Digital Life
12:06 pm
Mon May 12, 2014

Clouds Are Convenient, But Be Paranoid To Protect Personal Data

Originally published on Mon May 12, 2014 12:24 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Switching gears now. You're probably seeing a lot of ads for smartphones and other gadgets that a graduate might like. There are a lot out there, and they're changing all the time. And that made us think that technology is not the only thing changing quickly. There are also new ways to store information. We're no longer storing documents and photos on hard drives or USB sticks or even CDs or floppy disks, if you remember those.

Many people today rely on clouds like Google Drive or Dropbox. And these allow us to access important documents anywhere on almost any device. But we wanted to know just how secure are clouds, and what should we know before we use them? Joining us to tell us more is Nicole Perlroth. She is technology reporter for The New York Times, and she's with us now. Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.

NICOLE PERLROTH: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: For people who are not familiar with the term, can you just tell us what a cloud is?

PERLROTH: So the cloud is a really nebulous term - no pun intended - for computing done remotely. So you're using the cloud if you are working off of your Google Drive and you're creating a document in Google Drive, you're working from the cloud. You are using the cloud when you do online banking. You're using the cloud when you store something in a Dropbox account. And you're even using the cloud when you're watching Netflix because Netflix outsources its data storage to Amazon's Web Services, which is a cloud-computing provider.

MARTIN: Do you even have a choice anymore about whether you use the cloud?

PERLROTH: You do have a choice, but it's getting - people are moving to the cloud at a very fast rate. So gone are the days for small companies when most of their data is stored down the hall in a computing room. A lot of small and medium-sized businesses now outsource their data storage and data security to services like Amazon and Google and Rackspace and a number of cloud providers.

And, yes, you can still store documents on your computer or on your hard drive or on a time machine, but a lot of people are now migrating to the cloud because it's cheap. It's easy to access your documents from different devices, which is very convenient. And in a lot of businesses' cases, it's cheaper for them to sort of outsource their data storage and data security to someone like Amazon than to go build out their own warehouses to store their data themselves.

MARTIN: And of course, if you lose that particular device or if it breaks, of course people are just, you know, they're stuck. They're lost. It's almost like losing that old address book. And this way you - it's automatically sort of available somewhere else.

PERLROTH: Right.

MARTIN: But is there a downside? I mean, a lot of people are familiar with those big security breaches at the retailers that became known at the end of last year - right? - after the kind of Christmas or even in the middle of the Christmas shopping season. A lot of people were just terrified that they were suddenly exposed and all their personal data was exposed. Is there something that people should know or be aware of about this?

PERLROTH: Yeah, there are definitely risks. And one of them is, say, your cloud provider goes out of business. Say they're having financial troubles and they go out of business, and they take all your data with them. Say that there is an outage - and this has actually happened several times, usually due to storms. But Amazon has a huge data warehouse in Virginia, and there's been a couple times where it's had an outage. And suddenly you saw all these services they interface with, like Instagram and Pinterest and Netflix, all suddenly have problems because so much of their businesses are dependent on Amazon's - Amazon Web Services.

So, you know, you want to make sure that whoever you're storing your data within the cloud isn't likely to go out of business tomorrow and same for security. You know, all - what we're doing now with the cloud is we're sort of aggregating so much different data from so many different services in one cloud storage provider. And so if that cloud storage provider is not handling their infrastructure correctly or is not devoting enough resources to their security or hiring the right personnel or ensuring that they're not going to go out of business anytime soon or that a storm at one of their facilities doesn't affect all of their data, then you're certainly putting your data at risk.

MARTIN: So what are some of the common sense things that you do to insulate or protect yourself from these negative consequences? We have a about a minute and a half left. Can you just give us some things that people can be doing on a commonsense basis 'cause you surely can't - you can't, you know, go and check their hiring records and say are you sure you got the right people here?

PERLROTH: Right.

MARTIN: What can you do?

PERLROTH: Right. So I am notoriously paranoid because I am a cybersecurity reporter, and we have - ourselves here at the New York Times - dealt with a breach from a foreign nation state. So I'm notoriously paranoid. So I won't put anything very crucial - I won't put any of my sources' information in my Dropbox account, for example, or on Google Drive. But I do use it for things like my photos. I will - you know, I don't just want my photos saved on my phone. I will save them to my computer, and then I'll save them to my Dropbox account so that if I lose my phone or my computer crashes, at least I can access my photos from my Dropbox account.

But for things like my Social Security number or things that, you know, if a cybercriminal got a hold of them or the NSA got a hold of them, I would be in deep trouble, I don't put that stuff in the cloud. And I would say that I'm very much on the paranoid side of the spectrum. But if you want to be very secure, I would be very careful about what you're storing where.

MARTIN: Nicole Perlroth is technology reporter for The New York Times. She covers cybersecurity issues, as she just mentioned. And she was kind enough to join us from New York City. Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.

PERLROTH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.