Why is all my personal information floating around on a mysterious cloud?
Hello, and welcome to the second instalment of my series dedicated to self-improvement. In case you’re new, here’s what this is all about:
Somehow, I have managed to maintain a blissful ignorance on some of the most basic facts of life until the ripe age of 17. Because of this, I would make a dangerous adult, both to myself and others. I am actually quite proud of myself for acting on this unusual burst of self-awareness. I hope that you, as a reader, will join me on my journey of addressing the things I don’t understand.
In this article, I’m documenting my experience trying to learn about internet clouds. It’s about time I faced this topic head-on and tried to understand it. I mean, we see the word ‘cloud’ on our phones all the time, but what actually are they?
Why is my iCloud storage eternally full and why do I have to back-up my photos to ‘the cloud’? It sounds a bit menacing, to be honest. ‘The Cloud’. It’s like ‘The Death Star’ or something. Before I become an adult, I need to know why my personal information is being stored in a place that sounds like a villain’s lair.
As always, I started with a trusty Google search. It turns out that ‘cloud’ is actually just a metaphor for the Internet. In fact, cloud symbols are often used to depict the Internet on diagrams. I can see why they would use ‘cloud’ to depict this idea: if you think of the internet and how it shares information among billions of people all over the globe, it is, in some sense, like a cloud sharing water. This part of the definition is pretty easy to get my head around: the Internet contains so much knowledge and therefore it is like a cloud.
That’s not enough for me though. I feel like — and correct me if I’m wrong — a well-educated and self-sufficient adult would know a little bit more about how their phone is storing their personal information. I decided to dive deeper into how cloud-computing works.
Cloud-computing is actually just a network through which resources, software, and information can be shared. Basically, via ‘the Internet’, or more correctly, an Internet connection. Information and data are stored on physical or virtual servers, which are maintained and controlled by a cloud computing provider, such as Amazon or Apple.
That’s all well and good, but how on earth does a cloud hold my photos, Apple ID information, and more? And most importantly, is that data safe? Not that there’s much there valuable enough to steal. They can take the 40 euros in my bank account; I don’t need it anyway. And if they want to see countless proud pictures of my morning porridge bowls and my little white dog, they can take those too.
So it turns out that for cloud storage to work effectively, all you need is a good Internet connection. Cloud storage works by enabling users access and to download data on any chosen device, such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. Cloud storage users can also edit documents simultaneously with other users as well, making it easier to work away from the office. Depending on specific needs, prices vary for cloud storage. As an individual user, you can usually get initial amounts of cloud storage for free — such as 5GB with Apple iCloud, which previously dealt with some highly publicized cloud security issues. You have to pay a fee for additional storage. Common price models include monthly or yearly rates, depending on the services you are using.
Now, this really enlightened me. When you buy an Apple product and set up an Apple ID, you only get about 5GB of iCloud storage. That’s not many morning porridge bowls. Compared to the 32–256GB of storage that can come with an iPhone, that’s next to nothing. You can only store something like 2,500 photos with that many gigabytes. No wonder my phone is constantly begging me to stop downloading more apps and snapping more pics. It’s struggling with its 1,732 photos, not to mention countless unused apps, bless it.
At the moment, I don’t think I need to worry too much about my personal information being stolen. However, when I become an adult, in ahem about four months, it might be something I do have to worry about. Maybe not immediately, but when I’m a billionaire I’ll obviously want to make sure that no-one has access to my financial information.
Unless my future nemesis wants to take me down and uses some of my embarrassing childhood photos to do it. There are lots of those, and if they’re in the mysterious cloud, who knows what could happen to them or who could find them? The possibilities are endless.
How do I know that by passively, wilfully allowing my data to be uploaded to a cloud, I’m not compromising my safety or privacy in any way? It turns out that I’m right to question this, and I’m not the first one to do so. Geoffrey Fowler, a technology columnist at the Washington Post, conducted a study on what our phones are doing during the night. Their privacy experiment showed 5,400 hidden app trackers guzzled our data — in a single week.
I knew there was a reason why I wasn’t fully comfortable with my iCloud containing my name, address, contact information, financial information, and even my fingerprint!
