You have likely heard that when you sometimes post information on a website or social network that you are putting it into "the cloud." It may sound like a cloud of digital information surrounds you and your smartphone, tablet or PC wherever you go. It's really just a computer network that is storing -- and sharing -- information.
This cloud of information surrounds you. It lets your various devices work more closely together. The cloud's "openness" shares information. If your friend from a social network changes his or her phone number, your address book may automatically capture this change and update itself on all your devices. If you send someone an e-mail message on your computer, the address may show up in your smartphone's address book.
There is significant risk to the rampant sharing of personal information in this manner. Thieves can take advantage of this in several ways, including tricking you into sending them money, breaking into your checking account, convincing friends they are you, or trying to steal your credit card number. Hackers have even hijacked individual's hard drives, only freeing them if a ransom is paid by credit card to a third-party overseas account.
Companies may find out important information about you, and share it with other companies that want to sell you goods and services. It may result in a discount you really want or in annoying ads you really don't want.
The good news is that "wise Internet hygiene" can make you much less vulnerable to attack -- similar to the way that good personal hygiene protects you from real-world viruses. The other good news is that while hackers are getting more sophisticated, computer scientists working for good rather than evil greatly outnumber criminal hackers. "Ethical Hackers" break into networks to learn how to make them more secure. Credit card companies are increasingly vigilant. Businesses that have been hacked often offer customers free monitoring services that prove reassuring.
In truth, you're not writing on the clouds, it's all posted to a powerful computer or "server" in someone's "data center." Who owns this server, the particular information privacy policies and their security skills differ by site. Often some of these details are included in the "license" agreement you must "sign" (or click to agree) in order to use the website.
Unfortunately, studies confirm that few people ever read these agreements. One online video game store, as an April Fool's Day stunt in 2010, tricked 7,500 customers into signing a licensing agreement that called for them to "forfeit their eternal souls." Few people noticed.
So "the cloud" is made up of these servers, cellular radio or Wi-Fi signals, the public telephone network, your Internet service provider and the larger global network to which it connects -- the Internet. Networks authenticate you by your phone number and your various account numbers stored on your devices and verify with a password. These are often the key to your personal security.
Some sites use two or more independent "authentication" sources. Some may require your username and password and also have your phone number on file to confirm your identity by sending a signal to verify your phone.
Others may use a "Captcha" code, which asks you to copy a sloppy list of letters and numbers (see right-hand box). This uses special perception skills that only humans have to make sure you are a human and not a robot hacking device. Often, there is a second Captcha code with a really skewed word. The brief moment you take to comply with the security request provides protection.
The cloud has a special meaning when used inside of a business. In business, the cloud means a company buys its computer software as a service, sometimes referred to as SaaS. The computer doesn't have its own data center -- it is all handled far away by a service provider. The company just pays a fee, and accesses all its business applications from a Web browser. The data is stored, secured and processed elsewhere "in the cloud."
The company may have a private cloud, where a separate company puts all its data on a private server that only the company can access. The company may own its own data center, but only let employees access it through a browser, or, it may access a huge network with more than one company's data and applications stored on it. That's more like the public cloud we experience every day. Of course, when your employer gets involved, security rules become stricter. There's more at risk through exposure to the cloud.
Humans and advanced computers are both capable of "thought," but their perception can be quite different. Security experts use this difference to our advantage in a couple of interesting ways.
By making users signing into a social network perform a task that computers cannot perform, security systems can ascertain that a user is indeed a user and not a sophisticated hacking program trying to break in.
It is called a "Captcha Code" -- an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing test for telling Computers and Humans Apart. The program, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, asks users to copy a word or random series of numbers and letters appearing on the page into a space provided.
The trick is that the letters and numbers are arranged in such a way that a computer would not be able to recognize the characters. Letters may be turned. Typefaces may be inconsistent. Alignment of letters may appear skewed. If the person successfully matches the code, he or she is granted access to the site.
So how do computer scientists know a computer's limitations? They've been trying to scan important historical documents into computers for decades, and often a word in the text stumps their recognition program.
This knowledge led the same scientists at Carnegie Mellon to devise a new workaround to their stumped scan recognition system. They invented the "reCaptcha Code," where after proving users are human, they are asked to solve one recognition problem that had previously baffled computers.
It was so successful that Google bought the software and used it to scan the entire New York Times archives going back to 1851. It is now being used to scan Google books into its digital library.
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