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Cloud Computing

What's Behind the Billowing Privacy & Security Concerns

“The cloud,” which is essentially Internet-based computing, can save you the hassle—and cost—of upgrading your computer to perform more-demanding tasks and store ever-larger data files. Whether you can rely on an electronic stranger to keep your information safe and private, though, is unclear.

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Wendy Kinney has her feet solidly on the ground, but she spends a lot of her time in “the cloud.” When Kinney, who is the executive director of PowerCore, which is a business-referral network, needs to set up a meeting, she doesn’t pick up the phone or send an e-mail. Instead, she logs on to AirSet, which is a calendaring service that lets her and her six employees manage their schedules, maintain contacts and collaborate on documents. And when Kinney needs a document or wants to play music at the start of a meeting, she downloads the files from AirSet.

Kinney has used AirSet to settle her father-in-law’s estate and organize her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. She uses Google Wave, which is another cloud-based tool, to organize outings with her friends and co-author a novel with her 13-year-old niece.

Welcome back to the cloud. If you log on to AOL, download messages from Hotmail, buy a book from Amazon or check your bank balance online, you’re using cloud computing. You’re accessing computing power that is stored somewhere other than on your computer. Cloud-based services typically are free (but include advertisements) or cost an individual user a few dollars a month. That’s compared with, say, the $140 that Microsoft plans to charge for a copy of its Outlook 2010 e-mail software, which, at press time, was scheduled for release in mid-June.

So, it’s easy to understand from a bottom-line perspective why the cloud is enticing. Plus, it allows you to access data that you keep online through a Net-connected device, such as a smartphone, and not just on a program-laden desktop or notebook computer. This capability means that you don’t need to own a device that has a lot of memory (and likely is more expensive) to sort out your e-mail, play music or compile a spreadsheet.

But the silver cloud has a dark lining: The expanding cloud poses new challenges when it comes to keeping your personal information private and your precious pictures and documents safe.

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CLOUD CONTROL. The cloud came about because large online companies have more computing power than they need, so they use that extra server capacity to deliver to consumers remotely based services, such as e-mail, data storage and social networking, or they rent their “clouds” to businesses. The result: thousands of innovative startups that deliver online services free or at a low cost. (Some cloud-based services, such as group-calendar sites that typically are aimed at businesses, might cost quite a bit more, depending on the size of the group and the amount of memory that is required.)

We’ve already seen how the cloud has changed how consumers receive their entertainment through services that store and deliver online video and music. Now it’s changing how people can be productive. For example, instead of installing, say, Microsoft Office on your computer’s hard drive, you can log on to Microsoft Office Online or Google Docs—the major players in online document management—through your Web browser and use the programs that are on these sites to work on documents. When you want to access a letter that you just wrote, you can open, edit and print it from an Internet-connected machine, as long as that device has an app that allows that function. And you’ll able to do the same for other personal information, such as e-mail contacts and financial records.

By the time that you read this, cloud-based services will have spread to online gaming, too. A company that is called Onlive was expected to launch a fee-based gaming site in June that lets you play Xbox- and PlayStation-style games inside of your computer’s Web browser without having to shell out around $300 for a gaming console.

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