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The fat cat, the cloud, and the little old lady

Column An allegory for the virtual data age
Fri Sep 05 2014, 14:59
chris merriman

KIM KARDASHIAN put it best, and that's a sentence I never thought I'd write. After the iCloud 'issues' this week - call it a hack, a leak, or a publicity stunt - Mrs West told the world, "I don't even know where this cloud is." And she's right.

Do you know where your cloud data goes? Do you even begin to understand it? Some readers will be paid to know the answer, but many more will take it on faith that it's safe. So here's my attempt to explain why you need to take responsibility for your cloud data, in a way that even Kim Kardashian can understand.

Let's imagine that your home is your home or office network. Now let's imagine you've got a cat. We'll call her Claudia. Now, your cat represents your personal data - all your files, photos, videos, represented by this little furball. See how she chases the toy fish on the string? So cute.

Okay, so you've had your cat for a few weeks, and are used to having her around. And so you decide to install a catflap so she can come and go as she pleases. This is represents your decision to put your data in the cloud.

Still with me? Good. So off goes Claudia out into the world. And of course as cats do, because they're smarter than us, they soon work out that there are other houses that have food, and laps, and where they don't get rained on. And the chances are, your cat gets to know the owners of other houses.

Eventually, after a while you notice Claudia is getting a bit tubby. It transpires that the old lady up the road has been feeding her too. But it's worse than that. Claudia has been spending so much time there that the old lady actually thinks she's the one that owns the cat and that she can put her own collar on her, dress her up in silly clothes and tell the whole world she has a cat.

The next thing you know, the authorities are coming to check on the old lady (we'll call her Mrs Dripbix) to make sure that she's suitable to be keeping a cat, and that the cat isn't carrying any infectious diseases that could infect the whole town, so they put a GPS tracker in a microchip in her neck. Thing is, now she's got the microchip, the authorities can still watch over her, even if the cat has nothing to do with anything.

OK - let's break at this point. Kim - if you're reading this - Mrs Dripbix is your cloud company, the authorities are the NSA and GCHQ and the infectious diseases are alleged terrorist threats. Right - for the rest of us, back to the story.

So one day, Claudia comes flouncing in as usual, wobbling a bit by now because she's being fed all over town. Only now she's getting tracked too because the authorities think that they have the right to access Mrs Dripbix's data. Which is actually your data. And you don't get a say in the matter.

But it gets worse. One day, Claudia goes through a neighbour's catflap and gets into a scrap with the resident cat there, and comes back to you scratched to bits with a chunk of her ear missing. That's exactly what happened to Microsoft Onedrive owners earlier this week when they discovered that their documents were being mangled up during a fault with the syncing process in the Onedrive cloud.

And that's the problem with cat ownership. You have to put your trust in the rest of the world without really knowing what's out there.

What this extended metaphor is hopefully showing us is that you have to keep some sort of responsibility for your data when it's in the cloud, because if you don't someone else will.

And when it comes back, you need to ensure that it hasn't brought a bird or mouse or vole with it, because chances are, it'll be still alive and you'll spend the next hour running round the house trying to catch it and remove it, while your cat sits and watches like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

In other words, get some decent anti-malware.

So, here's the situation. You've got this cat. You think you own it. Mrs Dripbix thinks she owns it. The authorities, in a benevolent desire to ensure the cat's welfare have started tracking the cat themselves. And you start to wonder if it's your cat.

The situation gets messy. Fortunately a group of cat lovers have formed a coalition which is taking a class action against the use of tracking chips by authorities and wishes to make sure that whatever happens, the original owners get their cats back.

We'll call these cat lovers the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). They've argued that you have a right to own your cat. You can let it out to go see Mrs Dripbix - but she doesn't own it, and the authorities certainly don't have the right to start nosing into your cat's affairs.

In real life, the EFF is now fighting a ruling in the US that Microsoft should give some of its data held in the cloud to investigators. Microsoft has argued that, since the data is held on servers in Ireland, the US has no juristiction there. The government argues that the seizure is taking place from the US, while the EFF, Microsoft and a group of sympathising software companies have all argued that it's the location of the files, not the location of the seizure, that's important.

It's a little bit like if the local animal warden tried to grab Claudia, accusing her of being a stray, even though she's in your garden. The question arises - does he have the right to use a big net on the end of a pole? And if that sounds like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, then you're probably starting to understand just what we're dealing with.

Fortunately, while all this has been going on, another incident has brought the problem of cloud privacy to the people. The stolen pictures of boobies from iCloud have divided the population down the middle - half of them have realised that that could have been their boobies on the internet, while the other half have just realised that hacking means you might get to see more boobies on the internet without paying £5.99 a month to "Discreet Services" that you've told your other half is a subscription to a magazine for cat lovers.

Apple was quick to deny any impropriety, saying that it was a hack caused by weak passwords and not a breach of its cloud systems. But F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen has different ideas, pointing out a major flaw in iCloud's two-step authentication. He told the BBC this week that the service was "implemented only to protect your credit card" and that he could easily extract personal files if he so wished.

Today Apple responded by promising to beef up its security. Tim Cook told the Wall Street Journal, "When I step back from this terrible scenario that happened and say what more could we have done, I think about the awareness piece, I think we have a responsibility to ratchet that up. That's not really an engineering thing."

So where does that leave poor Claudia? More cat lovers are finding that the only way to be sure to keep their cats safe from the evils of the world is to keep them in a cat carrier in the corner of the room and access them manually. Then one day, the cat stops meowing and you have to get Dr Schrodinger out to see if she's still alive or not. That's not really an option - it's not fair to the cat. There's so much potential in the world, and the cloud, that it seems only right that we make the most of it.

But unless we can somehow take responsibility for our cats' boundaries, the fur will continue to fly. µ


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