While the ideas behind cloud computing are old, only recently have these technologies enjoyed widespread use and overall popularity. From the user’s perspective, using a cloud service is not very different from using non-networked software; the program is accessed via a network rather than being physically loaded from the machine’s hard drive. Upon closer examination, however, the cloud provides a model of computing that is actually very different from the traditional structure and operation of the Internet proper. Cloud services are rapidly rising to ubiquity, but the true nature of the cloud is only vaguely understood. As such services begin to achieve widespread use, personal data is given new a agency, and the cloud becomes a model of centralization and deep-seeded control.
On the technical side, the phrase “cloud computing” refers to both the software application services accessible via the internet and the hardware systems in the datacenters that power those services. The services are often referred to as software-as-a-service (SaaS), while the datacenter itself is often dubbed a ‘cloud’. The dawn of the age of information has sparked the creation of a tremendous amount of information in electronic format, much of which is readily available on the internet. The availability and sheer volume of this data creates a wide variety of data and processing intensive problems for many startups and corporations. The recent advent of the cloud matches the push to tackle these problems, as it delivers the immediate availability of seemingly unlimited computing power to anyone wishing to harness it, regardless of their location. Before, tackling these problems meant putting a large investment into obtaining machines to provide enough processing power to do the computation. Now, an organization can rent out however many machines for however long they need to get the job done without purchasing the equipment themselves.
Conceptually, the metaphor of the cloud evokes an image of a vaporous, ethereal body when in fact, such an image is better suited to the traditional model of the internet. Before the cloud, personal data would be stored on machines that the proprietor of such data either owned or rented. The internet was made up of the content on these machines, all of which were controlled by separate individuals acting independently of each other. A cloud service, on the other hand, relies on the existence or construction of a datacenter; these “server-farms” collect data into a singular location where is is stored, sorted, and processed. Consequently, the use of cloud technologies represents the centralization of data and operations on the internet, not the dispersion. This model turns the relationship between the user and their data on its head, as personal data is swept up from different users in different places and gathered into one massive container controlled by the corporation offering the service.
In this model, data begins to look less like the property of the user and more like the property of the cloud service, which raises a host of interesting questions about who actually ‘owns’ the data and who has the rights to access it. Indeed, in the cloud a user is represented only by their data. So when data is organized all under one roof, users allow their online representations to be governed by a larger corporate body. In this light, the cloud is easily likened to a political territory. And once US surveillance policies are thrown into the mix, the cloud starts to look like a politically contested territory.