Have you accessed Facebook, Google’s Gmail, Apple’s iCloud or Netflix’s streaming service? If so, you’re already familiar with the power of cloud computing. The cloud centralizes storage of almost inconceivable amounts of data and the processing power to access and manipulate that data. With the advent of consumer-friendly applications, our connections to information and communicate with each other have become so increasingly integrated into our personal and economic lives that they are virtually omnipresent. Our computers, our smartphones – even our cars – are transforming the meaning of once stable terms such as “wallet,” “radio,” and “office.” There can be no question that cloud computing will dominate technology for the next decade and beyond. But exploration of the privacy and ethical implications of this march toward interconnectivity and accessibility has taken only tentative first steps.
The cloud’s appeal to consumers rests largely on its ability to provide “free” services that users value, such as Gmail’s archive of messages and attachments or iCloud’s calendar syncing. Of course, “free” is a misnomer: either the service is ad-supported, such as Gmail, or, like iCloud, it operates as a hook to lure consumers into brand loyalty. The hidden price that consumers pay for use of these cloud services is privacy. Consumers are willingly loading the intimate details of their personal lives, including their pictures, contacts, calendars, and even location, into the cloud on little more than faith that their data will remain private. The struggle for forward-thinking corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple is to balance their desire to profit from the manipulation and marketing of this data with consumers’ notions of privacy. Despite their willingness to upload the data of their lives, many consumers labor under probably outmoded notions of who has – and who should have – access to their data. The tension over this conflict is simmering, but it hasn’t yet boiled over. When it does, definitions fundamental to society will evolve.
Cloud computing affects more than just consumer privacy. The potential of cloud technology to permeate society implicates longstanding ethical concerns. Will access to cloud technology and its incredible data stores further the divide between economic and technological “haves” and “have nots”? Will the immediacy of access to information encourage less thoughtful and ethical uses of that information? As cloud computing pushes into government, healthcare and law, how will issues of access to such technology affect larger policy determinations?
These are some of the difficult questions that IT professionals, business executives, politicians and consumers must face as cloud technologies evolve. But already cloud computing has made clear that we will need evolve to adapt to it as much as it will evolve to adapt to us.