We don't necessarily associate clouds with stability – after all, the clouds you see out your office window (hopefully you have one) will change shape multiple times throughout the course of, say, drafting and sending an email.
But thanks to the meteoric rise of cloud computing over the past decade-plus (and the growth that’s widely projected to continue), we increasingly place our precious and most sensitive data in the cloud. (Read Top 10 Cloud Computing Myths Busted.)
And yes, real-life clouds composed of tiny drops of water suspended in our atmosphere are similar to cloud computing in name only, but we trust the cloud with irreplaceable data regardless.
Should we? Is it safe to do so?
General Data Safety Notes
First of all, let’s get a big item out of the way – nothing is 100% and neither is any data storage solution. Whether you trust your memories to Google Photos or you lock up old hard drives and bury them in an underground safe, there is always a chance that data can be compromised.
Secondly, as just about any expert will tell you, it’s always a good idea to use at least two backup methodologies – preferably one online and one offline. This ensures that:
a) You don’t have all your eggs in one basket.
b) You can access your data if you’re unable to get online for whatever reason.
The Nuts and Bolts – How Cloud Storage Typically Works
For people unfamiliar with what the cloud is, it can be surprising for them to learn that it’s not a magically ethereal realm where data comes and goes as it pleases – it’s simply taking advantage of another computer that is connected via some sort of network.
Considering that, cloud storage can be (albeit simply) defined as using another hard drive’s storage for your data. The details of different types of cloud storage are numerous, and this Enterprise Storage article does a good job giving a more thorough overview.
The ways people and businesses use cloud storage are nearly endless, but among the most popular are Amazon Web Services for businesses, consumer-facing options such as Apple’s iCloud and Google Cloud, and social media sites such as Facebook, which sees a whopping amount of data placed on its servers every single day.
Why It’s Safe
There’s no denying that there have been numerous high-profile cloud security breaches over the past few years. Retail operations who’ve had their payment systems hacked, such as Target and Home Depot, qualify since all the customer data that was exposed was technically stored on the cloud (although the reasons for the initial breaches are varied).
But perhaps the biggest (or otherwise most notorious) was the infamous celebrity photo scandal that saw hundreds of compromising and explicit photos from dozens of our most famous citizens leak onto the web.
That leak — arguably more so than any other single event — lead to major questions from the average person on how safe storing their photos or any other type of confidential and sensitive material on the cloud really was. (Read Who's Responsible for Cloud Security Now?)
There are two things of note here:
- It’s actually a misnomer that iCloud was actually “hacked” or breached – the celebrity photo leak was a result of weakness of Apple’s password system, not the cloud;
- At the end of the day, any information stored in the cloud is almost certainly safer than that stored just on your local device. That’s because most people who have photos and other documents on their laptop’s hard drive aren’t encrypting that data, and if they are, it’s generally less powerful than what a cloud storage provider will offer. Any cloud storage solution that’s even remotely reputable offers up encryption as its first line of defense, which is an effective one.
No encryption is unbreakable, but it takes a considerable amount of time and resources to break it, and most hackers and bad actors will simply move on to find easier targets rather than waste their time trying to decrypt what’s on the cloud.
Another reason cloud-stored data is generally safer than storing it in your home has to do with disasters, natural or otherwise. Fires, earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes happen all the time and have wiped countless homes off the map throughout the years – as well as any computers or external hard drives they had inside them.
And while cloud storage facilities (data centers) are in areas that are susceptible to these same disastrous events, they are much better prepared against them than the average home. Many data centers also offer 24/7 surveillance and physical security on-site to safeguard against theft. (Read How Big Data Impacts Data Centers.)
Where It’s Vulnerable
There are certain elements of cloud storage that, by their very nature, may lead to more security risks versus storing your data on your own devices. One fairly obvious one is that someone else actually has the data other than you.
That inherently adds more risk since they could theoretically cancel your service agreement or shut you out in some other way…but the fact of the matter is that the cloud service and storage industry is an extremely competitive one, and one of the most basic assurances a provider can offer to its customers is guaranteed access to their data.
Another is the possibility of the federal government subpoenaing your provider’s servers and equipment, and thus you losing your data. Cyber surveillance levels in America and around the globe have never been higher, so this isn’t outside of the realm of possibility…but more and more tech companies have thankfully been standing their ground against government inquisitions, so this scenario seems quite unlikely.
The bottom line is that by and large, storing your data on the cloud is a safe and secure option that average consumers and business owners alike would be wise to take advantage of. Make sure you also keep a local backup just in case and make sure you select a reputable provider.
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