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A Storm Brewing In The Cloud

Cloud computing is all the rage - from the hallowed halls of Microsoft in Redmond, to the tiniest cyber-cafe in Presque Isle, Maine - and some are even calling it the new "DOT.COM boom". Cloud computing is a term that describes a wide variety of services and software applications that share one common aspect - they all run on the Web and not on a user's PC. The only thing new about cloud computing though, is the name. Cloud computing has been around for years: instant messaging and Web mail are just two examples. Cloud computing has seen explosive growth recently. New  applications and services appear almost every day in the form of new social networking sites, SaaS (Software as a Service), Web mail, and many others. Cloud computing is a nebulous name for an extensive array of software and services that all run from the Web as opposed to desktop applications that run on your computer. But, is the term "cloud computing" becoming a catch-all for everything new? Some think so.  Erick Schonfeld writes in The Washington Post, "Cloud computing as a term is broad enough to encompass most internet startups and already is in danger of being latched onto as the next catch-all category...." ( http://bit.ly/F9jNh )

Cloud computing enables many compelling and useful services and applications and for many of these, it's the perfect venue. For example, the cloud is ideal for sharing pictures; social networking: for Web mail used for secondary accounts; instant messaging; for online data storage for non-sensitive data; online photo editing, and  many other applications and services which do not require uploading personal or sensitive data. Cloud computing provides an excellent environment and framework that encourages and makes cooperative collaboration between individuals easy and convenient. Many applications and services lend themselves to cloud computing exceptionally well. And, in every case, up until now, individuals had a choice of whether to use applications and services in the cloud - or not. 

Cloud computing is here to stay and the new universe of applications and services it enables will no doubt, continue to grow rapidly. In fact, without the cloud many services and applications - like Twitter would not even be possible. However, like almost everything else, the cloud has its dark side too. We realize the benefits of cloud computer and the things it makes possible, and for the most part we are in favor of cloud computing. But we are in favor of it only when users have a choice to use applications and services in the cloud or not to use them. It must be at the user's discretion. It must not be forced upon them. Forcing users into the cloud is a different matter and Microsoft is crossing that line in Windows 7 by removing the personal desktop email application from it and replacing it with Windows Live Mail, a cloud computing application.

Windows Live Mail, with its Outlook Express-like desktop interface looks very much like the the email program so many of us have grown used to. On the surface this seems beneficial and user-friendly. But, what this will do for many users is to lull them into a false sense of security by its familiarity. But Windows Live Mail isn't Outlook Express or Windows Mail. It is a desktop interface for a cloud computing application; it stores everything in the cloud and synchronizes data between the cloud and user's computer Everything you do with Windows Live Mail is synchronized so that users can access their email accounts from anywhere. Convenient? Yes. Is it secure and safe though? That's another question.

A user's right to choose between a secure desktop mail application and an application based in the cloud should remain exclusively the user's choice. Windows 7 takes away the right of its users to choose. There are risks associated with storing sensitive data in the cloud. If all email messages, accounts, addresses, passwords, etc. are stored in the cloud then there are going to be risk factors. As far as the cloud is concerned though, enthusiastic proponents downplay or all but ignore the potential risks of storing all kinds of personal, even potentially sensitive data in the cloud -and out of the user's control. In this blind enthusiasm over the benefits of cloud computing, the darker side of it and the risks are seldom ever mentioned. Ignoring the risks becuase of the convenience or benefits of the cloud only increase the danger that may well lie ahead as Microsoft all but forces Windows 7 users into the cloud with Windows Live Mail.

Many current users of Windows Live Mail are not aware that sensitive information is being stored in the cloud,  because all information is also kept on the user's computer. We've heard Windows Live Mail users argue that their private information is stored on their own computer and therefore not in the cloud. They are only half right because all information is synchronized between the Web and the user's computer. This is the only way that it is possible for users to "access all your email from anywhere" as Microsoft likes to say.

