Head in the Cloud

What song could be more appropriate for this article than ‘Get Off My Cloud’? I duly searched for the best version I could find, and then the law of unintended consequences made me find this. So we’ll start off with a bit of craic.

The original version of the song always reminds me of one of the most unusual assignations of my life. I spent time in a British boarding school (a bit like saying I did time in prison) and the boarding house contained only boys. For reasons I am now unsure of, and was probably uncertain then, the housemaster organized a ‘disco’ with a girls boarding school one Saturday evening.

I think the girls were as sex-starved as the boys and I had a memorable evening with a particular young lady—I remember her well but I never saw her again—and it all started with that song.

This version is equally memorable in rather a different way, and the funniest comment about it was “This is fantastic! And you could have left the lyric, “… just killed a man.”, although the guy who wrote “I showed this to my wife just before she broke a frying pan over my head…” gets an honorable mention.

I was also unfamiliar with Aunt Flo, so we live and learn.

So… back to the cloud, then.

The events of the past few years have blown social media out of all proportion—anyone can broadcast an opinion, so everyone does. Weird theories abound, and precious time that should be used to live is being wasted bandying and debunking a bunch of loony-tunes.

But the most subtle aspect of social media is data—and where it lives.

When computers first appeared, there was a concept called ‘the mainframe’. While at Lakeside high school, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft, used to rent time on a PDP-10, which meant hooking up to a dumb terminal—even when I was in college, computer science classes used terminals, so all your data was stored on a mainframe.

Then the world opened up to distributed computing—your desktop or laptop had a disk inside it and you owned your data. Same with cell phones, when it all started, but for a decade or so things have really started to shift. Where? To the cloud, of course, that collection of fluffy white feelgood little lambs—my data is resting safely in heaven, zzzz…

What? WHAT? IT’S NOT? WHAT’S GOING ON?

A couple of things. The first is the distinction between voluntary and involuntary—when you do OneDrive, GoogleDrive, or Dropbox, you’re being voluntary. When all your social media comments, emails, pictures, locations, and times are stored in the cloud, it’s involuntary; I don’t mean you could sue, because somewhere along the line you clicked or checked a couple of boxes so now you’re stuck—I mean you are unaware, or at best half-aware that there is a permanent record of your life.

On the voluntary side, the problems start when you store data that a cloud company may object to. The terms of service may allow for companies to delete materials, block access to your own data, or even block your account while retaining your data and possibly sharing it with the authorities.

The major cloud operators are Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and they in turn are tapped into by the US intelligence community, so your privacy goes down the drain. Of course this applies to email as well, as illustrated by the Petraeus affair.

Cloud storage capacity is so vast that in essence it can store the human race. Everything. And that capacity is growing every day—as an individual, you have no idea, but if you think for a moment about the photos and videos you take, and then consider how many of those you share—after all, that’s why you took them in the first place—well, you get the idea.

Consider what happens when you forward a WhatsApp image you receive—Quora provides the obvious answer.

Because once you send it to a particular conversation, it has also been indexed in WhatsApp’s servers. Next time you want to forward it to someone, all WhatsApp has to do it is to send the already indexed media file to the receiver who now downloads it from WhatsApp’s servers.

The same is true for voicemail, text, email attachments, bla bla bla.

The key questions, if you value your privacy, are: ‘what can I do to prevent this?’ and ‘what can they do with my stuff?’

The only answer to the first question would be a collective rejection of cloud data storage—one person can’t fight this except by becoming digitally autistic—paying cash, never using a GPS, throwing out the cellphone, and turning off the internet.

The answer to the second is ‘pretty much everything’. Targeted ads are the obvious evidence, but it goes much deeper and much further back. If you’ve been on WhatsApp since 2011, ten years of your life are archived—your loves and hates, the ways in which your health and professional life have changed, the doctors you visit, and the people you sleep with.

My opinions are on WordPress since 2008, when I first put pen to paper. Why? First because I wanted to help promote my books, second because writing makes you a better writer, and third because I enjoy the freedom to say whatever I want and have people read it if they choose to.

The price I pay is what these lines reveal about me. Where I go, who I meet, what I think, how I roll. And one of these days, when it all stops… when I die.

Just like the child born in 2020 who thinks our species always wears a mask, so they will grow up in a society that really knows everything about them.

If you care nothing about this and your privacy is worth sharing the wonders of your day, at least read the small print in the terms and conditions.

Big Brother really is watching you.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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