Privacy by Technical or Legal Means? Both

by JON UDELL,  |  published on January 5, 2013

One evening in the mid-2000s some friends asked my advice on tax preparation software. Their question wasn’t whether to use TurboTax or H&R Block. They’d already made that choice, I forget which one they picked, and that’s beside the point. What they really wanted to know was whether to use the conventional, locally-installed version of the software or the (then-new) cloud-based version.

Instead of offering my opinion I played the role of non-directive therapist, and mostly just listened as they worked through the analysis. First they ticked off the conveniences of the cloud version: no installation, no software upgrades, automatic offsite backup, ease of sharing with their accountant. Then they considered the downsides: privacy and security.

I knew the future of cloud computing was bright when they came to the following conclusions on their own:

Yes, there’s a risk.
But odds are the service provider will do backups more reliably than we do here at home.
And physical security here at our house isn’t great either.

Today that choice would seem less stark, in part because the boundaries between local and remote computing are blurring. Data routinely synchronizes among our various devices and cloud repositories. It’s getting harder to define what’s stored under my roof and what’s kept elsewhere. Our personal clouds are networks of storage and computation.

There is, however, one key difference between local and remote storage. The U.S. government needs a search warrant to enter your home and spelunk your computer. Your cloud storage doesn’t enjoy the same protection. But Senator Patrick Leahy’s amendment to the 1986 Electronic Communication Privacy Act aims to change that. At least, I think it does.

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