“Cloud” Technology Offers Flexibility, Reduced Costs, Ease of Access to Information, But Presents Security, Privacy and Regulatory Concerns
With the recent introduction of Google Drive, cloud computing services are garnering increased attention from entities looking to more efficiently store data. Specifically, using the “cloud” is attractive due to its reduced cost, ease of use, mobility and flexibility, each of which can offer tremendous competitive benefits to businesses. Cloud computing refers to the practice of storing data on remote servers, as opposed to on local computers, and is used for everything from personal webmail to hosted solutions where all of a company’s files and other resources are stored remotely. As convenient as cloud computing is, it is important to remember that these benefits may come with significant legal risk, given the privacy and data protection issues inherent in the use of cloud computing. Accordingly, it is important to check your cloud computing contracts carefully to ensure that your legal exposure is minimized in the event of a data breach or other security incident.
Cloud computing allows companies convenient, remote access to their networks, servers and other technology resources, regardless of location, thereby creating “virtual offices” which allow employees remote access to their files and data which is identical in scope the access which they have in the office. The cloud offers companies flexibility and scalability, enabling them to pool and allocate information technology resources as needed, by using the minimum amount of physical IT resources necessary to service demand. These hosted solutions enable users to easily add or remove additional storage or processing capacity as needed to accommodate fluctuating business needs. By utilizing only the resources necessary at any given point, cloud computing can provide significant cost savings, which makes the model especially attractive to small and medium-sized businesses. However, the rush to use cloud computing services due to its various efficiencies often comes at the expense of data privacy and security concerns.
The laws that govern cloud computing are (perhaps somewhat counterintuitively) geographically based on the physical location of the cloud provider’s servers, rather than the location of the company whose information is being stored. American state and federal laws concerning data privacy and security tend to vary while servers in Europe are subject to more comprehensive (and often more stringent) privacy laws. However, this may change, as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been investigating the privacy and security implications of cloud computing as well.
In addition to location-based considerations, companies expose themselves to potentially significant liability depending on the types of information stored in the cloud. Federal, state and international laws all govern the storage, use and protection of certain types of personally identifiable information and protected health information. For example, the Massachusetts Data Security Regulations require all entities that own or license personal information of Massachusetts residents to ensure appropriate physical, administrative and technical safeguards for their personal information (regardless of where the companies are physically located), with fines of up to $5,000 per incident of non-compliance. That means that the companies are directly responsible for the actions of their cloud computing service provider. OlenderFeldman LLP notes that some information is inappropriate for storage in the cloud without proper precautions. “We strongly recommend against storing any type of personally identifiable information, such as birth dates or social security numbers in the cloud. Similarly, sensitive information such as financial records, medical records and confidential legal files should not be stored in the cloud where possible,” he says, “unless it is encrypted or otherwise protected.” In fact, even a data breach related to non-sensitive information can have serious adverse effects on a company’s bottom line and, perhaps more distressing, its public perception.
Additionally, the information your company stores in the cloud will also be affected by the rules set forth in the privacy policies and terms of service of your cloud provider. Although these terms may seem like legal boilerplate, they may very well form a binding contract which you are presumed to have read and consented to. Accordingly, it is extremely important to have a grasp of what is permitted and required by your cloud provider’s privacy policies and terms of service. For example, the privacy policies and terms of service will dictate whether your cloud service provider is a data processing agent, which will only process data on your behalf or a data controller, which has the right to use the data for its own purposes as well. Notwithstanding the terms of your agreement, if the service is being provided for free, you can safely presume that the cloud provider is a data controller who will analyze and process the data for its own benefit, such as to serve you ads.
Regardless, when sharing data with cloud service providers (or any other third party service providers)), it is important to obligate third parties to process data in accordance with applicable law, as well as your company’s specific instructions — especially when the information is personally identifiable or sensitive in nature. This is particularly important because in addition to the loss of goodwill, most data privacy and security laws hold companies, rather than service providers, responsible for compliance with those laws. That means that your company needs to ensure the data’s security, regardless of whether it’s in a third party’s (the cloud providers) control. It is important for a company to agree with the cloud provider as to the appropriate level of security for the data being hosted. Christian Jensen, a litigation attorney at OlenderFeldman LLP, recommends contractually binding third parties to comply with applicable data protection laws, especially where the law places the ultimate liability on you. “Determine what security measures your vendor employs to protect data,” suggests Jensen. “Ensure that access to data is properly restricted to the appropriate users.” Jensen notes that since data protection laws generally do not specify the levels of commercial liability, it is important to ensure that your contract with your service providers allocates risk via indemnification clauses, limitation of liabilities and warranties. Businesses should reserve the right to audit the cloud service provider’s data security and information privacy compliance measures as well in order to verify that the third party providers are adhering to its stated privacy policies and terms of service. Such audits can be carried out by an independent third party auditor, where necessary.