'Cloud Computing' Relies On Consumer Trust

Renee Montagne talks about cloud computing with Wilson Rothman, a writer for the popular tech blog Gizmodo.com. Cloud computing is a general term for things that involve delivering hosted services over the Internet.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Yesterday, Microsoft began selling a new version of its office software, and notably, it allows users to store documents on the Web rather than on their personal computers. This new feature is seen as an attempt to fend off Google, which has been encroaching on Microsoft territory with software that's free and based on the Web. With the move, Microsoft is going further into or onto -whichever you choose - the cloud. That's cloud computing, a trend that is rapidly transforming the way we work in the office and at home.

To find out more, we turn to Wilson Rothman. He's the features editor for the technology blog Gizmodo.com.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. WILSON ROTHMAN (Journalist, Gizmodo.com): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Can we begin with a definition of cloud computing?

Mr. ROTHMAN: Well, it's a slippery one, but the safest way to define it would be to say that cloud computing is the computing that happens on the Internet rather than on your computer. A good example would be, back in the day when we wanted to get on AOL, we had to load a bunch of software on to our computers. Now when we want to get on Facebook, we just open a Web browser and Facebook is there. That's the computer versus the cloud, right there.

MONTAGNE: Is there a place that the cloud, in a way, is located?

Mr. ROTHMAN: Well, the cloud, physically, is a bunch of servers in a bunch of warehouses all over the world. That's the cloud. Now obviously, what it really means is its computers doing the software handling that we used to do on our own personal computers.

MONTAGNE: When one's personal data, if it's not inside your own computer, it seems that you're somewhat at the mercy of whatever cloud computing service you're using to safeguard your privacy and even the security of that information.

Mr. ROTHMAN: Absolutely. But the flip side is they're better than keeping your data than you are. People at home lose data all the time. I was shocked - the other day I heard a statistic that five percent of Americans use an extra hard drive to backup their computer, and hard drives die all the time. I had one die last Friday.

MONTAGNE: You know, even the best companies can't stop hackers. And the most high-profile hacking that we've heard about lately was probably with Google. It had some of its software code stolen.

Mr. ROTHMAN: Right.

MONTAGNE: And later said what was stolen was a code to the company's global password system. Now, that didn't mean that anyone was hurt, but doesn't it suggest what could happen?

Mr. ROTHMAN: You know, I think the best analogy for that is that there's a difference between stealing the blueprints to the castle and the keys to the castle. You can look at a blueprint until your head spins, you still might not be able to figure out a way in. And as far as I know, user passwords were not stolen. That would be the bad thing.

MONTAGNE: Although, do hackers not, you know, use everything they can and aren't they sometimes quite good at finding weak points in a system?

Mr. ROTHMAN: Yeah. This is why there's obviously a large part of the software community dedicated to security. This is a big deal. But I would say that a company like Google, or even a company like Facebook - they're not going to mess around when they build their entire business on consumer trust.

MONTAGNE: Well, since, increasingly, cloud computing is transforming the way we put data on computers - whether at work or at home - do you have tips on, you know, sort of what to do and what to avoid?

Mr. ROTHMAN: Absolutely. The key to this whole thing is the password. I dug up some numbers that are kind of startling. A hacker can use software to decode a four character password in one and a half minutes. But if the password is eight characters, it would take two centuries.

MONTAGNE: Ah.

Mr. ROTHMAN: Those extra four characters geometrically expand the difficulty of decrypting the password to a degree that the hacker wouldn't even bother.

MONTAGNE: Wilson Rothman writes for the technology blog Gizmodo.com.

Thank you for talking to us.

Mr. ROTHMAN: Thank you.

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