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Beware risks ‘on the cloud’ in e-mail accounts

Tens of thousands of Gmail users had a rude shock recently when they logged in only to find all their messages had vanished. Google has restored their e-mail from tape backup by this week, but the inadvertent deletion (during a software upgrade) must raise concerns over security and trust in applications that share remote databases beyond the control of individual users. There were no reports that subscribers in Singapore were among what Google claimed were only 0.02 percent of users affected. More and more individuals and institutions here, nevertheless, are taking to systems that, like Gmail, offer access to information on any device, anywhere, anytime. They have jumped onto what is called ‘cloud computing.’

They prefer the efficiency with which this enables them to communicate, network and collaborate. Other webmail services, such as Yahoo and Hotmail, work on a similar platform; as do online social networks like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Among the earliest to adopt cloud computing was the ministry of education, the first ministry to do so. In December 2009, it began putting Google applications ‘on the cloud’ that 30,000 teachers in 350 schools could use for communication and collaboration. The National University of Singapore has started offering 200,000 alumni cloud-based life-long e-mail accounts. SIM University (UniSIM) has also moved its archival data onto a public cloud.

The Next-Generation National Broadband Network, now rolling out across the island, will accommodate even the largest organizations on the cloud. The combination of speed and ubiquity will help drive innovations like telemedicine, advanced telecommuting and home surveillance. Such advances, however, are not entirely without problems. Adopters will have to screen cloud computing systems for security dangers as well as performance flaws. Success will require transparency and trust. Clients and customers should also be aware of privacy and security risks. Few patients, for example, would want their personal health data even potentially accessible to hackers.

Some sectors ― like the education sector, say ― may not have security and privacy concerns that are as serious as those, say, in health care. But it is evident cloud computing may not be ideal for every organization. Some will still need to keep their data not only off the cloud but also offline. In restoring the deleted messages from old-fashioned tape kept off the grid, Google was able to rescue some of the credibility it lost in the Gmail fiasco. If the lapse is less accidental and more suspicious the next time around, the damage to Google might be more serious.

(The Straits Times, March 10)
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