At the Hadrian Hotel

At the Hadrian Hotel

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Google as Landlord

Today I attended the first "IT Policy Lunch" of the school year. These are weekly lunch-time discussions hosted by Ed Felten, director of Princeton's Center for Information Technology Policy. The topic on the table was "Computing in the Clouds." If you're not familiar with the concept, it is essentially computing as a service, typified by Yahoo!'s flickr and Google Mail. We were given pointers to 2 short blog posts by John Markoff of the "New York Times" for background reading that go into a bit more detail than the one-liner I wrote here.

The discussion was lively and touched on a number of topics such as the level of privacy that users of these services should expect, how difficult should it be for law enforcement to gain access to the data, and do many users even know or care that these types of issues exist? The most notable take-away for me, however, is from a comment made to Ed after the session ended by Matthew Adlai-Gail, Director of New Product Development at Kaplan Eduneering.

Matt said that these services are analogous to an apartment building, where the landlord has the keys, but each tenant has an expectation of privacy within their "space." This seemed to me to be just about right. If I live in an apartment, I can fill it up with my things. As long as I lock the door(s) and windows, I feel confident that nobody will go snooping around when I'm not there. Yes, the landlord has the keys. But between my lease and various laws, he is not likely to use them just to come in and start going through my stuff. If the police want to see what I have, they need to get a warrant from a judge.

Let's say I have a Google account and I use Google Docs to save a few spreadsheets and other random documents. If I have a reasonable password on my account and I don't explicitly share any of documents with anybody, is it more like I have them on a desk in my apartment, or have I left them lying around on the sidewalk? I'd like to think that I haven't left my documents where they can be picked up and read by anybody, and I suspect that many users of these services feel the same way. That just seems reasonable to me. I'll keep my stuff in my "apartment" and let Google be my landlord. While I'm at it, maybe I'll get a place over at the Flickr building for my pictures and let Yahoo! be my landlord over there. I might even put a bunch of pictures in the windows so that everybody can see them. :-)

So, what do you think?

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