Iâ€™ve always been a big advocate of storing things in the cloud. Not just emails and files, but my entire life. As Iâ€™ve written before, I live permanently in hotels, and my whole life fits into carry-on luggage. This means that the vast majority of things I â€œownâ€, or at least use, live in the virtual space. I drive zip cars in London, New York and San Francisco. I use Hulu (or iPlayer in the UK) for TV and Netflix (/Lovefilm) for movies. My music lives on Pandora, and Last.fm and – yep – Spotify.
My personal information too, lives largely in the cloud: I bank online, I pay taxes electronically Â and for anything that has to be sent my regular mail, I keep a virtual mailing address at a London membersâ€™ club. For email, voice and SMS I use Google Voice, forwarding to whichever SIM card I happen to be using, wherever I am in the world.
Recently, though, Iâ€™ve started to have second thoughts about the wisdom of the cloud.
Partly itâ€™s a question of data paranoia. Starting January 1st, I switched from Google Calendar back to a paper calendar (or diary, as we call them in the UK) after becoming increasingly frustrated in trying to get my schedule to sync reliably with my Blackberry. I try to avoid relying on email for important conversations, but if I did Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™d trust Gmail for long-time storage needs. It’s early days (literally) but there’s something really nice about writing down an appointment in a book.
More seriously though, Iâ€™ve been growing increasingly alarmed by stories like this: the US government subpoenaing Twitter (andÂ reportedly Gmail and Facebook) users over their support of Wikileaks. The casual use of subpoenas, including against foreign citizens is worrying enough – the New York TimesÂ says over 50,000 “national security letters” are sent each year -Â but even more concerning is the fact that often these subpoenas are sealed, preventing the companies from notifying the users they affect.
It used to be that if the US government wanted access to documents or letters in my possession theyâ€™d have to subpoena me directly. As a foreign citizen there are all sorts of ways I could fight the request – and it was at Â least my choice whether to do so. As someone living in the US I also had the whole weight of the 4th Amendment on my side. Now, with everything in the cloud, the decision whether to hand over my personal information is almost entirely out of my hands. And unless, as happened with Twitter, the company storing my data decides to fight for openness on my behalf, thereâ€™s every possibility that I wonâ€™t even hear about the request until itâ€™s too late. That’s just not how things should work in a free society.
Of course, it remains statistically unlikely that Iâ€™m going to be the subject of a subpoena any time soon. Iâ€™m hardly an enemy of the state. But then again, until recently, neither were many of the supporters of Wikileaks. Whoâ€™s to say that an innocuous organisation I give support to today wonâ€™t suddenly become highly controversial tomorrow?
For that reason, Iâ€™m giving serious thought to the idea of taking my communications back out of the cloud: switching back to a traditional email client and storing my documents on my encrypted hard-drive. Maybe relying a little less on text messaging and a little more on old school voice conversations. Possibly ever writing the occasional pen-and-paper letter.
Sure, itâ€™ll have to make sure I back up regularly and I’ll miss the convenience of having my documents available wherever I am. But increasingly that feels like a small price to pay for the confidence in knowing who else is trying to pry into my life.
An anonymous reader writes “Steve Jobs, while on a family vacation to Japan in July, picked himself up some Shuriken, otherwise known as Ninja throwing stars, as a souvenir. In his wisdom he decided to put them in his carry on luggage for the return journey. As it was a private plane he probably thought there would be no issue, but he was wrong. Even private plane passengers have to have all their baggage scanned, and the throwing stars were detected and deemed a hazard. It’s alleged that Jobs argued that he could take them on the plane as no one could steal them on his private jet and use them. Security at the airport disagreed and demanded he remove the stars. Jobs, clearly angry at losing his throwing weapons, stated he would not be returning to the country.” Undoubtedly this is part of the iNinja project.