But then I stopped to think. Hang on a second, do I really want to know where this information is going? Because I don’t think I’ll like the answer. The weird thing is that Apple stores iCloud file data in both Amazon and Google’s commercial cloud storage systems, so it’s not even in their own database.
And yes, they can see our iCloud files. The files are encrypted in transit and when stored, but Apple has the keys and can access your files if they want to. That’s not the nicest thought.
To answer one of the questions posed at the beginning of this article, I next set out to find out where my iCloud data is physically located. Understanding this part was when I finally felt like I had completed my mission.
Any apps and data you have in the cloud are physically stored on a server located at a data centre or server farm. The space is all yours and physically separate so that others cannot access it. I’m now imagining all my photos, music, and apps sitting in their own little field on a farm in the middle of nowhere.
I have come across a meme recently that said, Stop calling it a cloud. It’s just someone else’s computer. Who came up with the idea to call it a cloud? Technology is complicated enough already!
That’s reassuring if we choose to believe it. The thing is though, these data centres or server farms are in the middle of nowhere so we can never actually know what’s going on in them. Because, if someone was to access your iCloud account — and this could even be due to you being flimsy with your password — they could see personal files and information that should be kept private. They could delete information and lock you out of your account. Even if it’s not malicious, you certainly don’t want anyone else accessing your iCloud account or using your Apple ID.
But get this, there is another option. You can have your own little cloud sitting in your house. No more wondering or daydreaming about faraway server farms.
You can set up or pay for a service that will let you run your own “cloud” at home. Just keep a computer in your house and make sure it’s always plugged in to the Internet. All the “cloud” software like photos, emails, and messages can be stored on it, right in your home.
Instead of navigating to Google’s or Apple’s website on their servers, you will navigate to your own server, sitting as a box in your house. This is a fairly new idea, so at the moment it’s only really an option for people in the tech industry. It’s known as “self-hosting”.
If you want to get set up with your own “cloud”, there are companies like “Freedom Box” who give you a box to just plug in — “For less than a $100, you can have an open-source powered, easy-to-use server, which enables you — and not Apple, Facebook, Google, or Microsoft — to control your view of the internet.”
People have been running their own servers at home for a long time but now, it’s never been easier. Although I’m not sure that I could justify running my own server. There’s not enough porridge pictures for that.
I might be getting sidetracked here but I wanted to share something funny along the lines of Apple stealing your personal information. My cousin works for Apple, and his job is in the realm of Siri. So, he goes into work every day and his job is to listen to everything that people say to Siri. He listens to Google searches, private text messages, and more.
What’s worse is that he has the ability to track all of the Siri requests back to the people making them. Obviously the reason for his job is to optimise Siri and make sure it can work effectively and understands requests. But, he says that it can be interesting when people send dramatic or horrible texts to each other through Siri while driving, or when kids are messing around with their parents’ phones and speak gibberish to Siri.
You might think, “oh my god, Apple employees are listening to me and they know it’s me!”. I thought that too, initially, but after my cousin said that the option to track each message, call, and request can actually lead to important things like uncovering criminal activity, domestic abuse, and more, I saw the good side of today’s incredible technology. His job might invade people’s privacy, but it also helps to make their lives better and isn’t that what we sign up for by getting a smartphone anyway?
There’s always going to privacy and legitimacy concerns when signing up for anything online. In today’s day and age, we are constantly at risk of having our personal files tampered with. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to give up my smartphone or any of my trusty apps for that matter, because of privacy concerns.
We are so lucky to live in a time with such advanced technology. It allows us to stay in contact with friends and family thousands of kilometres away. It allows us to share photos and goings-on with the ones we love, and stay up to date with what they’re doing too.
It allows us to campaign and raise awareness for important causes, and reach a huge audience. We can meet like-minded people and make friends for life on the internet. Without it, there would be so much about the injustices in the world today that I wouldn’t know.
If having my personal data in a cloud and risking my privacy is what I have to do to keep taking selfies with my dog, then I’m going to do it. It’s a very small price to pay. I love the Internet. Without, the Internet, I wouldn’t be able to share my ideas and thoughts on Medium, and I wouldn’t be writing this article.