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Conflict and the Cloud

07/07/2009

Two recent articles reflect upon the concept of ‘cloud computing’ and its relationship to terrorism and public protest.

Although the ‘cloud’ is a catch-all term for an amorphous assemblage of computing resources it essentially refers to the transfer of products and services from the desktop to the network.  In this model, your computer would effectively be a browser from which you access all the resources we usually associate with the desktop.  The logical extension of this is a computer with minimal processing power, used to access all the software and storage which is run from distant servers.  To deploy a common example: a home Outlook email client runs on your desktop as a stand-alone software package, whereas Gmail is accessed through your browser.  Gmail is in the cloud, Outlook is not.  Gmail is a good example of where the cloud might be heading – although the cloud will initially be distributed, commercial interests and practical considerations will probably lead to the formation of information hubs, like the Gmail servers.

In a post at Dark Reading, technology analyst Rob Enderle asks the question, Could The Cloud Lead To An Even Bigger 9/11?

The Twin Towers, which were destroyed in the 9/11 attack, took down a major portion of the U.S. infrastructure at the same time. The capability and coverage of cloud-based mega-hubs would easily dwarf hundreds of Twin Tower-like operations. Although some redundancy would likely exist – hopefully located in places safe from disasters – should a hub be destroyed, it could likely take down a significant portion of the country it supported at the same time.

Security expert Bruce Schneier rightly criticises this assertion on the basis that 9/11 did not in fact render US infrastructure incapable.  It actually continued to function very well.  But the essential point is that these cloud datahubs could present attractive targets to terrorists wishing to disrupt critical infrastructure via kinetic or cloud-based attacks.  At present this is a speculative scenario but is undoubtedly one that designers will have to confront.

Over at the Small Wars Journal (if you don’t read SWJ, you should), blogging acquaintance Adam Elkus has an interesting article on the Information Counterrevolution.  Using the recent Twitter-mediated Iranian protests as his stepping-off point, Adam assesses how we deal with the information glut caused by the proliferation of microblogging services and other ‘web 2.0′ platforms. Many of these are already in the cloud and Adam suggests some positive aspects of these technologies, an unwitting counterpoint to Enderle’s mild scaremongering.  In particular, Adam examines how users can themselves provide the sorts of filtering mechanisms required to make sense of mass information streams and criticises the ‘infoenthusiasm’ of some commentators.  It’s a useful short essay which concludes in a fashion with which I wholeheartedly agree:

… it is likely that focusing on organizational, social, and political contexts rather than purely technological modes of discourse and change will best serve those seeking to build innovative technological systems and networks.  It is, after all, imperfect human beings in imperfect social and political institutions who end up using technology – a reality that tech-boosters often forget.