How the NSA took the heaven out of cloud computing

Eric Garland Technology Trends 2 Comments

We are all prisoners of metaphor when it comes to describing the world. English is a hodge-podge of Greco-Roman references and grunty Germanic loan words, so it should come as no surprise that precision is difficult to achieve through language. We are forced to analyze everything through a series of blurry images and loaded connotations.

Now, imagine trying to understand enterprise-scale information security using such brutish tools. Take the notion of “cloud computing.” We describe a massive global infrastructure of networks, servers and protocols with a term reserved for condensed water vapor in the sky. This makes no sense until you consider one of the additional uses of the image. Christian mythology has made the clouds synonymous with heaven, the supposed locale of Paradise. Now the reason behind the choice of metaphor becomes clearer. Clever marketers use a term loaded with dreams  of eternal peace. Your data is in…THE CLOUD! If you close your eyes, you imagine your data dressed in a clean white tunic, seated comfortably on a fluffy white Ottoman, perhaps listening to soothing harp music, kept in the loving embrace of the Almighty for Eternity.

Now, open your eyes. Your data is on a server in Kentucky. Or maybe Hong Kong. Or maybe it was duplicated onto “backup” server in China. Maybe Mongolia. You don’t know.

Your data is not up in the sky, it is housed by the physical assets of a private corporation operating under the aegis of a nation-state, one that likely makes its digital signals available to relevant intelligence and police services. That harp music is dying away, replaced by the clicks and whirrs of a Borg-like complex of disk drives in some strange country.

The return of nation-states and realpolitik

In theory, cloud computing should be an ideal fit for the needs of businesses large and small. Using the cloud, companies can outsource management and maintenance of servers to specialized contractors who can lower costs while increasing reliability. Moreover, cloud computing should lower the risk of catastrophic data loss because the management of servers is handled by dedicated professionals.

This nonchalant comfort with the use of transnational digital service providers shows just how far the world has come since the Cold War. There is a level of trust between organizations that would have seemed insane fifteen years ago. Companies that compete for marketshare in several sectors of heavy industry think nothing of having the same software providers for critical functions such as finance and accounting. Boeing, a major defense contractor to the U.S. Government among other things, actually explored the idea of moving its headquarters to China. Companies all over the world use the banking systems of Ireland, Mauritius and the Caymans with the express intent of depriving their nation-states of tax revenue – and yet this is not seen as an act of war. And in 2008, the U.S. Federal Reserve, backed by US taxpayers, sprang into action to recapitalize banks in Europe as well as those in the United States. So if normally competitive countries are so chummy these days, it should be no big deal to use a cloud computing service from anywhere…right?

And into the fray comes Edward Snowden, that unexpected new resident of Sheremetyevo Airport who deftly tore the mask of bonhomie from the neoliberal international system. A couple articles in The Guardian later, and the world looks the Kissingerian image of realpolitik. Instead of a bunch of relaxed, cheerful partners, the world is divided once more into nation-states: The US. China. Russia. France. It’s back to Great Power Politics, and if you have the juice, then you bug the G8 meeting, or all of Brazil.

Cloud ComputingOh my God, where is our data again? Is it in…gasp…a competitor nation? And now the weakness of metaphor is exposed. Instead of a velvet painting of clouds and angels, “cloud computing” looks like a balance sheet, a trade-off of risks and opportunities. Should a company foot the bill for its own data services, or outsource it to some company with dodgy owners in a country that isn’t exactly friendly? Digital strategy looks complex once more.

We perceive ourselves to be living in a Golden Age of digital peace, where anything tech related has seemed to transcend geopolitical risk. If you read history, that kind of peace does pop up from time to time…but it is illusory. For there is no “heaven on Earth,” and your data doesn’t sit on a “cloud.” We thus require some new metaphors, so that we might come by a clearer and more rational view of the role of information technology plays in a geopolitical dynamic that resembles the 20th century more than we believed.

(This is a translation. My original draft was in French.)