While Microsoft attempts to assuage the fears of concerned users by assuring them that their information is safe, breeches of security on the Web are far more numerous generally believed. If you read the fine print of cloud computing application's or service's privacy policy, terms of service, or terms of use, you'll see no guarantees of privacy, confidentiality or security. They don't and cannot guarantee these things because no cloud computing application is 100% secure, safe, or reliable because the Web is not 100% secure, safe or reliable.  Web servers are targets for miscreants and criminals all the time. For example, in 2008 government servers reported over 5000 breeches - far more than experts estimated. And this may be only tip of the iceberg.

Voluntarily using applications or services in the cloud is fine. If you choose to use an app or service in the cloud, that is is your choice. When we choose to use a cloud computing application or service we have a chance to read its privacy policy, assess its risks and the rewards, and make an informed decision as to whether or not we want to use it. However, being forced to use applications in the cloud, because the operating system we use gives us no other easy or convenient choice, is quite another. Microsoft forcing Windows 7 users to use an email program in cloud like Windows Live Mail just doesn't make sense. On the surface it appears to us that Microsoft continues to show a lack of concern for giving customers what they want. By taking away their customers' right to choose they show little concern for customers who don't want to trade their security for convenience.

It's true users do have other choices such as Mozilla Thunderbird, which Windows 7 users can download, install, and learn to use. It works on Windows 7. The point is, why should Windows 7 users have to learn a new email program at all? Why would Microsoft want to alienate good customers by forcing them into the cloud, or into either installing and learning a whole new mail program? Microsoft could have included Windows Mail in Windows 7 but did not. What is Microsoft's motivation for forcing users into the cloud with Windows Live Mail?

Your email program mostly likely the software program you use the most often. And most of us store some sensitive email which contains information and data we probably don't wish to share with others. Most of us consider our personal email private. We like to think we control access to it and that we can choose who we wish to share it with or if we wish to share it at all. Our personal email can contain sensitive data. For example, if we sign up for an online banking account with, the bank sends us back  a confirmation containing our password and username by email. While most of us know that we probably shouldn't save these kinds of emails on our computers, we do anyway. But Windows Live Mail users will be storing these kinds of sensitive emails not only on their computers but also in the cloud. We think it's a really bad idea to take a person's desktop email application and move it to the cloud. As more and more Windows 7 users are basically forced into the cloud it will make a huge target for cyber-criminals who would love to glean sensitive information from the all the email accounts stored in a Windows Live Mail accounts.

There's nothing wrong with Web mail accounts. There's nothing wrong with having a Gmail account, a Hotmail account, a Yahoo mail account. These are convenient to use as secondary email accounts. Millions of people have used them for years without too many problems.  But, once you start storing all email messages from all of your email accounts in one place,  including those which contain sensitive information, as well as all of your account settings, passwords, and ISP account settings, it makes a bigger, juicier target for miscreants who are already busy enough causing problems on the Web.

Why are so few pointing out the potential risks involved with cloud computing? We can't answer that. No one likes to rain on a parade or point out potential problems with so many new and cool emerging technologies. But, some security experts have expressed their concerns about the safety and reliability of cloud computing and you can bet that many others will. Unfortunately you probably won't see many of these until breeches and problems become more numerous or until they are reported on main stream news sites and cable network news channels where the average user is much more likely to read or hear them. The truth is that right now, cloud computing isn't very well understood by the average user and it has remained relatively immune to substantial scrutiny.

Saul Hansell, technology writer for the New York Times wrote: "...As people and businesses take advantage of all sorts of Internet-based services, they may well find trade secrets in the hands of competitors, private medical records made public, and e-mail correspondence in the hands of government investigators without any prior notice.

