When the Rolling Stones sang the classic lyrics "Hey, you, get off of my cloud", we understood the metaphor. It was a cry from a generation reflecting a growing sense of alienation. The demand was clear--respect my personal space and my world view. In that simpler era, a "cloud" was seen as a safe, private place to inhabit.
Today, the term "cloud" has taken on a new meaning. To the digitally augmented citizen with the usual plethora of smartphones, tablets, computers, wearable devices and home automation gadgets, the Internet cloud is different. While not the ephemeral, feel-good place of the Stones' song, online service providers and popular media do try to portray this new cloud as a non-threatening place that delivers valuable online services to consumers. They position it as a source for watching streaming video, a place to meet friends on social media websites or simply a convenient way to go shopping. The Internet cloud is pitched as a nice place to hang out.
The engineers and technicians who create and operate our omnipresent online world understand the Internet cloud for what it really is--a vast network of Internet-connected computers that continuously collect personal data about consumers. At the center of the cloud are massive collections of computers located in stealth data centers. These "big data" systems, under the control of big business, are used to store and analyze this massive repository of consumer data. At the edge of the cloud are millions of personal devices--PCs, smartphones and a rapidly growing array of Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets--feeding the big data systems. These "data vampires" work around the clock streaming increasing amounts of personal consumer data into the cloud.
The scale of the cloud is already dizzying, and the Internet of Things is causing it to explode. Soon, billions of tiny computers will be embedded into home appliances, smart thermostats and IoT personal assistants--and even implanted into humans. Because of all of these new devices, the amount of new data being stored increases every day. A Forbes article earlier this year reported an average of 1.5 million disk drives were shipped daily in 2014. This amounts to over a million gigabytes of new storage every day, much of which is being used to hold consumer data. Amazon describes the scale of the cloud and the Internet of Things on the website for its new AWS service for IoT vendors as "billions of devices and trillions of messages."
It's hard not to be in awe of the human innovation that created the interconnected digital world in which we live. On a good day, we can marvel at the benefits this technology is capable of delivering to us. On the darker side, the cloud presents very real dangers to consumer privacy and personal control. While consumers might easily assume the cloud is "out there" somewhere in the ether, in reality we are all surrounded by the cloud--every minute of every day. The iPhone in your pocket, the Fitbit on your wrist and the Nest thermostat on your living room wall are all data vampires connected to the cloud. And in a very real way, all of these devices are stealing your privacy.
The purpose for silently collecting your data is easy to understand. When big business learns more about your consumer behavior, your comings and goings and even what you say in the privacy of your home, corporations can target you for more products and services. Quite simply, big business is pushing you to buy Internet-connected data vampires because the more they know about you, the more money they can make.
Maybe it's time for a new kind of cloud--a personal cloud--"my cloud." It's my data, my space and my life. So the next time we hear Mick Jagger and Keith Richards sing "Hey, you, get off of my cloud", the meaning will be crystal clear.