Hey You, Get Off of My Cloud!

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.

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, Salesforce.com, 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

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