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Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud!

By Sonia Arrison
Sep 29, 2010 5:00 AM PT

By all accounts, cloud computing is the future. The market will grow at five times the rate of traditional IT products, IDC has predicted, estimating it will be worth US$55.5 billion by 2014. While the future should be rosy, some policy groups are warning that without proper protections, the sector could stumble hard.

Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud!

The problem is a law -- the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) -- that hasn't been updated to reflect new technological realities. Enacted in 1986, before the advent of email, blogs, and social networking, the law doesn't protect the users of cloud computing services from unwarranted government access.

In testimony presented to the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, a group of public interest groups summed up the issue succinctly: "[The] ECPA authorizes law enforcement to compel service providers to disclose potentially sensitive information without first obtaining a search warrant based upon probable cause or without any judicial authorization at all."

Betting on the Cloud

This is a problem, not only on principle, but for practical reasons as well. The reality that government officials can access one's email stored in the cloud without going through the same procedures they would if they wanted to look at documents in one's house is a glaring breach of privacy.

Once consumers figure this out, it could defuse enthusiasm for using products like Gmail, Facebook, Salesforce CRM, etc. Understandably, technology firms are worried, since many are betting their businesses, and the jobs that go with them, on the cloud.

Cloud computing is "a critical part of the future and quite central to all that we're doing," said Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith.

Scary Stats

Indeed, the membership of Digital Due Process, a coalition dedicated to modernizing surveillance laws for the Internet age, is a who's who of the technology industry. Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Google, Intel,, Linden Lab, HP, Qwest and Microsoft are working with groups like the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Progress and Freedom Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform to fix such a glaring privacy problem.

To illustrate the urgency, several public interest groups said in a prepared statement to a House subcommittee hearing that "Google recently launched a tool disclosing the number of requests for user data it received from U.S. law enforcement in the second half of 2009 (the figure was 3,580). In the first half of 2010, the number of requests Google received rose to 4,287-- an increase of 20 percent compared to the previous six-month period."

Those frightening statistics should jolt policymakers out of their chairs and into decisive action.

No Help Wanted

The technology industry doesn't need government's help to innovate and create jobs. The sector is so competitive that market forces serve to keep most issues in check. Privacy from unwarranted law enforcement access, however, is one issue that can't be addressed by the marketplace.

Legislators need to make our basic freedoms part of the Internet age. Americans are flocking to social networking sites and other useful services based in the cloud. If those services are to expand and prosper, the people must be able to use them free of undue government intrusion. As the Rolling Stones put it, "Hey, you, get off of my cloud!"

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute. Follow her on Twitter @soniaarrison.

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