Clouded judgment

Today a huge wealth of information, including some of our most personal material, finds its way to the “cloud”. In the era of hackers and cyber-warfare, is the shift to remote data storage wise?

Facebook ICloud storage centres - Rathbone Investment Management

Lee Wilson, Head of Digital Marketing, Rathbones

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

— T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

Eliot posed some interesting philosophical questions. Most of us today have more prosaic concerns: Where is all our information and what happens if we lose it?

In 2013, in a report entitled What Will We Make of This Moment?, US-based technology giant IBM calculated that 2.5 quintillion bytes of data were produced every day during the preceding year. An American quintillion may be smaller than a British quintillion, but this feat still entails plenty of zeros — 18, to be precise.

It was subsequently estimated that 90% of all the data in the world had been generated over the course of the previous two years. In essence, this means humanity managed to amass barely a tenth of the sum total of its available information — useful or otherwise — between the dawn of civilisation and the start of this decade. This is truly the age of “big data”.

For individuals and organisations alike it has brought many benefits — speed, convenience and cost-effectiveness foremost among them. It has never been easier or cheaper to accumulate and access colossal quantities of information.

Increasingly our devices, like laptops, smartphones and tablets, are pushing this welter of data to the “cloud” — a huge network of internet-hosted servers that store and manage it.

When your fridge recognises your regular eating habits and orders what you need from the supermarket (as well as offering healthier recipe ideas) you can be sure it will not be storing all the necessary information in a hard drive under the cool box. The next generation of intelligent household devices will only add to the data stockpile.

Understandably there are mounting concerns about how this extraordinary wealth of facts, figures and insights is retained, how it is used and how it could be misused. In an era when everything from bank transactions to holiday snaps, and even data on which brand of chocolate you like, resides somewhere in the cloud it is not surprising if it leaves you feeling just a little vulnerable. Are those fears justified?

From intergalactic to Arctic Circle

Although the term was popularised by online retailer Amazon in 2006, the origins of what we now know as “cloud computing” stretch back to the 1960s. Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider was a director at the US Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) when he first proposed the concept of what he called an “intergalactic computer network”.

Licklider envisaged a system that would connect everyone around the globe, allowing them to access programmes and data from anywhere and at any time. His idea led to ARPANet, whose underpinning technologies would one day provide the foundations for the internet. The cloud represents the latest evolution of Licklider’s “intergalactic” vision, employing a massive nexus of dedicated facilities to process and hold immense amounts of data.

But how immense is this? The world’s largest data centre, owned by industry leader Switch, is designed to eventually occupy up to 7.2 million square feet in Tahoe Reno, Nevada — and will use 500 miles of fibre optics to serve clients including eBay. Plans to build a facility with a potentially record-breaking capacity in the Arctic at Ballangen in Norway were recently announced.

The remoteness of these locations is significant. Data storage on this epic scale requires a lot of room. A smartphone may well be at least a million times more powerful than the computers that helped put man on the Moon, but the reality is that our everyday devices cannot accommodate the exponential explosion in information generation. With data now gushing from a myriad of “smart” gadgets — cameras, sensors, lighting, heating, and even kettles — the cloud is becoming a go-to repository for a never-ending stream of minutiae.

Important information is stored there too. Business owners are moving away from having to buy and maintain expensive servers. Much of their information — transaction records, accounts information, client work — is also now stored in the cloud. So is much of our personal financial information.

But is it safe? After all, it is not only the need for acres of space that gives rise to far-flung outposts in the likes of Nevada and the Arctic Circle. Tellingly, Switch’s centre in Tahoe Reno has been named the Citadel and is encircled by a 20ft-high concrete barricade. Security is clearly paramount; and yet the threat of intruders clambering over a wall after trekking across desert or tramping through snow is by no means uppermost in the concerns of either those who store data or those who supply it.

Is anywhere truly safe?

The infiltration of computer systems has become an art — one whose most skilful exponents sometimes appear capable of anything. From the theft of celebrities’ intimate photographs to the temporary sabotaging of worldwide online services such as PayPal and Netflix, there seems to be ample evidence that nothing can ever
be viewed as genuinely secure.

The cyber-disruption of Iran’s nuclear programme offers one of the most remarkable examples of what can be achieved. In 2006, in an operation codenamed Olympic Games, US intelligence specialists devised a computer virus able to tap into and infect the systems controlling the centrifuges at the Natanz industrial plant, thereby impeding the Iranian regime’s efforts to enrich uranium.

The attack, which has been widely reported but never officially acknowledged, took advantage of a software failing of which the target was unaware. Iran eventually realised what was happening only because a programming error caused the virus to replicate elsewhere on the internet, allowing IT firms to capture and reverse-engineer it.

Olympic Games has since been described as the cyber-warfare equivalent of the dropping of the first atomic bomb. There have even been high-level claims that it was merely a small element of a proposed larger operation, Nitro Zeus, which could have degraded Iran’s power grid, communications and other vital infrastructure.

How secure can the cloud be when hackers purportedly possess the ability to bring an entire country to its knees? Maybe nowhere is absolutely safe; but some places are at least safer than others.

Home is where the danger is

First World War surveillance experts could identify and track specific military ships or units by discerning tiny variations in patterns of Morse code. These subtle distinctions were known as “fists”. Today each of us has an intensely detailed “fist” from which an adept hacker can assemble a rich picture of our day-to-day routine, our preferences and our habits.

In 2014 researchers from Germany’s Saarland University revealed how they were able to predict the behaviour of study participants by analysing data from the wireless devices in their homes — even though many of those devices were encrypted.

Similarly, there is an astonishing scene in Citizenfour, the acclaimed documentary about Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who exposed the extent of governments’ telecommunications-led surveillance programmes. It shows Snowden laboriously conversing via pen and paper for fear that his every word is somehow being monitored by a commonplace fixture or fitting — a phone, a computer, a television.

All of this underlines an important point: informed opinion holds that the cloud can afford more protection than the home or office premises. The vast majority of data-breach victims have been on internal databases rather than their cloud-based counterparts; in fact, some insist the cloud has never been hacked. The encryption algorithms and other measures used to safeguard cloud data are usually the most complex of their kind.

The notion that our most personal and treasured information could be better kept amid a titanic maze of microchips somewhere in Nevada or Norway might be especially difficult to accept if we are accustomed to simply cramming a jumble of bills, bank statements and photos into a cupboard. It is possible, too, that both the cloud and big data more generally may yet suffer what some commentators have dubbed a “horsemeat moment” — a scandal that dramatically undermines consumer confidence. On balance, though, the emerging consensus is that this cloud is much like any other: capable of casting an occasional worrying shadow, but ultimately blessed with a silver lining.

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