Friday, 24 August 2012

Living with our heads in the Cloud

Hadeel Al-Alosi

Technology has led to rapid advancements in our society.  While reading this, many of us will probably be scrolling through a Facebook page or flicking through an iPhone.  Much of the data we are accessing may well be stored in the Cloud.

At its broadest level, cloud computing is the provision of computing resources as a service over a network, usually, the Internet. Cloud computing services have been made available for a number of years, including by well-known organisations such as Google, Microsoft and Hotmail.  These services allow consumers to access data and applications without having to install or store these on their personal computers.

The personal cloud promises many benefits. It allows you to manage all of your PC and mobile devices, and to have every piece of data you need at your fingertips, so that you can share your information with friends, family and colleagues in an instant.

But before becoming over-excited by all the benefits that cloud computing promises to deliver, there are important issues to consider.

Theft and loss of data: should cloud service providers be bound by some minimum security standards that ensure personal information is not lost or stolen? Should service providers be able to limit their liability contractually for lost or stolen data? What if the service provider is forced to close down due to financial or legal problems, which causes customers to lose their data? Who should be responsible in having back-up and recovery processes in place?

Data location: the fact that data is stored by a cloud provider, which may be located overseas, means that individuals and businesses have less control over their data. Users should be questioning who is actually holding their data and where it is being located. With the growth in reliance by Australians on cloud computing services, it may be worth choosing a provider based in Australia. This would reduce risks in storing data with overseas providers, which may be in countries that have inadequate privacy laws or are prone to natural disasters.

Privacy issues: there are endless privacy issues raised by cloud computing, such as who will have access to your data and whether (and which) privacy laws will apply. Are there circumstances that justify the disclosure of data (for example, to aid law enforcement)? Also, what happens to data once a contract with a cloud service provider is terminated? For example, Google Docs states that it “permanently deletes” data from its system. However, it also warns that “residual copies of your files and other information may remain in our services for three weeks”.

Most individuals and some businesses overlook these important issues. As is often the case with e-commerce transactions, many people blindly click on the “I agree” button when signing up for services without reading the terms and conditions provided. We tend to think more about these issues when something goes wrong. For example, when someone's Facebook account has been hacked into by a revengeful ex-partner, or when precious data has been lost.

As to the future of cloud computing services, I think it is timely that we generate some solutions to these problems. Perhaps, somewhere over the rainbow, we can find solutions that allow us to reap the benefits of the cloud, while ensuring we are protected from all external threats.

So, what do you think? – is cloud computing a threat or an opportunity?

Friday, 3 August 2012

A Mobile Phone, Amid the Darkness

David Larish

I just read Amy Spira’s post on this website, “What we lost when we gained the light bulb”, 18 November 2011, in which she detailed the sadness of Nicaraguan townspeople at the prospect of electricity darkening their lives. I want to share a similar experience from my time in Kenya in 2010 but from an altogether different perspective.

I was working at Olmaroroi Primary School, which consisted of a series of sheds haphazardly constructed on dusty, red dirt in Maasai territory in the Rift Valley. The nearest town, Ngong, was a bumpy, 45 minute motorcycle ride away. I stayed with a local family of fourteen, including two wives. They lived in mud brick huts, used a hole in the ground as a toilet and, in the absence of electricity, burned wood for cooking and lit candles when the sun set. There was no running water. The nearest source of it was the communal well at the school, a ten minute walk.

Like Amy, I found myself as far away from technology as I had ever been.

This, in my mind, was a good thing. On my first night, after the older children had finished looking after the cows and goats for the day and after the younger ones had returned home from school, the family gathered in the kitchen, drinking tea, cooking dinner, eating together and then chatting into the night in semi-darkness. I contrasted this with a Western childhood of the Noughties – spending the afternoon on the phone to friends while commentating on the video games I was playing, watching TV during dinner, rushing back to the computer in my bedroom to go on MSN – and I was envious. What I had when I grew up meant that there were a lot of things that I did not have.

The bliss I was experiencing that night was punctured by the shrill beep of a text message which, to my immediate relief, did not sound as if it had come from my phone. In fact, there was confusion as to whose phone it had come from because, as it later emerged, each of the children aged over 13 had one.

My initial thought was that convincing a family who lived without running water or electricity of their need to own multiple mobile phones must have taken some phenomenally effective marketing on the part of the then major Kenyan mobile phone companies, Safaricom and Zain. In fact, these companies had even implemented a system whereby you could buy phone credit and transfer it to loved ones, family or friends (imagine that: ‘happy birthday my brother – here’s enough credit to call me on my birthday’).

I felt that this was a clear instance of these companies exploiting the technologically-starry-eyed family by enticing them to spend the limited money they had on things that they did not need. This view was reinforced when I later became aware that a family member was required every few days to make a trip into Ngong in order to charge a half dozen or so battery-depleted mobile phones at the “electricity shop” that had opportunistically sprung up to service this niche.

I was also concerned that the special traditions held by the family and the atmosphere when the family came together would be eroded by the mobile phone, which I saw as a gateway – both symbolically and practically – to the spectre of other technologies spreading into their lives.

One night towards the end of my stay, I (subtly) raised these issues with those members of the family who were old enough not to have received a mobile phone when they had reached puberty. As they pointed out, I had failed to see the benefits the mobile phone had brought to the togetherness of the family. The family was now able to stay in touch with family members who had moved away for school or work. It was easier for the family to make arrangements for everyone to be in the one place. By keeping in contact with past volunteers who had returned home, the family would reminisce together.

I still have mixed feelings about the impact of the mobile phone on the family, but I now see it in a more balanced light than I first did. In hindsight, it was difficult for me to dissociate my anxiety about having too much technology in my life from my views. I now think that the mobile phone is far less of a threat to the family’s connection and values than the computer, iPod or television – which are a while away yet.

But if I want to know if any of their attitudes have changed, I’ll just ask them next time I Skype their mobiles.

Image by Charles Crosbie, made available by Creative Commons licence via Flickr.