GEEK TO ME: Is cloud storage really safe?

Question: I have avoided using any cloud to back up my files because I feel that if hackers can get into NSA and DoD they can also access any commercial cloud system. Are the commercial setups really safe? I am using my own cloud (external hard drives and large-capacity thumb drives) which can be cumbersome but seem secure when not actively connected to my computers.

– Doug B.

Niceville, Florida
Answer: I’m forced to wonder exactly what amount of protection you consider adequate for your needs, Doug? There are many things to take into account when trying to make a determination of whether a particular service meets the very subjective definition of being “really safe” – a term only you can define for yourself. I think the best that I’m going to be able to do for you is to give you (and the rest of my readers) some food for thought so you can make your own, slightly-more-informed choice.
It seems to me like you’re viewing your personal data as if it’s that precious giant diamond in the lighted museum display case in a spy movie. The fact that the precious gem is singled-out and displayed in a known place is what makes it an attractive target for the bad guy. And have you ever noticed that no matter how elaborate the security, it seems like the villains always manage to steal it anyway? Well, at the risk of damaging your self-image, your data just isn’t all that valuable to anybody but you, so it’s unlikely that it would be singly targeted for theft. When you use a professionally administered cloud storage solution, your data are stored with thousands of other customers’ data, rather than on their own in a proverbial glass case. That takes the focus off your data as a target. The old adage that there’s safety in numbers applies, so there is some additional amount of protection that your data is not all on its own. Beyond anonymity, many of the commercial cloud companies use some of the finest military-grade encryption available, meaning that even if your stuff is stolen, it is extremely difficult for the thief to actually do anything with it. Is it hack-proof? Of course not. Short of staying off the grid completely, nothing really is. But it is highly hack-resistant.
You’re concentrating heavily on a single aspect of data protection – long term storage. But let’s talk for a moment about how you typically handle personal information on a daily basis. Do you use credit or debit cards? Each time you scan a card at a gas pump, checkout line, ATM, etc., you run the risk of that card information being skimmed, and stolen. At many dining establishments you probably hand your card over to a server who then disappears with it for a few minutes where they are free to do heaven only know what with it. Surely, you don’t consider that “really safe”? Do you receive mail at a box in front of your home? Is it locked? Identity thieves know that mailboxes are a virtual trove of personal information in the form of bills, account statements, checks, and more. Once your mail is safely in your house, what do you do with it when you’ve finished reading it? Does it go into the trashcan? If I were an identity thief, my second stop (after the mailbox) would be the garbage. If you’re not shredding virtually everything that has your name and address on it, you’re not being “really safe”. To take it to the extreme, what would a burglar find if they broke into your house? Are your books of unwritten checks, your credit card statements, all your private information locked in a safe, or are they on or near your desk? What about jewelry, silverware, electronics? Are all secure to the point that they’re “really safe”? Remember, you can have the world’s best locks and the world’s strongest doors to attempt to be “really safe” but all it takes is a rock and the nearest window for a determined person to get in after they see you drive away.
My point is not to ridicule you, but rather to point out that you can do everything right and still be at risk. The system of “external hard drives and large-capacity thumb drives” that you described offers neither the convenience nor the security of a modern cloud storage service. Even worse, unless you religiously perform regular backups and replace the drives periodically, your data are subject to catastrophic loss through inevitable electrical or mechanical failure. To me, that makes cloud storage solutions a very attractive alternative, and “suitably safe” for typical user needs.
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