Cloud computing could prompt government action

Issues involving privacy and data security are likely to emerge

Cloud computing will soon become a hot topic in Washington, with policy makers debating issues such as the privacy and security of data in the cloud, a panel of technology experts said Friday.

There are "huge challenges" facing policy makers in the next year or two as cloud computing becomes increasingly popular, said Mike Nelson, visiting professor for the Center for Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University and a former technology policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

The major policy questions to be worked out include: Who owns the data that consumers store on the network? Should law enforcement agencies have easier access to personal information in the cloud than data on a personal computer? Do government procurement regulations need to change to allow agencies to embrace cloud computing?

Cloud computing is "as important as the Web was 15 years ago," said Nelson, speaking at a Google Inc. forum on the policy implications of hosted applications and services. "We don't have any idea of how important it is, and we don't really have any clue as to how it's going to be used."

Despite the growing number of people using cloud services such as hosted e-mail and online photo storage, many consumers don't understand the privacy and security implications, said Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), an advocacy group focused on online privacy and civil rights. So far, U.S. courts have generally ruled that private data stored in the cloud doesn't enjoy the same level of protection from law enforcement searches that data stored on a personal computer does, he said.

"Consumers expect their information will be treated the same on the cloud as it is if it were stored at home on their own computers," Schwartz said.

Forty-nine percent of U.S. residents who use cloud-computing services would be very concerned if the cloud vendors shared their files with law enforcement agencies, according to a survey released Friday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Another 15% of respondents said they'd be somewhat concerned, according to the survey, which was released to coincide with the Google policy event.

Sixty-nine percent of U.S. residents who are online use at least one of six popular cloud services, the survey said. Fifty-six percent of survey respondents use Web mail services, 34% store personal photos online, and 29% use online applications such as Google Documents or Adobe Photoshop Express, according to the survey.

Among the concerns about cloud computing: 80% of respondents said they'd be very concerned if a vendor used their photos and other information in marketing campaigns. Another 68% said they'd be very concerned if the vendor used their personal information stored in the cloud to deliver personalized ads to them, and 63% said they'd be very concerned if the vendor kept their data after they tried to delete it.

Asked why they use cloud-computing services, 51% said convenience was the major reason. Another 41% said the major factor was being able to access their information from multiple computers and devices.

One audience member suggested that consumers' growing use of cloud services doesn't match their concerns about the privacy of their data. Schwartz said consumers would embrace privacy protections if they were made easy to use.

"People are obviously making trade-offs in privacy when they use these services," added John Horrigan, Pew's associate director for research.

Asked what policy recommendations they'd make to the U.S. government, Nelson and Schwartz suggested that procurement regulations must change for federal agencies to embrace cloud computing. But questions about data privacy and ownership are also important to address, Schwartz said.

The U.S. government should encourage the free flow of information around the globe, said Dan Burton, senior vice president for global public policy at cloud computing vendor Inc. The benefits of cloud computing could be hampered by laws that prevent the sharing of data across national borders, he said.

The government should avoid formulating specific policies for cloud computing, according to Nelson. The government's role should be to ensure competition and allow vendors to work out details, he said.

"I do think government has an almost infinite ability to screw up things when they can't see the future," Nelson said. "We have to have leadership that believes in empowering users and empowering citizens."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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