Have you ever noticed that when you enable Photo Stream on your iPhone, all your pictures, including the ones you don't want your girlfriend to see, are easily available for anyone to view on that iPad that lives on your coffee table? Have you ever uploaded something to cloud storage, realized it was too sensitive, then deleted it later? Do you know that there's a strong possibility a backup copy of that file is still being stored, so anyone with access to your account can still get it? If not, you've never heard of Jennifer Lawrence.
When you store files in the cloud—the network of remote servers hosted on the Net by various businesses and used to store data—the chief benefit is easy access to your files, from anywhere, and peace of mind, knowing that if you lose your computer, you won’t lose all your stuff.
But the cloud comes with very real risks. If you need more evidence of that, look no further than all the celebrities, including the aforementioned J-Law, who’ve had their cloud accounts hacked over the past year. And while you might not be uploading naked photos of yourself that you’re worried about getting leaked, you’re likely entrusting other sensitive items—work files, tax returns, credit card info—that hackers would love to get their hands on.
So think hard about what service is right for you, what you choose to upload, and how to keep it all locked down (or up) for good.
Which cloud to choose?
Most cloud storage services do the same thing: store files. That said, there are special benefits to each, whether it’s a cheaper plan or more file capacity, so know your needs before you pick.
If you’re on a budget, Microsoft’s OneDrive is the winner. It comes with 15 gigs of free storage just as Google Drive does, but the real draw is the $7/month one-terabyte 1,000 gigabyte) plan. Plus with that you get Office 365, which can cost $100, at no charge.
For those who need to store larger files, such as movies (which can run between one and 10 gigs), Dropbox is the solid choice, because it doesn’t have the file-size limits most cloud services do.
If you’re a big Apple fan—you’re juggling a MacBook, an iPad, and an iPhone—then iCloud Drive, the Apple storage service that integrates seamlessly with the company’s ecosystem, is hard to beat.
If you’re a photographer or Instagram addict, Google Drive offers free, unlimited photo storage for images smaller than 2,048 x 2,048 pixels (which is pretty damn big).
Finally, if you’re serious about privacy, SpiderOak’s cloud service auto-encrypts your data so securely that even the company can’t read what’s in it.
Think twice (or cringe forever)
There are ways the cloud could expose photos or files you’d prefer to keep hidden.
For one, if you blindly turn on all the services when you sign up, you’re asking for trouble. For example, Dropbox increases free storage in exchange for uploading every photo on your phone to its cloud—but do you have time to go through your photos to edit out the dicey pics?
Also, no matter the service, don’t take the easy way out and sync your entire Documents folder to it. It’s tempting to get that immediate productivity boost by syncing all your docs, but take the time to organize them into folders first and sync only those you’ll really need on the go.
Finally, don’t use the same old password for the cloud as you do for other accounts—make this one impossible to guess.
There are tons of apps you can connect to cloud storage, from e-mail clients to task-management systems—but doing that also gives the owners of those apps access to your files. What happens if they change hands? Can you trust the new owners to do the right thing with your data?
All cloud services offer a way to check which apps are connected, so go in and see if there are any you don’t recognize.
I strongly recommend using Google’s Account Security Checkup, which makes it dead simple to review permissions to keep prowlers out.
What about the gub'ment?
Since the Edward Snowden leaks, there are fears that Big Brother is even more eager to get at your data—and that the cloud makes that easier. According to nonprofit online- freedom org Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “The [Department of Justice] has been unequivocal that cloud users have no right to challenge government access to the tremendous amount of ‘non-content’ information held by these systems—their location, their contacts, their communications patterns, and more.”
But in the EFF’s 2014 “Who Has Your Back?” report, many of the biggest cloud services—Apple, Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo—scored six out of six stars for protecting your data when they can and being transparent when they can’t.
But a few companies you might’ve thought you could trust—Amazon, Foursquare, Snapchat—got less-than-satisfactory scores, so if this is a worry, check out the report at eff.org.
If you’re at the office and need to open a file that’s in your personal cloud, don’t download the software and install the cloud app on your desk computer—which could put all your private docs on your company-owned, company-controlled computer and give your employer complete access to them through the software.
Instead, use a private browser window, sign into your cloud’s Web interface, get the one file you need, then be sure to sign out and clear your cache when you’re done.
Roll your own cloud
An alternative to paying a major service for cloud storage is to build your own cloud storage. With the right equipment, you can get the convenience of cloud storage without handing your data over to a third party.
A Western Digital My Cloud drive is easy to start with. Though it looks and acts like any other external hard drive, it includes software that helps you set up a private cloud you can then connect to apps on any devices you own. It’s win-win: more control over your data but none of the monthly fees cloud providers charge.
If your storage needs are even more serious, look into networked-attached storage (NAS). An NAS is a container that plugs into your router, adding storage that can be accessed by any computer on your local network, including your desktop, laptop, phone, and tablet.
Even better, devices like those from a company called Synology also make your files securely accessible, just as Dropbox does—you can see your files and folders from anywhere in the world and secure them with a password.