There’s at least one funny joke in Sex Tape. While frantically trying to cut off access to the amateur porn vid he accidentally uploaded to iCloud, Jason Segel tries to explain why deleting the file won’t work. “Nobody understands the cloud,” he says. “It’s a fucking mystery!” He’s kind of right.

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“Cloud” is a buzzword that vaguely suggests the promise and convenience of being able to access files from anywhere. But the reality is that the cloud is hardly floating like mist above our heads — it’s a physical infrastructure, its many computers housed in massive warehouses all over the world. And yet as long as it’s easy to read email on our phones and watch movies on our laptops, we generally don’t take the time to wonder where our data actually goes, how it gets there, and what happens to it on its way.

What is actually happening when you punt your files, photos, and videos up to servers owned by Apple, Google, and Amazon? Let’s peek behind the cloud, and face reality.

Origins of Cloud Computing

While the term “cloud computing” has only entered the public’s lexicon in the past 10 years or so, the idea’s been around for decades. Cloud computing basically refers to a process of sharing resources to optimize performance. Practically speaking, that means using a network of computers to store and process information, rather than a single machine.

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The early days of computing actually leaned heavily on a pretty similar concept. Back in the 1950s, when computer mainframes were the size of a room, users would log on to a dumb terminal to take advantage of the machine’s processing power. (They’re called dumb terminals because they can’t really do much of anything without the mainframe.) This time-sharing model is pretty analogous to the way cloud computing works on the internet today. But instead of one massive mainframe in the middle of a room, we rely on a global infrastructure of servers and data centers to do the heavy lifting.

By the time the 90s rolled around, it was pretty clear to the cyber-prophets of days gone by that the future would enable the whole world to share resources. Engineers started using a drawing of a cloud to refer to this network in patent drawings in the mid-90s. Compaq engineers coined the term “cloud computing” in late 1996, and less than a year later, Steve Jobs described a proto-iCloud at WWDC:

It was pretty revolutionary at the time. You store your files one place and you can access them from any device. Fast forward to the iPhone era, and it’s easy to forget the dark ages, when you actually had to burn CDs and tote around external hard drives. Now you start watching a movie on your laptop, switch to your tablet, and finish it on your phone without missing a scene.

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Let’s back up for a second, though. The idea of cloud computing is almost metaphysical. In more practical terms, however, the applications of cloud computing tend to revolve around one key feature: storage.

Life Without a Hard Drive

A wonderful thing happened about a decade ago. Thanks to a confluence of factors, lots of computers started getting persistent, high speed internet connections. Not long thereafter, mobile devices started getting the same thing. So if devices are always online, and data transfer speeds aren’t abysmal, why not just store all the software and storage online?

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That’s essentially where we’re headed with the 21st century notion of cloud computing. Cloud computing means that your laptop works less like a standalone computer and more like a dumb terminal. Ever used a Chromebook?

From a technical point of view, leaning on the larger network of computers in the cloud makes great sense. Suddenly, you don’t need to worry as much about hardware specifications, like RAM or hard drive space, because the network can do the heavy lifting.

Distributing the load across lots of powerful servers means web-based applications can run more dependably and efficiently. These servers are constantly updating, and those web apps more or less always work. If one server crashes, there are others to pick up the slack. Your IT department at work probably loves this idea.

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Those are the broad strokes of cloud computing. What people sometimes blindly refer to as “the cloud” is something a little bit different.

The Truth About “the Cloud”

Cloud computing is wildly popular at the enterprise level, where IT managers are focused on maintaining stable systems that are used by hundreds or thousands of employees. Most consumers encounter the cloud on an individual basis, however, with cloud storage. Where’s that sex tape? It’s in the cloud. But wait, what’s the cloud? It is not a giant hard drive in the sky.

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When you store something “in the cloud,” you’re actually storing it in a very physical space. That file slides across the wire and then lives on a physical server—usually more than one—in some far flung place. And depending on which cloud storage service you use, that file is now in the possession of a giant corporation to whom you probably pay a monthly fee. Anybody who’s ever used Dropbox knows that this makes it incredibly convenient to access files or to share files from any computer with an internet connection.

In the past, you just bought a computer with a hard drive inside and stored your files there. Now, you pay a company like Apple or Google to store the file remotely and provide you with access when you ask for it.

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If your data lives “in the cloud,” it actually lives on a company’s server, and you more or less pay a membership fee to work in that company’s sandbox. Depending on that company’s terms of service, you may or may not actually own or control that data once it lives in cloud storage. This raises a few glaring concerns in terms of security and privacy.

Storms Ahead

The Sex Tape example is a terrific analogy for how helpless you can be once you’ve uploaded something to the cloud—terrible movie, terrific analogy. Once your data’s in the cloud, you’ve lost some basic control over it. If you upload a file to a cloud storage service like iCloud, Google Drive, or Amazon CloudDrive, you’re actually making copies of that file. The file likely lives on several servers in case Godzilla attacks one of the data center or something, so if you want to delete that file, you’re trusting the company to delete all of the copies.

As we’ve seen in the past, this doesn’t always happen like it’s supposed to. So you’re not really in control of your data if you’re not in possession of it. You’re just not.

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Let’s say the police want to have a look. Depending on its particular privacy policies, the company you picked for your cloud storage can actually hand over your data whenever the authorities ask them. Sometimes, the cops don’t even need a warrant. Companies like Google publish transparency reports on a regular basis that show how many hundreds of times this happens every year.

So just keep that in mind next time you’re uploading something to Google Drive instead of storing it locally. The cops would need a warrant to break down your door and go searching through your personal hard drive. The process of getting information from Google is somewhat more streamlined.

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Once you’re at the stage where you’re uploading files to Apple’s servers, you’ve already agreed to the company’s terms of service. (By the way, those terms of service probably failed to clarify who actually owns the data in the cloud.) The shitty part about this concern is that you can’t do much about it, except trust the company storing your data and hope nothing bad happens.

Granted, tracking down deleted files and worrying about warrantless police searches don’t necessarily affect the average person on a daily basis. However, the concern that a hacker could get ahold of sensitive information should be. Look no further than the catastrophic iCloud hack to understand how this is a very real concern.

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What you can do is encrypt data before you upload it to the cloud. Here’s how.

What’s Next

The cloud is convenient. That fantasy that Steve Jobs described in 1997 is now a reality for a lot of people, and that’s awesome. The cloud is so awesome that the world’s biggest technology companies are scrambling to find out how to make the most money they can off of it.

For now, the monthly fees you pay for cloud storage are comparable to what you’d pay for an external hard drive back in the day. The advantage is that you can access the data from anywhere and never have to worry about the data disappearing—probably. The disadvantage is that you don’t have as much control over the data and never really know what’s being done with it, and could be hard-pressed to make it disappear if you want it to go away.

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Google was already talking about how to put advertising on the cloud nearly a decade ago. The dystopian future in which you’d have to watch pre-roll ads just to update your resume is not as dystopian as you might think.

Cloud storage is just one aspect of cloud computing, though. While the promise of this very 21st century technology is exciting, the reality of living in a world where we all carry around dumb terminals and depend on a for-profit entity to manage our data is sobering. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use iCloud or Google Drive or Dropbox or OneDrive or CloudDrive. It just means you should know what you’re really doing when you’re using them.

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The cloud isn’t magic. It’s a business.

Image by Michael Hession