A Microsoft official argued Jan. 20 that the U.S. Congress should create rules and regulations for cloud computing, a burgeoning technology that has gained traction among schools and colleges.
As a growing number of businesses, governments, and universities store sensitive data on off-site servers managed by third parties, lawmakers should draft legislation that would protect the integrity of this information, said Brad Smith, general counsel for Microsoft Corp. and keynote speaker in a meeting of technology experts at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
More than three-quarters of Americans are unfamiliar with cloud computing, according to a Microsoft survey completed this month, but Smith said using the internet to store reams of data cheaply soon will spread through every sector of society.
“For information technology, the cloud represents a major extension of computing models,” he said. “In this sense, it really has become the next frontier.”
Smith called for a “Cloud Computing Advancement Act” that would “modernize the laws, adapt them to the cloud, and adopt new measures to protect privacy and promote security.”
Legislating the cloud and updating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act—passed by Congress in 1984—would help protect data stored on off-site servers by deterring attacks from hackers trolling for personal information, Smith said.
Technology decision makers on schools and campuses of every size have looked to the cloud to save money and increase their data storage capacity. IT officials agree that keeping information on off-campus servers poses a security risk, but doing away with rows of server racks that can cost thousands of dollars for the largest institutions to manage is a worthwhile tradeoff, many say.
Michael Dieckmann, senior associate vice president and CIO for the University of West Florida, told a group of campus technology officials in November that higher education eventually would be drawn to the cloud’s convenience and cost savings.
“There’s not just hope in the cloud paradigm; I think we need to come to grips with the fact that to some extent, this is inevitable,” he said. “This is a way the industry is yet again evolving, through an evolution like the many we have put up with before now.”
Dieckmann said college IT officials should not see the recent drift toward cloud computing as a “poison pill” that IT offices must accept, but rather as a chance to do the most with paltry budgets using reliable off-campus computer infrastructure.
Higher education’s enthusiasm for cloud computing has been tempered by security concerns.
William M. Stewart, a spokesman for Excelsior College, an online school, said schools should consider the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other federal rules and regulations before their IT departments move student and faculty data to remote servers.
“I can tell you that Excelsior does not now and is unlikely to hand off its data to a third party,” Stewart said.
While Microsoft’s survey showed that Americans are largely unaware of cloud computing, Smith cited a recent PBS study showing that everyday computer users store their data on third-party servers.
About eight out of 10 Americans surveyed use web-based mail service, 33 percent store their pictures on the internet, and 57 percent share information through a social media web site like Facebook, according to PBS’s data.
Darrel West, who moderated the gathering at the Brookings Institution, said technology experts have estimated computing one day will cost about one-tenth of what it does today, trimming IT budgets for Fortune 500 companies and schools alike.
Without international cloud-computing rules drafted by governments worldwide, West said, the cloud could become a “tower of Babel … where there are different rules in different countries and difficulty navigating across those sets of jurisdictions.”
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