The Cloud is Not Your Enemy

I am a big supporter of cloud computing and all these technologies that allow you to save your data and work on it through any browser connected to the internet without having to worry about carrying your files with you or whether or not the application you need is installed on the computer you are using. Google Docs is one of the best examples of such applications. It does not only allow you to share your documents with other people online, but you can log into it from anywhere to edit your file and then directly email it as a Word document or Excel spreadsheets without the need to have any actual Office application installed on your computer.

At our workplace, we use Google Docs to keep track of the lists of projects coming in and out of the office. This allows more than one person of our team to work simultaneously on the same file, it also enables us to grant limited access to those who need to view the list but should not be allowed to modify it. We do not need to worry about file versions or duplicated files because we only have one file which is saved in the Google cloud. Worrying about copying the file on to a USB stick or emailing to each other the file as an attachment is a thing of the past. Docs also has a mobile version of the service, so we can check the status of our projects using our mobile phones from anywhere.

Surely there are some risks associated with relying on web applications, a lot of people worry about what happens if the internet goes down, but I am always amused by this question, do people still think that they can work without the internet? It is just like electricity in the sense that our daily lives depend on it. However, for this specific case having the office’s network down is not the end of the world because Google Docs can work in offline mode using Google Gears and then syncs back when the connection is resumed. It is also so cheap to have a backup 3G connection which you can use when the office internet goes down, and obviously you can always have weekly or monthly backups of all your documents downloaded to your local hard drive.

Another fear that people have with such applications is the risk that someone would gain unauthorized access to their documents and then destroy the information or disclose it improperly. It is true that this risk is always there, but one must think logically and realize that companies such as Google spend millions and millions of dollars investing in their security infrastructure – it is practically impossible for any one of us to match their resources. How likely is the existence of someone interested in our information who is willing and capable of breaching the security of Google and at the same time is not deterred by the legal sanctions that can be taken against him if he takes such an action? Not many people.

There is no such thing as a perfectly secure system, yet we still use email, telephone, and fax to communicate on a regular basis because we weighed the benefits and risks associated with using such methods and decided that the benefit outweighed the risk – that’s why we continue to use them. Cloud computing is exactly the same.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

Overwhelmingly Google

I was greatly pleased when I finally successfully managed to have my phone address book synced with my Gmail contact list earlier this month, my life is so much easier now that I do not need to worry about maintaining multiple address books and I can easily update my phone address live by just editing the one on Gmail. I am amazed at how Google constantly launches excellent products that help solve daily problems in our lives totally free of charge.

Yet as much as I love Google, I am starting to get worried about my attachment to all the various products it runs. Like the majority of people around the world I use Google to search for things on the internet and I use Gmail as my primary email account, but I also use Google Reader to read news and updates from websites I follow, Google Calendar to organize my schedule, Google Docs to track my work files, Google Analytics to review the performance of my blogs, and did I mention that I use Google Chrome browser whenever I can?

While many people think of Microsoft as a company that carries a lot of activities with monopolistic attributes, it no longer seems to be of as big of an impact in a new reality where most applications are web-based and almost completely platform agnostic when it comes to the “desktop” side of things. At this stage dominance of the internet is what really matters, and for me personally, at any moment while I am online, at least three tabs would have a different Google product opened.

Some are worried about the scope of data collected by Google through all its various products and all problems related to the potential retention and abuse of that data for all sorts of things, but what I am worried about is that this expansion of Google into so many different fields could have anti-competitive effects on the industry.

Google has always been good with its data policies and allows you in most of its applications to export your data to another service or completely delete it from their servers, but while it is nice for us to have a company as big and powerful as Google to offer excellent services free of charge (as it can pay for everything from the advertisements revenues it makes), it becomes very difficult for other smaller companies to compete against it because they cannot match the resources of Google. This could lead to a reduction in innovation and consumer choice, and the biggest fear is that one day we will not use Google’s products because they are the best, but because there is nobody else who can offer an alternative. Some might say that this is not necessarily a bad thing as most of Google’s services are excellent, but when all the competition is wiped out, will Google still have an incentive to innovate?

The solution cannot be to boycott Google just because it is doing a great job at satisfying our needs, but we have to maintain an open mind when it comes to alternatives and give other products a chance in order to ensure that there will always be a chance for another option to existing for our own sake.

Is Google Street View Legal in the UK?

Google Street View

A lot of fuss is happening in the UK regarding the legality of Google Street View. Though the service has been out in the US for about two years now, the UK only got it last month. Many people, including Privacy International, believe that that service is illegal in the UK. Google was aware that the original format of the service would have potentially violated UK legislation, but it consulted the ICO which approved the service when Google stated that it will blur the faces of pedestrians and car number plates.

Some people still argue that their privacy is infringed, but do they have any basis for this argument? 

There are two grounds for suing for the “privacy” violation in the UK, the first is through the Data Protection Act 1998 and the second is through the Article 8 on Privacy of the Human Rights Act 1998.

I will discuss the DPA in this post and will discuss Artile 8 in another post.

Does Google Street View Violate the DPA 1998?

The DPA 1998 covers personal data related to identifiable living persons when processed by a data collector. On its face, Google might fall under the act as it the scope of the act is very wide to include any information related to individual processed in any way using a computer. However, looking closer at the definitions of the these terms might indicate otherwise.

First of all, the personal data (in this case the photograph of the individual and their location when photographed by Google) must ‘relate’ to an identifiable person. The requirement for the info to ‘relate’ to the person is not defined by the act, but the court said in the case of Durant v Financial Services Authority [2003] EWCA Civ 1746 that the mere inclusion of someone’s information in the data is not sufficient for it to ‘relate’ to him. The person must be the ‘focus’ of the  information for it to relate to him and it must affect his privacy whether in his personal, family life, business or professional capacity.

There mere inclusion of someone’s photo on the street in an incidental manner which does not show him as a focus nor affects his privacy in anyway will probably not be held by the court to be falling under the DPA. This means will exclude these pictures from the scope of the act.

In circumstances where a person is the focus of a photograph and the picture shows him in a situation that infringes his privacy that person will be covered by the act if that person is identifiable. Google has tried to blur as many faces as it can. If this person cannot be identified by looking at the picture then that information is not covered by the act. The fact that the person can be identified by using the Google Street View information with other information taken from other sources which help identify the person will not bring the information within the scope of the act.

There are no such thing as the right not have to someone’s house or neighbourhood photographed. The DPA is about personal information and not about owned objects or companies.

Even if someone’s data is considered to fall under the DPA, that does not give them the right to ask for that information to be removed – except in situation of direct marketing or situations where the information causes substantial unwarranted damage or distress.

There is no requirement for a person to ‘consent’ to have his information processed under the DPA if the data collector satisfies any of the conditions of Schedule 2 of the act.

Google’s original form of Street View might have violated the DPA, but their current form with blurred faces and number plates would not violate the DPA if it works correctly to make the individuals unidentifiable. The majority of people photographed in the public not doing anything private would not be subject to the DPA even if there faces were not covered as the information would not be considered to be ‘related’ to them if Durant is to be applied.