Somewhat confused by rapidly evolving “cloud computing services”, what they offer, and what they mean for data security and privacy? A recent RMIT survey shows you’re not alone.
The survey, an initial phase of a broader project commissioned by the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), interviewed IT and non-IT savvy consumers, along with service providers and consumer advocacy groups, to find out about knowledge, use and expectations of public personal cloud services (those accessed through the internet, rather than closed private infrastructure).
“We found that the main benefit from the consumer’s point of view is mobility,” says Associate Professor Alemayehu Molla, who is leading the project along with co-investigators Associate Professor Vanessa Cooper, Dr Ahmad Abareshi and Dr Siddhi Pittayachawan. “You can access your content on any device with an internet connection.”
The consumers surveyed also identified real and perceived issues including data security, privacy and ownership, and the need for robust consumer protection.
At the same time, says Molla, consumers’ actual behaviour may not always mirror these concerns. Many don’t read, or fully understand, the terms and conditions of cloud products. Consequently, they don’t know all the potential risks – or the precautions they should take.
Pricing models may contribute to this lack of understanding. Most personal cloud services offer a “freemium” model.
Dropbox and iCloud, for example, offer a free service up to a certain storage capacity, with the option to buy more storage.
“Why would providers offer storage for free?” asks Molla. “They are not in the charity business. They exist to maximise shareholder value. Freemium pricing may attract customers, but perhaps there is also value in the metadata that customers are leaving behind.”
According to Molla, consumers may not fully realise that storing or sharing information via the cloud can help service providers build a picture of their preferences and needs, and potentially use this to target paid advertisers.
“There’s lack of clarity around what constitutes metadata, who has the right to extract value from it, and who has the right to identify individuals.”
Narelle Clark, Deputy CEO of ACCAN, says RMIT’s initial survey (and the full survey of 1000 consumers to follow) provides an opportunity to thoroughly analyse a fast-moving market in its formative years.
“We can see a whole range of issues coming up, and many consumers may not be in a strong position to deal with them.”
While acknowledging that personal cloud services offer an ease of use that’s attractive to consumers, Clark says most terms and conditions are not only difficult to decipher, but inflexible, offered on an all-or-nothing basis. “Even if people do understand them, they haven’t got much power to change them.”
By the time you read this, Molla and his team will have analysed both surveys, studied the market and produced a toolkit to help consumers understand personal cloud basics and compare products and features. Soon afterwards, the toolkit will be available on ACCAN’s website at accan.org.au.
“The project will not only give us an in-depth understanding of the marketplace,” says Clark, “but will provide ‘early intervention’ to help consumers use cloud services more effectively.”
Story: Fiona Marsden
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.