Cloud computing had shown enormous promise of late. Pundits heralded a new age of cheap internet connected devices outsourcing their heavy lifting to the cloud and making the internet accessible to the masses. Then the Snowden controversy happened. Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor revealed the existence of a large scale global digital eavesdropping operation orchestrated by the US government and everything changed forever.
Or did it? Unfortunately, not quite. While businesses appear to be wary of surveillance and some have delayed their move to the cloud, consumers are a different story. The average man on the street increasingly stores his personal documents and files on online cloud services such as Google Drive and Dropbox without little thought to how potentially dangerous this is. The recent snooping revelations in the United States reveal that the NSA continues to collect vast amounts of data in some cases without even notifying the companies they harvest that data from. If that doesn't scare you, it should.
This isn't happening across a distant ocean somewhere, it's happening right here at home. It might surprise you that India was listed as among the top five targets of US surveillance. The United States intercepted 6.2 billion pieces of meta data from India in just one month. This means if you are using the cloud, you either are already, or will likely in the future be a victim and, worse, may never even know.
So what's the average Indian concerned with privacy to do? Avoid the cloud like it's the plague. There are some alternative cloud providers (like Jottacloud and CloudPartner) that have their servers located in countries outside US jurisdiction but the majority cater to business customers and not individuals. Even worse, regardless of where you store your data, accessing it from India still subjects you to Indian law and Indian laws governing digital privacy actually makes American laws look good.
A recent report by Reporters Without Borders confirmed that Indian law expressly authorises the interception of any information transmitted by computer, meaning absolutely nothing you send out is ever safe. If you take comfort in the thought that perhaps the government does not have the technical ability to intercept such data, the same report also confirmed that the Indian government's Central Monitoring System allows the government "...direct, unlimited and real-time access to a wide variety of electronic communication…". The Indian Netizen's blasé attitude towards all this is surprising when compared to the fever pitch caused by similar revelations in the US. The fact is that internet users in India have more to fear from their own government then the NSA and the United States.
Jeremy Bentham once spoke of the Panopticon — a prison design where guards could view all cells at any time without the inmates knowing they were being observed. While never built in Bentham's lifetime numerous prisons claim to be based on his design. It appears as though this is just the sort of prison we find ourselves in today. The walls have already been built around us; it's just that nobody noticed. Regardless of whether we have anything to hide, we are never free as long as we are monitored. The very act of surveillance diminishes our worth as individuals and leads to self-censorship. Like the inmates of the aforementioned Panopticon, we will soon learn to always behave as though we are being watched and in doing so lose the very essence of our independence.
It should be of great concern to both us and the rest of the world that 1/5th of the world's population have no right to privacy for any information transmitted via computer. Even more worrying is that transferring the file itself legally permits the government to intercept it. The main battleground for digital privacy is not America but India and the developing world where the majority of the population is only now slowly coming online and waking up to a government that is well aware that its populace is more concerned with basic sustenance than something as esoteric as privacy.
For now, the safest way to store your documents is on your local hard drive. The cloud is a tremendous concept and had the potential to bring computing to the masses here in India if only the laws would encourage it. In being so uncompromising in its data collection, the government has forced us to be uncompromising in our data protection and this means forsaking the cloud until the laws change. It's ironic that technology that was supposed to free us has become our means of enslavement instead. As a country we must work together to find a new normal in the age of the internet. Till things change, however, R.I.P. Privacy- you were great while you lasted.