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The Silver Linings of Cloud Security

The cloud gets a lot of attention these days, but it has recently been in the press for all the wrong reasons. Of course, we’re not referring to the visible mass of condensed water vapour floating in the atmosphere that we Brits often like to complain about. We’re talking about cloud computing. The delivery of computing as a service whereby shared resources, software and information are provided to devices as a utility over a network. Or perhaps, as it is now more famously known for, a place for celebrities to store racy photographs.

The internet is awash with the term “cloud computing”, with a Google search yielding 192 million results at the time of writing. However, the origin of the term is unclear. References of cloud computing can be traced back to 1996 in a document by George Favaloro accurately predicting that applications will no longer be a feature of hardware, but of software. However, the popularisation of the phrase is largely owed to a Google strategy conference and Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud introduction a decade later.

In computer network diagrams the internet is depicted as a cloud, in which servers are shown connected, yet external, to the cloud. Of course, the physical appearance of the cloud it is not a white fluffy watery vapour mass floating in the sky. It is a large data centre, firmly attached to the ground, comprised of an air handling plant, power supplies, UPS, cabinets, aisle containment, raised floors and enough cables to make your head spin. There is nothing fluffy about it.

In terms of simplicity, it is a third party data centre whereby the information normally stored on your own server is managed by somebody else, such as Apple’s iCloud. The recent hack of Apple’s cloud services brought the term firmly into the limelight highlighting the security issues that surround third-party data centres. In the science community, the expression ‘cloud’ is aptly used to describe “any set of things whose details are not inspected further in a given context”. So just how safe is our data exactly? Celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, whose private images were recently made public, might be able to tell you.

If it is true that Apple’s iCloud was hacked, it was not a simple case of going in and casually picking out a few (hundred) photos. It means that the facility in which all cloud information is stored was breached. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Tim Cook – Apple CEO – denied that the celebrity photo hack was due to a security failure on Apple’s part, citing that the celebrities’ iCloud accounts were compromised because they may have fallen prey to a phishing scam.

There are still a lot of calls for the cloud to be a total data centre solution, negating the use of small private data centres. There is still a use for the cloud, certainly, but would you put feel comfortable putting your sensitive information on it? It’s worth considering.

There is, however, a silver lining to the otherwise dark cloud that looms over Apple. The now infamous intrusion of privacy has led to the company tightening security measures around their services. It’s undignified that it requires a high-profile security breach to urge companies to bolster security, but it may just be the thing to push Apple and other cloud service providers to more aggressively protect the people using their services.