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Fear Has no Borders & Neither Does Data Storage

Taking office when the Great Depression was plunging the world into an abyss of unprecedented darkness and horror, Franklin D Roosevelt famously said, ‘So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance’. Years later, facing the marauding Nazis under the leadership of the deranged genius Hitler, Winston Churchill borrowed the fore quoted sentiment and reiterated it, though in not so much the same words. Roosevelt pulled the world, in general, and America, in particular, from the brink of economic oblivion. Churchill helped snatch victory from the jaws of imminent defeat. Now we face the same problems these great gentlemen of yore faced, and this time they seem to have come together. The world is facing another financial meltdown and terrorism is rearing its all too ugly head from every nook and corner. And this time, ladies and gentlemen, fear seems to have taken the better of us.

Countries across the world are enacting laws and legislations giving them power to invade the privacy of hapless citizens and tourists, as in their paranoia, they are regarding every person as a potential terror suspect. Come what may, better safe than sorry seems to be the shameless motto. Sure, the above mentioned gentlemen did stuff they had to, to ensure that the ideals of freedom independence and sovereignty that they were trying so hard to uphold were not compromised. But never did they resort to below the belt techniques.

We live in, what is being widely touted as the information age; the age when information is what makes the world go around, oils the social machinery and keeps the economic engine running. Information is as important to us as was stone for the Stone Age, knowledge for the Enlightenment Age and oil for the Industrial Age. Data has become more valuable than gold, and the storage and retrieval of data, safely and securely is very important. And when everyone is using technology to make life all the more easier, why would terrorists refrain from using the same to make the coordination of attacks easier. So it is no wonder that governments are clamping down on the transfer of information into and out of their borders. When snail mail was the ‘in thing’, they peeped into correspondence from offshore locations. Now, keeping with the pace of technological advancements, they are checking emails and censoring websites. And if all that was not enough to make citizens furious, they are now scrutinizing and copying data stored in portable storage devices like iPods, cellular phones, laptops and PDAs, whenever they are being carried across borders.

Granted, it is a necessary precaution to stop and perhaps avoid unwanted unlawful disturbing events from taking place. But there has to be a code of conduct when such searches are being conducted, and these lines of moral conduct should never be crossed. For all those who believe their government would never resort to such brutality, here’s a scene which was enacted at an US airport in the not too distant past. Last year, Jawad Khaki, a corporate executive from Sammamish, Washington, was returning home from a business trip to Ireland and Germany. At the airport, a U.S. customs agent asked him to turn over his cell phone. Even though he had all the proper documents, even though he was not a suspect of any sort, even though he had explained where he had traveled and the purpose of his travel, he was asked to turn over his cell phone. The customs official then proceeded to go through his ‘to do’ list and his calendar entries. Khaki says he was humiliated and exasperated by the treatment meted out to him, by the blatant violation of privacy. This was no isolated incident. Khaki’s story is one among the growing number of reports of border security privacy invasion coming in every day. And the people who are abused the most seem to be Muslims and people of South Asian and Middle Eastern origin. They say man is the most successful of all the animals because he can adapt to situations. When faced with privacy invasions and the potential loss of personal data due to border invasions, what does man do? He adapts. He adopts unconventional means of storing data, so that what he hold most valuable dear is not taken from him and so that what he has considered most private is not laid bare for the whole world to gaze upon. The safest quick fire method of storing data in a safe, reliable and easily accessible area has been developed and is called online data storage.

Funny, isn’t it, that what one man builds for one purpose, another man uses for a totally different purpose? The internet was first developed in 1960 when research projects of military agencies, funded by the United States of America, tried to build robust, fault tolerant, distributed computer networks. From being a military project, it has evolved over so many decades to become what it is today. With its vast spaces of unexplored potential, the internet continues to grow and evolve every day. That is where the online storage of data becomes a good idea.

