In Last week in Slate, Tienlon Ho wrote a piece titled “Can You Live Without Google?” He described the impact on his life when he was locked out of his Google account, due to one file on his Google Drive that may have violated Google’s Terms of Service (sounds like legitimate security work may have been confused with hacking). By access to his Google account, he lost access to files he was working on in Google Drive, his calendar, mail, photos, and even his primary phone number. He learned just how dependent he had become on Google.
In the last five years, mobile computing has become the dominate player in our computing landscape. These devices allow us to access data everywhere, and make us less dependent on one machine. By storing data in the Cloud, it doesn’t matter if you happen to have your laptop, SmartPhone, or tablet with you, your data is with you, and has the current version.
While consumers may be able to build and maintain a private cloud, consumers typically are using an offering from Google, Microsoft, or another provider for low- or no-cost. Unfortunately, as Mr. Ho discovered, it also puts you at their mercy. The provider controls the terms of service, and, as we discovered with Instagram, they can change them on a whim. Or, the company could go out of business, or simply decide to discontinue the service (such as with Google Reader). Add to that the periodic security breaches that seem to occur.
Depending on cloud services exclusively can put your data at risk.
I do see the usefulness of these services, but I also take steps to protect myself. Most of my actual data is stored on my personal systems, with automated backups.* There is little that is in the Cloud that is not also on these systems. Case in point: while I use Flickr to store my photos, the original files (both the shots from the camera and the version ultimately “published”) are on my laptop, and backed up. While it would make a mess of my blog, I would still have the photos, and could find a way to rehost them. It would be extremely inconvenient, but not catastrophic. Likewise, I synchronize cloud services to local applications where possible (as opposed to relying solely on the web interface).
The one bit of good news is that Google makes a point of letting you pull your data out as you need to. For a long time, there has been a team called the Data Liberation Front. Their mission has been to provide Google’s users a way to easily pull their data out into a portable format for no incremental cost. This can either be through Google Takeout, to pull out large amounts of data, or some other export or synchronization. For instant, there are clear instructions to export or sync your Google Calendar. While other cloud providers may not put quite this level of thought into allowing their users from moving away, there generally is some level of official or unofficial advice given, and, failing that, clever people on the web who can offer suggestions and tools.
It is one thing to have the ability to pull data out. In order to ensure you don’t find yourself in Mr. Ho’s situation one day, you need to have an explicit backup as part of your standard regime. For some things, simply syncing them with a desktop application will capture the data for you. Other things, such as Google Documents or Flickr photos, may require a more explicit action. Once you develop a technique, you will also need to understand the required frequency. For my needs, weekly may be adequate; if Google Docs is where you do most of your work, daily may not be frequently enough.
(It appears that if you have a Cloud storage app, such as SkyDrive, Dropbox, or Google Docs, the local copy happens automatically. It’s even backed up automatically as part of my local backup system.)
I’m not suggesting that Cloud services should not be used or even relied upon. However, if you value your data, it is important you consider what you would do if the service becomes unavailable. Do you have your data? If you have not given though to that, it is time that you do.
*I admit that I need to improve my off-site rotation, but that’s another story.