Cloud computing takes hold despite privacy fears

Users of online e-mail, storage systems fear the sale of personal data without permission

As consumers flock to the cloud computing world to store photos online, back up hard drives or use Web-based e-mail, many harbor worries about the security of that personal data, according to a study released late last week from the Pew Internet & American Life project.

The study found that 69 percent of online users use Web e-mail services, store data online or use Web-based applications like Google Documents.

Breaking cloud computer use down further, the survey found that:

  • 56 percent of online users use Web e-mail services like Hotmail or Gmail;

  • 34 percent store photos online;

  • 29 percent use online applications like Google Doc or Adobe Photoshop Express;

  • 7 percent store personal videos online;

  • 5 percent store computer files online; and;

  • 5 percent back up hard drives online.

More than half (51 percent) of the active cloud computing users say they turned to the technology because it is easy and convenient, while 41 percent said they like having the ability to access their data from multiple computers.

Despite those advantages, the survey found that:

  • 90 percent of cloud application users fear the sale of their personal data;

  • 80 percent are concerned that their photos or other data may be used in marketing campaigns; and

  • 68 percent do not want companies to display specific ads based on an analysis of their online actions.

"Even as large numbers of users turn to 'cloud computing' applications, many may lack a full understanding of possible consequences of storing personal data online," said John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and author of the report, in a statement. "These findings give consumers, the technology community, and policymakers a chance to discuss the trade offs between convenience and privacy and figure out where there are needs for education to improve public understanding."

Pew surveyed 2,251 adults in April and May of 2008; of those, 1,553 were Internet users.

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