Information in the form of data needs to be stored somewhere, so that it can be retrieved again, at a later date so that it can be used. Data storage is an all too familiar concept and we have been practicing it since we could read, only now we have advanced to the digital stage. Now we store movies, music, pictures, documents and databases on hard disks, flash drives, compact discs, digital video discs, blue ray discs etc. We store them and keep them safe in the belief that when the day comes when we have a need for the stored data, we will be able to retrieve them. What most of people don’t understand is that all these methods of data storage are not at all stable nor are they secure. We don’t realize that they are vulnerable unless we lose data once. Guess you need to be bitten once to be shy the next time. The most unreliable feature of the storage methods mentioned above is that they become unreadable after a certain amount of time. The primary storage device, the hard disk is unreliable, because about thirty percent of all hard disks crash within the first couple of years and a hard disk will crash. It is just a matter of time. CDs and DVDs become unreadable over time when scratches appear on them due to usage over long periods. If a CD or DVD with heavy scratches is loaded into a high speed drive, the disc can break, and without proper backup, the data will be lost forever. Then there is the perennial chance of your hardware getting stolen. The prices of electronic goods are soaring and snitching hardware is a very easy way, for anyone with a criminally inclined mind, to make a fast buck. Statistically speaking, only one percent of all stolen electronic goods and devices, like laptops, iPods, PDAs are ever recovered. So if you lose one, chances are, you will lose data stored in them and you will never recover them. There is also a chance that you might lose all your data when your data storage medium is destroyed, lost or rendered unusable due to natural disasters like floods, fires, earthquakes, etc. A story goes that a Minister of State of Ghana got nicknamed ‘Tsunami’ because he lost all his documents and files due to a flood. What is to say that you will not be at the receiving end of nature’s fury?

There are other many such ways in which data that you think is secure could be lost forever. Like for example, you could accidentally delete an important file, replace it wilt another file of same file name and extension. Or you could be the hapless victim of a virus attack. The virus could clean out your hard disk, corrupt files, replace current files with bogus replicas or hide them permanently. Then there is always the chance that when you are transferring data from one media to another, the data can get corrupted, rendering it useless. So it was imperative that a solution immune to all the above mentioned faults be come up with. And the only truly secure medium of data storage seemed to be online data storage sites and you don’t need to carry your data around as all you need is an internet connection.

Well, what is online storage? It simply is the storage of your data on the internet. Your files and data are stored on the servers of some company or website that is providing you with such facilities. You can upload and download any data onto these sites, pretty much like how you do in your hard drive or flash drive. You can use the facility as a second hard disk. You can edit, delete and do anything with these files. Some sites provide you with media players and other necessary software so that you can play your songs and watch movies from the site without having to download them. You can share these files with others if you want to, thus making it a very useful option if you are working on a common project with others over the internet.

A very attractive feature of this kind of storage is that most providers of online storage facilities have free or personal data storage accounts. That means that a reasonable medium sized storage space can be acquired for free. This will be enough to store personal data like photos. But if more space is needed, you will have to purchase it. For businesses and companies, there are larger storage versions available, but at a higher cost. Besides providing larger space for storage, paid accounts will get enhanced security and faster upload and download capabilities. There are usually two parts to your account: one is the personal part which only you can access. The other is a part that others can access if you have given them permission to do so. But not to worry, even the free accounts are secure enough for the average need. You will have to choose a password on registration and your account can be accessed only if the password is known, pretty much like any email account. Some sites provide enhanced protection like two factor authentication. Two factor authentication means that you will have a two layer protection system, because in order to access the account you will need an authentication key in addition to the password. The authentication key will be provided by an electronic card. The key will keep on changing at a particular interval and the service provider will know the key that is being displayed on the electronic card. So, only if the key being displayed on the card and the key that you have typed in match will you be able to access the data. Other storage providers are more tailored towards a public in search for a high security online storage service. Such service would be judged in terms of privacy, offshore jurisdiction, encryption and other exotic features like being able to wipe your account whenever needed.

Accessibility is not a problem at all. All you need is a computer or any other device capable of connecting to the internet and an internet connection. You simply go to the site, log in using your password and download the file according to the site methodology. Some sites insist on you typing in a code as a safety check. There are a number of companies and sites that provide such online data storage facilities. The difference must be sought, nowadays, in terms of privacy and encryption, most of the companies do not use encryption or have a clear pro-privacy approach. Some sites provide storage facilities exclusively for online document storage. Documents are the most important and invaluable of all data. Even if you lose music and movies, you can borrow them from a friend or even buy them again. But once documents are lost, the data in them is lost forever and, in most cases, cannot be retrieved again. That is why documents are being given more importance. Another major reason for the rising popularity of online data storage is the anonymity it provides. No one will know who is posting and what. As if anonymous storage wasn’t enough, some sites offer encrypted storage using real time encryption. That means that data is encrypted even as it is being uploaded in order to greatly increase security. That is, your data that you upload onto the site is stored as an encrypted file so that even if someone gets their hands on the data, they won’t be able to use it. And for businesses making use of virtual private networks for coordinating efforts of offices worldwide, the online storage proves to be very useful as data need not be transferred as anyone who needs it can just download it.

