Many of my friends and colleagues assume that as a chartered electrical engineer and a tech veteran I will always be first to buy new applications and gadgets. The opposite is true. Having professional experience of product development, I prefer to be at the working, rather than the bleeding, edge of technology.
But now I find myself coerced into moving onto a technology I am still not convinced is fully ready for the mass consumer market.
Finally, reluctantly and unhappily, I am moving into the cloud.
Happy on terra firma
I don’t want to move into the cloud. I’m quite happy on terra firma with my data bounded by devices which I own and can touch. But now that HP has sold Palm’s webOS to LG Electronics for smart televisions rather than smart phones, I only have the cloud for comfort.
I bought my first Palm Organiser in 1997, a year after US Robotics launched them. I duly upgraded to the Palm Treo and then the Palm Pre smartphones when they were available in the UK. All of them synced data between handheld devices and desktop applications using a cable – first serial and then USB.
For the last three years I have purchased a proprietary synching application, Companionlink, to maintain that direct physical link, the perfect example of a consumer prepared to pay for the functionality she wants.
But now my Palm Pre is giving up the ghost and I do not want to lose the 15 years of diary, notes and contacts information it contains. I have to move to a new platform and the only choice really is Apple or Android.
Walled gardens make me claustrophobic so it has to be Android. I have just bought a phone with an operating system named after a multi-coloured sweet and the manager of the shop where I am taking the contract assures me that he will find a way to sync all my data into Google’s cloud...
And that is when I am going to have to start relying not on the physical security of the device in my hands, but the virtual security of Google’s server farms and my own password protection. Even before the revelations regarding the NSA and GCHQ ‘tapping’ internet communication, that gave me cause for concern.
Passwords - the weakest link
As shadow minister I am very aware that security is only as strong as the weakest link. When it comes to the cloud that is probably the individual’s password protection.
The general awareness of cyber security is low. Many consumers have only one username password combination - break that and the cyber criminals may have access to their entire lives.
I prefer to maintain a large number of combinations in the knowledge that hacking one won’t lead to my entire virtual life being accessible – which, by the way Amazon, is why despite your many requests, I have no intention of using my Amazon login for anything apart from Amazon. Or my Twitter login for anything apart from Twitter...
There are advantages in diversity online as well as in the real world.
But in addition to individual password security I have concerns around the accessibility and privacy of data once it leaves my personal possession.
Losing data ownership, losing choice
I am already irritated that because I used Google to research buying a pair of shoes over the summer I look set to be bombarded with shoe adverts all autumn. I really don’t want Google to know anything more about me.
But I’m just about to give them all my personal data. What kind of choice is that? I sense that many consumers have a similar sense of ‘digital discomfort’ as they feel their data migrating away from them.
Coincidently over the summer the parliamentary ICT department announced that parliament was moving into the cloud – not the same cloud that me a lowly individual consumer will get from Google but Microsoft’s extra secure enterprise.
Joan Miller, director of Parliamentary ICT, recently said that the biggest risk was data sovereignty and they had been able to resolve that: “We have been looking in a lot of detail at the workings of the Patriot Act in particular, and have had a lot of help from Microsoft in looking at how the Patriot Act in America might involve any services that we put into a cloud.”
She concluded that the risk of moving into a Microsoft cloud was small: “Because of the level of sensitivity of our data, which is IL2 or below mostly.”
I do not believe that my personal data is of interest for national security and I’m sure international cyber criminals can find more lucrative targets. But it is my data, and I want to know it’s secure. I think parliamentarians may well agree with that.
Chi Onwurah is Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister and MP for Newcastle Central