Chuck Carroll

Offline: Why I Avoid Using Cloud Storage Services

Published: 2022-11-30

Recently, Apple's iCloud service has unintentionally been downloading other people's photos to some Windows users. This is reminiscent of a similar incident involving Google Takeout which I happened to be an unfortunate victim. While I was degoogling in late 2019, I was downloading all of my photos, documents, music, etc from Google using their Takeout service. Although there were certainly a lot of issues with the data, while looking through some photos from the early 2010's I came across several photos of random people in unfamiliar settings. A couple months later I received an email from Google informing me that some of my personal photos and videos may have ended up in other people's Takeout exports. For me, this was an important lesson in the reality of using cloud storage for personal data, which leads me to my first point.

The Privacy & Security Implications

There are some obvious privacy and security issues that most people never consider. Although it's common knowledge that the likes of Google and Apple share data with third parties, it's highly improbable that they're sharing our personal files with outside parties, however it's not impossible especially when the source code is proprietary. There's always a risk of bad guys circumventing Apples's iCloud security which has been known to happen from time to time, either by a flaw in Apple's security or poor operational security on the user's part (which is most often the case). There have been cases where people have had their financial or cryptocurrency accounts taken over because they had uploaded screenshots of their backup codes to cloud storage and were hacked.

Another possibility is that there could be an error with the cloud provider's export tool and your data is accidentally shared to other users (which is what occurred in my situation). You also don't know if or when the business changes hands to a new owner and the privacy policy completely changes - or the new company ignores the privacy policy all together. The workaround here is to encrypt your data yourself before you upload to the cloud, though that being said who is to say there won't be some point in the future where the encryption method has been cracked?

Migration is Intentionally Difficult

Keeping your data online creates a barrier to migrating either to a different service or storing your data yourself offline. It's in the provider's best interest to make it difficult to to leave their ecosystem. Even if this isn't consciously intentional, from a business and financial perspective it doesn't make sense to dedicate resources into making migration away from the service they're selling necessarily easy. As my experience degoogling demonstrated, migrating away from Google was not only obnoxiously difficult, much of my data was degraded, completely disorganized, files were renamed, or the data would be missing entirely.

Companies Employ Coercive Techniques to Get Cloud Subscriptions

Many people's only computing device is their smartphone. In most cases these devices come preinstalled with cloud storage apps that are difficult to remove and are there to sell a subscription - sometimes there are several of these apps preinstalled. The conspiracy theorist in my believes that the disappearance of the micro SD card slot in smartphones was very much an intentional means to push cloud services onto users. For example, Chromebooks ship with storage drives just enough for an operating system with the idea that you store all your data with Google.

Dependence on an Internet Connection

Keeping all of our personal data in with cloud providers would mean that we'd require an always on internet connection. Access to our data could easily be cut off if our internet connection goes down, our power goes out, service coverage is lost, or maybe are on a bad connection. Keeping files offline means they're always accessible.

Who Actually Owns "Your" Data?

Ceding control of our personal files to Microsoft, Google, Apple, etc equates to far less control and questionable in terms of ownership. The cloud provider holds the key to your data - you don't. You could have your account closed for some arbitrary reason with no hope of getting in touch with someone at the company to get a solution figured out. There's been countless stories of this exact situation happening. For example, the people who had their entire digital life tied to a Google account have been completely screwed over, such as a father who took photos of his toddler to show his doctor and immediately his account disable and never to be reinstated (this is just one story that made headlines, but there are countless others). I don't think the average person invested in the Google or Apple ecosystem consider what would happen if they had their access revoked.

Adding Energy & Financial Costs

Storing data with a cloud storage provider adds an additional layer of complexity. It not only adds another corporate entity to our daily lives, there's the financial costs of subscriptions fees and energy costs.

According to the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), smartphones can use as much energy as a refrigerator when you factor cloud and streaming services. This article references the paper The Cloud Begins with Coal - Big Data, Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, and Big Power: An Overview of the Electricity Used by the Digital Ecosystem:

"Reduced to personal terms, although charging up a single tablet or smart phone requires a negligible amount of electricity, using either to watch an hour of video weekly consumes annually more electricity in the remote networks than two new refrigerators use in a year. And as the world continues to electrify, migrating towards one refrigerator per household, it also evolves towards several smartphones and equivalent per person."
The question we need to ask ourselves is just how much resources are needed to keep those servers powered that your data is stored on.

How I Backup my Data

I used to heavily rely on Google Drive and MEGA in the past. I'm embarrassed to admit, but at one point I had literally all my files stored with Google. Nowadays, I keep my most important data like all of photos, documents, and music saved to my laptop on a 1TB SSD, along with the movies/shows I'm watching or planning on watching soon. I also have a 256gb micro SD card that acts as a backup that stores all of my photos, documents, music, etc. And finally, I have a 4TB external drive that acts as a secondary backup for all my files but includes all the movies and TV shows. All of these storage devices are encrypted.

Eventually I'd like to have a few more SD cards that I can stash in various places like friends and families homes just in case my apartment goes up in flames. I've also been considering using my smartphone which has 128gb of storage to backup encrypted Veracrypt containers of my photos and documents.

Arguments in Favor & Recommendations

This isn't to say I'm completely opposed to cloud storage. Collaboration in a work environment is one obvious benefit. Another good argument in favor of is data redundancy. You don't have to worry about making multiple backups yourself. In my case, I prefer making backups myself but some people see it as a technical challenge and can't be bothered to learn.

My recommendation is to only use cloud storage providers like OneDrive, Dropbox, iCloud, and Google Drive as simply redundant backups for the data you already have stored locally. Additionally, encrypt the files yourself before you upload them. These two things will drastically protect you for many of the issues described above.

Another note is that this doesn't apply cloud storage providers in the traditional sense. Many people have all of their family photos stored on their social media accounts without having any sort of offline backup. Imagine losing the video of your child's first step due to some hack, error, bankruptcy, or company buyout. The key takeaway from this entire post is ALWAYS HAVE A COPY OF YOUR DATA ON A DEVICE YOU OWN. And maybe just avoid the cloud for your personal data all together.

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