March 7-13, 2007

home | metro silicon valley index | columns | technology news

Technology News - Annalee Newitz

Technology News

The Great Data Crash Of 2027

By Annalee Newitz

ALL YOUR PERSONAL correspondence is on Yahoo! or Hotmail or Gmail. Links to important news and research data are stored in your account. Your blog, which contains records of both a personal and a professional nature, is hosted with some company owned by another company called SixApart.

Your business contacts are on LinkedIn. Your art portfolio is at Deviant Art. Your photographs are on Flickr. You keep track of where your boyfriends are with Twitter. Most of the time, you don't keep backups of any of this data on your laptop. It would take up too much space. Much easier just to store it on somebody else's servers. Plus you can access your stuff from the web anytime you want!

And now, with the new Google Apps product, you can run an entire small business enterprise through Google's servers. No need for sysadmins or even computers. Google Apps promises that for a monthly fee it will use Google's gigantic server cities to host your corporate mail, chat, calendars, website, spreadsheets and even word processing. Every single thing you do at work can be stored on Google servers. All your documents. All your company data.

Perhaps you have not yet gathered that this freaks me the hell out. I've gone beyond the Electronic Frontier Foundation party line about how this is bad for privacy because the government can gain access to your personal data online. I mean: Yes, the loss of privacy is terrible and dangerous. But this situation is worse than potentially being data-raped by some feds trolling for terrorists. When we store all our personal, financial and social information on other people's computers, we risk losing everything for reasons even stupider than "the war on terror."

You'll lose all the documents related to a crucial meeting with a client because some sysadmin in Dublin was playing football next to the power switch. Or perhaps thousands of companies will lose their entire financial histories because a high school kid is trying to impress a boy in her class by releasing a virus that eats Google spreadsheets. What scares me here is randomness. Randomness without backups.

I recently attended a baby shower for some dear friends, one of whom works at Google. We began to talk about how companies that deal with sensitive security information would never be able to use Google Apps. It simply wouldn't be safe. And I kept thinking: What company is there in existence that doesn't have sensitive data? Employee records and salaries are sensitive. Calendars, which announce where everyone will be at what time, are extremely sensitive. And what about historical records?

Google won't reveal where its servers are, or how many it has. Do you want to trust some unknown server in an undisclosed location to store your company's entire history, let alone your own personal one? Given how many people answer "Yes" to this question, I could easily imagine my Googler friend's baby growing up in a world where people trusted all their data to megastorage companies like Google, Yahoo! and SixApart.

I imagined a future where some catastrophic event—EM blast, super El Niño, virulent worm, massive political insurrection, whatever—took out half the world's data storage. It's possible such an event could be as destructive as the 1929 stock market crash almost 80 years ago. Money would be lost, and whole careers based on creating and analyzing online data would be trashed in an instant.

Famous bloggers would be left with nothing—their bodies of work, years' worth of brilliant observations stored on anonymous corporate servers, would be obliterated. And their letters would be lost to future biographers. There would be no old trunk full of correspondence to sift through and discover new angles on great cultural commentators. That trunk would be a Gmail account; its contents would be zapped into nothing.

When you store all the ephemera and all the hard work you've done in your life in an electronic machine you've never seen, you don't just risk exposing your whole life to prying eyes. You risk losing all those records, thoughts and pictures that make up "your whole life." You risk losing a legacy that will live beyond you into your children's generation. And in some ways, that is a fate worse than death.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who would rather store her whole life on 5-inch floppy disks.

Send a letter to the editor about this story.