Most Web users have their heads in the cloud
A study released today by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that 69% of people online in the United States have used some form of "cloud computing" -- Web mail, online photo/video storage, or Web-based applications that store their data in the growing "cloud" of servers instead of on their personal computers.
But while people like the convenience and the ability to easily access content stored online and share it with others, they are concerned about how that personal information could be misused, the study found. (Download a PDF here.) And that makes it a challenge for Washington policymakers.
"People are very obviously making trade-offs in privacy," John Horrigan, the project's associate director, said in unveiling the study at Google's Washington, D.C., offices today. "There are high-levels of use of the cloud and high-levels of concern about ... possible secondary uses of the data."
Nine in 10 people who used online services to store personal information said they would be very worried if companies that provided the services sold their data to third parties. Eight in 10 would be very concerned if their photos were used in marketing campaigns (as happened to one Baltimore woman), and 49% would be very concerned if companies storing their files gave them to law enforcement when requested to do so.
It was no surprise that Google ...
... hosted the event entitled "Cloud Computing: Navigating the Next Frontier" at its slick new Washington digs. Google is trying to lure computer users to its suite of Web-based applications, such as Gmail and Google Docs. In addition to hosting Horrigan, Google put together a panel of policy experts to discuss the findings and the policy implications of the shift to cloud computing.
"I think cloud computing is the hot topic over the next year in Washington," said Dan Burton, senior vice president for global public policy at Salesforce.com.
When technology issues are hot topics in the nation's capital, technology executives get nervous. Washington doesn't have a great track record dealing with industry issues. But Ari Schwartz, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said it is important that policymakers address privacy laws as cloud computing expands.
He noted that data stored online doesn't have the same Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable government search and seizure as data stored on a personal computer in your home.
The Pew data on people's concerns about cloud computing show that "consumers expect their information will be treated the same way in the cloud as it would be if that information were stored on their home computer."
The stakes are large as Web-based services expand, said Michael R. Nelson, a visiting professor of communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University who worked on information technology issues in the Clinton administration White House.
He compared cloud computing today with the World Wide Web in 1993 -- the basic technology is in place, there's a vague idea of its importance but nobody knows where it's headed.
"If we do this right, we're going to unleash a whole host of applications," Nelson said.
-- Jim Puzzanghera
Photo: Big Fluffy Cloud, by Nanimo via Flickr