist users to mask (but not necessarily wholly to hide) personal identityies and associated information Add encryption and one time password (OTP) creation and privacy will improve. Of course this does not mean that the black state will stop seeking information. But obtaining this information may become exponentially harder and more expensive, and deservedly so.

The irony is that what governments want most people would probably be happy to provide — if governments were open about how they wished to act. The idea that the 860,000 people, believed to be employed in the US in the black state, have no dishonest members is fanciful. If governments had developed the safeguards, asked for permission from their populaces and made their processes transparent, most people would likely sign up. By doing the reverse the black state will deliver unintended consequences, which could include killing the personal clouds that might have become one its best open sources as well as a business building block for many commercial organizations.

One last, personal, point. It is not paranoia that has started me to rethink what to do (I had planned to move to a public cloud). It is now common sense combined with is the simple belief that opaque government (the black state) inevitably over time becomes corrupt. An example of this is the UK’s Foreign Secretary, who proclaimed that ‘there is nothing to fear’. Such claims must automatically be suspect (however apparently honest a politician’s motives). Almost invariably such black state-related claims turn out to be false.

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