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Is your mobile data safe in the cloud?

You expect to always be connected on your phone or your tablet, so services like Flickr, Google Docs and iCloud (when it launches) for storing your photos, music and files in the cloud makes sense. It’s easier to send your photos to Flickr and Facebook than to prise open your phone and swap to a bigger memory card. You can see your images from your PC, if you lose or break your phone your files are safe – cloud seems like the ideal partner for mobile, and most of the time it is.

But ‘in the cloud’ doesn’t always mean secure, let along private. And on a phone or tablet, it’s that that much harder to see the detailed security and privacy options for a cloud service than it is on a PC. If you use a smartphone app or the mobile site to access Facebook, you might never see the privacy setting that controls whether friends can tag you in photos or not, and you won’t be able to use the new per-post privacy settings.

Cloud service failure

Cloud isn’t magic. Big-name, well-designed cloud services are built to cope if a single server or hard drive fails – or if several fail at once. But mistakes and accidents happen. It’s been a while since the Twitter fail whale was a daily occurrence, but whether it’s Office 365, Gmail or Amazon (or services built on Amazon’s cloud service like Foursquare, Reddit, and Quora which have all suffered outages thanks to Amazon failures), cloud services can fail – and lose data. If you care about information from your phone or tablet that’s in a cloud service, you need to back it up and that usually means from a PC (few export and sync tools run on your phone).

‘In the cloud’ doesn’t always mean ‘on a big and well-designed service’ either – something that users of Magnolia’s ‘cloud’ bookmark service found out when the home computer it was running on crashed and the developer discovered that the database had never actually been backed up. It’s unlikely that a site as popular as Instagram is going to disappear (although it makes sense for you to publish your pictures to another service like Flickr as a backup), but a smaller service that runs out of money might not be around in five years for you to go back to. We wouldn’t want to have files stuck on any service that’s only available on the quickly-cancelled HP TouchPad…

That’s not the only way you could lose access to cloud information. As part of enforcing its ‘real names’ policy on Google+, Google has locked a number of users with pseudonyms out of other services including Gmail, Picasa, Google Reader and Gchat (and if your Google account is suspended for other reasons you’ll lose Google Docs as well).

Again, that’s more of a problem on a tablet or smartphone than on a PC because you’re less likely to have been saving local copies of your files. You won’t have more than 30 days of email synced on a mobile device, and it’s far harder to copy those messages from the inbox on your phone than it is to export from a desktop mail client.

The easiest solution is to make sure you’re syncing email and any documents you care about to a desktop – or saving copies elsewhere. You can sync files you pick individually with GDocs for Android or use Documents To Go Premium to sync files from Google Docs (and – on iPhone and iPad –, Dropbox, MobileMe iDisk or SugarSync) onto your phone.

Track me and hack me
With other cloud services you might still lose access to your account temporarily if you get hacked or the service thinks someone is trying to break into your account. This recently happened to blogger (and Microsoft developer) Scott Hanselman his Apple ID was disabled after an unauthorised purchase of a Chinese app (and although he could see the app in the purchase history on his iPhone, he had to go into the ITunes app on his computer to see the full list of in-app purchase). To Hanselman, the issue is not the fraud but “the fragility of our access to the increasing pile of data we store in a smaller and smaller number of centralised cloud services.” And that’s just a little more difficult to deal with on your phone – especially if the account that gets locked down to protect you from fraud is the one you’d usually be sending the email from to try and sort it out.

Phishing emails trying to get the password for your cloud services are more of a danger on your phone or tablet as well. It’s easier to see whether the layout of an email looks like a legitimate message from your bank on a larger screen, especially if you have an older phone that doesn’t render HTML emails well – and much easier to check the email headers on a desktop email client than on a phone. And there’s always the temptation to set a simple password for cloud services you’re going to use on your phone, because typing in a complex password on the phone screen is that much harder. Facebook users on one US mobile network last year found they were logging in to the wrong account; the carriers use SSL accelerators to speed up the connection and these were configured badly so they cached the login for the next user.

Phones and tablets also make it easier to overshare. Information that goes into the cloud services you use from your phone can include more than you expect, if it’s automatically tagged with your location. Sometimes you want to share that – if it’s a checkin on FourSquare or a meetup you’re organising with Glympse or the new Bing We’re In app. But you may not want your phone putting your location on Facebook just because you’re uploading a photo you snapped (for perfectly innocent reasons like being on your way to a job interview or organising a surprise birthday party). Check your cameraphone settings as well as your social network options; often, including the location of the photo is the default.

Sync for safety
Is your information safe in the cloud? Usually it’s safer than it is on your phone, but you still need to be careful. Check your settings, be aware of the terms and conditions you’re agreeing to and back up. Either plug your phone into a PC or Mac regularly and take a backup locally, or use a service like BlackBerry Protect, McAfee WaveSecure (for Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, Windows Mobile, iPhone, Handy Backup for Android or Lookout Mobile (which works on BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile). That’s what you’d do to protect your information on a PC; it’s the same on a smartphone or tablet and just because the information is in the cloud doesn’t mean you can assume it’s safe – if you really want it, make sure you’re keeping it in more than one place.


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