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Thursday, April 28, 2011

The lessons from Amazon, Sony and Epsilon

During the past year or so there have been a number of genealogy blog posts, touting the advantages of “cloud computing.” Unfortunately, in the past week we have seen some of the extent of the downside to using online systems.

To begin to understand what is going on, there are several terms and concepts you need to be familiar with. First, of course, is the idea of cloud computing. Historically in the computer world, software programs and the data they create have been relatively local in nature. I bought a word processing program stored on a disk, loaded the program into my computer by inserting the disk into my computer’s disk drive and then running the program. If I wanted to save anything I wrote, I either had to have another disk drive or I had to switch a blank storage disk out for the one with the program. I might have to switch disks a dozen or more times to store the file. Then I had to do the same thing all over again in reverse to load the word processing file back into my computer.

As the capacity of storage devices and computer memory increased, this process became easier and faster. Eventually, the program and data were both copied onto a hard drive in the same case as the computer. The world of floppy disks is so far gone that younger or newer computer users may never have seen a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk.

Just as computer memory became really inexpensive and excessively large, the Internet came along. We had the same sort of growth pattern. First the connections were so slow, you could watch the information come into your computer pixel by pixel. Eventually, the connections got so fast that there was virtually no appreciable wait.

But at the same time, there was another interesting phenomenon. People began to sell “online” services. At first, there were mainly programs that did things like payrolls and such. But quickly, companies began to realize that they didn’t have to purchase an “expensive” computer, they could rent time on someone’s computer and save money. This was called “Timeshare.” As the technology changed, cheaper, faster, and more available, the number of online services grew.

What we call “cloud computing” is the logical descendent of these early online computer services. Only today, the average computer user can store data, run programs and work entirely on the Internet. When you use an Family Tree, you are involved in cloud computing. When you store you data on DropBox or whatever, you are using the cloud.

As genealogists we are sitting right in the middle of the online world. Although it is painfully apparent that not all of us are happy about computers and the Internet, there is no doubt that the world is becoming digitized online, whether we like it or not.

Now the stage is set to address the issues caused by the massive online failures of the past week or so. Here are the three things that happened:

When someone used computer skills to bypass or break into a secure computer without permission, their activity is commonly referred to as a “hack” and the person is referred to as a “hacker.” (I know, the term is not always used in the sense of a criminal activity).

Epsilon is a company that specializes in sending permission based e-mail marketing for large corporate customers. Its database was hacked in the last week and a huge number of names, e-mails addresses and associated information was stolen and/or compromised. Although this story probably was way under the radar of most people, it was one of the most serious breaches in recent time affecting customers of JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, the College Board, Walgreens, TiVo and many other companies.

Amazon had a different issue. Its North Virginia facility went down, taking down many online services, including FamilySearch Forums for up to three days. This wasn’t a hack but some sort of equipment and/or programming failure.

Then the big one hit. Sony’s PlayStation Network, consisting of the accounts of 77 million users, was hacked. This hack got credit card numbers and the associated data. The information stolen included complete data; names, addresses, credit card numbers, and personal information.

This is the equivalent of a world war on the Internet.

Now back to the issue of cloud computing. These events point out the fact that putting all of your data and using the Internet to store your information is not as secure or dependable as those selling the services would like you to believe. There is a risk involved and if you are going to put your genealogy online or store your photos and files online, then you need to understand those risks and take steps to avoid losing everything.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying.  I am not advocating that anyone stop using online services. Just don’t think that they are invulnerable or overly secure. Always, always, backup to more than one media device, i.e. a hard drive, flash drive, another computer, CDs or DVDs. Do not depend on one method of storage.

What else can you do? Change you passwords from time to time. Make sure you have back up copies of your data in different locations as well as different media. Use online services with the knowledge that they may be lost or compromised. Don’t include personal information about living people in anything you post online.

Be proactive, not reactive.

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