Now, we have one more reason for subscribing to online data storage facilities: to prevent prying eyes from perceiving private data. With the resurgence of terror groups and their deadly activities, governments around the globe are enacting laws and drawing out legislatures to enhance security and prevent atrocious acts from happening on their soil. The United States of America is leading the pack of developed countries, which have passed resolutions giving law enforcement officials the authority to go through the data being carried in portable electronic devices, when they are being carried across the country’s borders. Granted, we need security checks to check the spread of terrorism and granted, we need all the preventive methods at our disposal in order to prevent deadly attacks. But all this at what cost? Does upholding the privacy of travelers come secondary to border security enhancement? Why subject your data to ‘eyes in uniform’, when you can store all your data online and then access them whenever necessary?

In August of 2009, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of America issued new directives for checking of electronic gadgets at the border checks. DHS secretary Janet Napolitano announced the new rules that clarify the oversight for searches of laptops and other portable electronic devices at all US ports of entry. Essentially, this means that TSA officials and the like can now check any travelers’ electronic files at random. The most irresponsible aspect of this is that the searches can be carried out without any suspicion and for no apparent reason. They can go through all the data in the system, including your email address book, your received and sent emails, and your documents. Usually they pull up the laptops for a superficial check up and to ensure that it really is a notebook and not some other electronic device made to look like a lap. But if they feel so, they can subject the laptop to real close scrutiny and all your files and folders can be inspected.

As with most other DHS initiatives, the new endeavor is also one that is being pushed forward in the guise of enhancing the security of our borders. Ms. Napolitano calls this a "critical step designed to bolster the Department’s efforts to combat transnational crime and terrorism while protecting privacy and civil liberties." While we're all about fighting crime, we're beginning to wonder just how much more difficult travel will be with these folks really bent on leaving no stone unturned in their quest for the most secure borders. Secretary Napolitano had this to say on the matter: "Keeping Americans safe in an increasingly digital world depends on our ability to lawfully screen materials entering the United States. The new directives announced today strike the balance between respecting the civil liberties and privacy of all travelers while ensuring DHS can take the lawful actions necessary to secure our borders."

Following the US example, other western countries like Canada, England and other European countries are adopting such laws. Well and good that they are looking out for their well being. But the privacy concern that most citizens have is that, ever since time immemorial, government laws have been bent or twisted to achieve political and private gains. So why should these new laws be any different? When cross country correspondence was being screened, personal information was regularly monitored for unlawful activities and it will be no different this time. The confidential data of clients that business men, lawyers and doctors carry around in their laptops can be copied in the name of national security and can be used for unhealthy purposes.

Besides, such border checks targeted at electronic devices are not really effective. Think about it, since the laws are so publicized about and almost everybody knows that their notebooks and PDAs will be checked at the entry port, who will be stupid enough to carry sensitive data that could potentially incarcerate him ? No, they are not aimed at checking cross border terrorism, but instead, it is just a cover to hide the ulterior motives with which such laws were drawn up. All this time, not one file had data that was considered a threat to national security. But yes, it will dissuade non law abiding characters from boldly transferring data into a country from offshore bases. With the government checking all internet traffic into the country, such information cannot be transferred through the net. So they might try novel methods that need out of the box thinking.

Fear is what drives government into passing laws and resolutions limiting civil liberties even during peace time. Fear is what they use as leverage to make us fall in line with their policies. Fear of terror attacks, fear of punishment and fear of humiliation is what compels us into going with our governments even when we think that what they are doing is wrong. The bravest of us have fought in vain, wars against fear, only to be ridiculed into submission. What we do not know, we fear. And this is what our fear has brought us. Fear of border check privacy invasion forces us to pursue evasive methods. In short fear seems to be driving us; it has become the rhythm to which the world moves. Let us break free of its cumbersome shackles and live free. And online storage is just one way of achieving electronic freedom.

A quote by Benjamin Franklin (January 17, 1706 - April 17, 1790):

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both."

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