Sun, May 01, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Why hackers want our heads in the cloud

Our unthinking embrace of giant data centers is throttling the giddy anti-authoritarian computing dream

By John Harris  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Illustration: June Hsu

Imagine this. A notorious multinational is on the lookout for new business. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine it’s Lockheed Martin, the defense, security and “advanced technology” corporation that has lately been seeing to the UK census. From somewhere in their R&D division comes an idea: “personal lifestyle security services” for millions across the planet. The wheeze is simple enough: Sign up and hand them your personal correspondence, financial records, bank and ID details, and more. They’ll have all your stuff, and you’ll have a unique password whenever you want a look. And just think: more clutter shunted out of your life, leaving you to glide through the minimalist bliss of 21st-century living.

You would have to be out of your mind, but this is the world we are hurtling toward, although it’s not defense conglomerates who are in charge — yet — but private technology giants. The key is cloud computing, whereby just about anything that can be digitized is stored in remote servers. If you have a Gmail or Hotmail account, you’ll already be a practiced cloud user. Two years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that Google and Microsoft might be involved in the cloud-based storage of people’s National Health Service records; now the UK Department of Health appears to have plans for exactly that. In 2009 the worth of cloud computing was put at US$58.6 billion; by 2013 it’s forecast to reach US$150.1 billion.

The new world is, of course, less a matter of clouds than data centers: huge impersonal sheds in which servers whirr away, while millions log in and out — a turnabout with an intriguing circularity. Up until the late 20th century the history of the industry was partly the mass transfer of data from hulking mainframes to ever smaller personal computers.

Now the momentum is in the other direction, and what you might think of as digital centralism is back, in a world awash with prying governments, hackers, corporations that seem as prone to skulduggery as they ever were — and terrorists who may well eye data centers as mouthwatering targets.

So why aren’t we worried? Inspired branding undoubtedly does its work. First, there is the term “cloud computing” itself, and its implicit suggestion of an innovation with all the unremarkable ordinariness of the weather. Consider also the cuddly, kids’-TV-esque Google logo, or the way that so much of the Microsoft brand is synonymous with the humanitarian work of Bill Gates. All this chimes with a culture in which, as supposedly maverick organizations get ever closer to government, mass trust in their operations still seems to know no bounds — even when such revelations as the iPhone’s surreptitious tracking of its users’ movements point to slightly more on their minds than the breezy convenience of their customers.

While we’re here, take note: All messages on Gmail are automatically scanned so Google knows where to place ads — and deleted messages and accounts “may take up to 60 days to be deleted from our active servers and may remain in our offline backup systems.”

Inevitably, hacking into stuff stored in the cloud is a global pastime, with its own grim star system. Earlier this month, for instance, a very unpleasant Californian named George Bronk was jailed for six years for rifling through Gmail and Yahoo mail accounts belonging to women and girls (some of them British), and sending any revealing pictures he found to all their Facebook contacts. Meanwhile the world’s more authoritarian states know exactly what the cloud allows them to do: In late 2009, for instance, Google’s servers were breached by Chinese hackers, presumed to be under government orders, who tried to break into the e-mail accounts of human rights activists.

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