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What is cloud computing?

by Joe Kaczrowski | Jul 17, 2015

Last month Sam Glover tried to come up with a 'plain English' definition of "the Cloud," or perhaps more accurately start a conversation to collectively define the term. His initial attempt was "If you cannot put your hand on the computer on which your data is stored, you are using the cloud," although Benjamin Wright's definition in the comments paints a good picture too: The cloud is like giving your briefcase to an intern. You can have them carry it around for you and give it back anytime (or you could tell them to give it to someone else), but they physically possess it. The internet is just your intern."

To paraphrase Obi-Wan, some folks may feel that you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than "the Cloud," but today many people are "in the cloud" without realizing it. Google search is an example of cloud computing. You type your search on your local computer or device, but the search is run, and the data is stored, on remote computers maintained by a third party (Google). Many email systems are cloud-based. Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc. all rely on remote computers for processing and data storage.

Speaking of email, before you worry about how secure your data is "in the cloud," consider what sensitive information you are exposing through email communications. Unencrypted email has been compared to sending a postcard; anybody who's watching can read it. Using public wi-fi only magnifies the risk.

Taking it a step further, how secure is your data from other sorts of breaches? Do you lock your files when you leave the office or are they sitting out for the cleaning crew and anyone else who walks by to see? Is your monitor visible through your window? Do you talk about your clients on your cell phone on the bus? Do you back up all your paper files? What about your electronic files? Do you store backups offsite? Human error is cited as the cause of 52% of all security breaches and is a contributing factor in 95% of all incidents investigated.

Is "the Cloud" secure? A cynic might say is anything really secure these days? And as lawyers, the better answer may be it depends. More data hosted in a single system can be an attractive target, but perhaps counter-intuitively your data may still be more secure in a cloud-based system. Lawyers are often the low-hanging fruit for hackers. While big corporations may employ state-of-the-art security, law firms can be back doors into valuable proprietary data and trade secrets. Lawyers, especially solo and small firm attorneys, may not be able to afford top of the line security with 24/7 staff. However, cloud systems can offer that level of security to cost-conscious attorneys. A lawyer may be an expert in substantive law, but cloud computing companies are experts in security, and lawyers should consider who is better situated to protect their clients' data. Going back to the briefcase analogy, perhaps a cloud computing service could be compared to an armed security guard with the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.

Curious how a lawyer's ethical obligations under the rules of professional conduct have been interpreted regarding the use of cloud computing? Unfortunately Minnesota hasn't weighed in yet, but you can see ethics opinions from around the country on this site maintained by the ABA.