In the United States, information held by a company on your behalf — be it a bank, an e-mail provider or a social network — is often not protected as much as information a person keeps at home or a business stores in computers it owns. Sometimes that means that a government investigator, or even a lawyer in a civil lawsuit, can get access to records by simply using a subpoena rather than a search warrant, which requires more scrutiny by a court...." (Saul Hansell, http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/does-cloud-computing-mean-more-risks-to-privacy/  )

Harry Lewis, professor of computer science, writes about users who have had their cloud computing app or service accounts closed for no reason and without notification:  “We're all kind of used to the idea that if you don't pay your telephone bill, you know they're not going to shut off your phone while you're off on vacation ... But [for] your cloud storage service, there's no rules.” ( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=93841182 )

US military academy professor Greg Conti warns that a trend to push software into the "clouds" exacerbates privacy risks as people trust information to the Internet...." ( http://bit.ly/pLWgy )

Articles which point out the dangers of the move to cloud computing are rare though when compared to those which extol its benefits. You can be sure, as more and more companies move applications and services to the cloud, that more and more will be written about the potential dangers of the cloud as more and more people start storing more and more personal information in the cloud -- and more and more people trust that the keeper of such information has the knowledge, resources, experience and wherewithal to keep it safe and protected. But, no matter who is keeping your data or what kinds of protection they use they will never guarantee your safety or security - or the integrity of the information you store. If your primary and only email program is merely a desktop interface for a cloud computing application such as Windows Live Mail, then your data is being stored in the cloud.  When using Windows Live Mail the strength of the password you use to protect your "Live" account may be the only thing that protects you from a criminal intent on stealing everything normally stored in email program: your email folders including any passwords, account information, email addresses and any other sensitive data that happens to be included in any of the email messages. With the level of sophistication of criminals armed with password cracking programs and computer skills equal to the best software engineers, a storm is brewing in the cloud.

Many have shown a willingness to  trade safety and privacy for convenience. No doubt that having one email program that lets you "access your email from anywhere", as Microsoft likes to say as it grooms Windows Live Mail to replace the private, personal, email clients you're using now. Using a Hotmail or Gmail account as they were intended to be used, as secondary and convenient secondary email accounts, is a lot different thing than using a cloud computing application to access every single one of your email accounts and storing everything in the cloud. Most of us who use Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Hotmail or any of the other Webmail services have been able to access mail from anywhere for a long, long time. The one big difference? We can choose to use Web mail services like Gmail - or not. We can choose which accounts to check and which to leave home on our desktop email program and access those accounts when we return home. The point is: We have a choice here - Windows Live Mail gives you no choice - except to download, install, and learn a different email program like Thunderbird, or pay Microsoft for Microsoft Outlook. Shouldn't we expect, if we're paying more than $100 for an operating system like Windows 7, a private email program like Windows Mail or Outlook Express would be included so users would have a choice?

So why would Microsoft remove a useful personal email program out of Windows 7 and force users to the cloud by including a email program only resembles Outlook Express in appearance? In light of the dismal sales of and the continued resistance to Windows Vista, you would think that Microsoft would be eager to make sure Windows 7 includes everything that customers like and everything that customers want. Removing the personal email client from Windows is a stupid move; it just doesn't make good sense at least for consumers. It might make perfect sense for a profit-driven company who is watching its market share decline for the first time in its history  Cloud computing opens the door for Microsoft to make more money from something that has never generated any income for Microsoft before - your personal email and your personal email program. Placing small ads at the bottom of every email sent with Windows Live Mail is just one of the ways they can monetize Windows Live Mail. They've been monetizing Hotmail this way for years. We wonder what other ways they'll be able to monetize email in the cloud? If the reason is not money then what other reasons would Microsoft have to remove the personal email program program from Windows 7. Microsoft has never been altruistic so the reason isn't customer convenience. It would be more convenient for most Windows users if Microsoft included a personal, private, email program like the ones they've been using for the past ten years.

Microsoft needs to start thinking of its customers and giving them more of what they want and less of what it wants them to have. Putting customers first might keep disgruntled Windows users from moving to Apple. If the gains made by Apple in the past year aren't enough proof enough that Microsoft needs to listen to its customers then Microsoft might be headed down the same path as General Motors whose arrogance put them on the brink of bankruptcy and on their corporate knees begging for tax-payer bailout money.

Microsoft needs to start listening to its customers and put Windows Mail back in Windows 7. Microsoft needs to give users a choice between using the cloud or not. There's a storm brewing in the cloud and if Windows Live Mail becomes the standard. free email program for Windows 7 users, that storm just might become a hurricane.


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