Technology

Exploring the role of free cloud services in digital privacy

Private Note services provide easy access to storage and file sharing, allowing users to store, access, and share files from any device. However, concerns around privacy and data harvesting with these free services have also grown.

Growth of free cloud services 

It’s easy to see why free cloud services have become so ubiquitous. They provide anywhere access to storage and files, easy collaboration and sharing capabilities, and typically a generous amount of free storage space like 15GB with Google Drive or 2GB with Dropbox. For individuals and businesses alike, being able to access important documents or files from any device with an internet connection is hugely beneficial. Over 60% of people use a free cloud storage service with consumer cloud storage projected to be a $74 billion industry by 2025. With so much growth, it’s clear why free services like Google Drive and Dropbox have become massive companies in their own right. Their free services have appeal, but it is their paid offerings for expanded storage that generate significant revenue.

Data harvesting and targeted ads  

While free cloud services provide helpful utilities for file sharing and storage, there are privacy tradeoffs involved for that free access. Most major free cloud storage platforms state in their terms of service that they collect data on users for advertisement targeting. Companies like Google and Microsoft make the bulk of their revenue through targeted advertising, so data collection is fundamental to their businesses. Some of the data collected include email content, search history, IP address, device information, and browsing activity. While individual pieces of data seem innocuous, together they compose an extensive user profile that permits highly targeted ads. Users of free services are effectively “paying” for access to their data instead of money. Tighter data privacy almost always requires paying for a service instead of relying on free versions.

Data mining and profiling 

what is privnote used for? In addition to targeted advertising, some research has pointed to more extensive profiling and data mining capabilities by major tech companies involved in free cloud storage services. For example, Google has patents that describe techniques for using audio recordings from microphone-enabled devices to target ads. While Google itself claims it has never implemented this technique, its patents do allow for such capabilities which points to the expansive data mining capacities of large tech companies with a diversity of services.

Some studies have also demonstrated the ability of machine learning algorithms to predict private traits and attributes solely using records of online behavior. From search logs, browsing activity, and social media patterns, algorithms derive and infer statistics on an individual’s mental health, intelligence, political persuasion, sexual orientation, and more. While the ethics behind such extensive profiling are highly questionable, they demonstrate the disturbingly accurate predictive capacities enabled by mass data collection. For frequent users of free services from Google and others, your data profiles almost certainly contain predictive inferences and attributes without your explicit knowledge or consent.

Encryption and anonymization 

Some methods exist for protecting privacy if you still wish to use free cloud services but limit data harvesting. On most browsers, incognito or private browsing modes limit a service’s capacity for connecting online activity to specific users by preventing cookies and clearing browsing data on exit. However, IP addresses still permit monitoring and connections to identity. More robust privacy necessitates encryption, using masked IP addresses, and anonymization techniques. For example, some commercial VPN clients and the Tor browser aim to anonymize web activity by routing traffic through intermediary servers, masking your location and IP address. However, VPNs still require significant trust in the intermediary parties. Tor also enables access to the “dark web” which promotes more rampant criminality.