Who Really Owns Your Data When You Use the Cloud?

If you park your car in a public garage, you still own your car. If you leave your suitcase in a locker or at the hotel, you still own your suitcase. But your data? Data can be copied or peeked at without you ever knowing. The value of information can be replicated, eliminated or just plain stolen, without the original ever leaving the building. After all, just backing up files online to a cloud storage service means you’ve created a carbon copy. And some online storage providers proudly proclaim your data is then copied to multiple physical locations for resilience. Now who owns what?
Cloud Private Data
A Legal Stance – Intellectual Property Rights
Intellectual property or IP for short (not to be confused with IP addresses on the Internet) is how the law views ‘creations of the mind’ and information. When you create information, you typically acquire the intellectual property rights (IPR) to that information. When you hold the IPR, you can decide whether that information is to be shared or re-used by others. You can also transfer (sell, give or grant, for instance) the IPR to someone else. An exception to this is straight copying of information (without any creative act involved). Another one may occur if you are creating the information for someone else, for example your employer.
Ownership versus Privacy in the Cloud
Legally owning your data when you upload it into the cloud is one thing. However, as past events have shown, this does not necessarily protect you from snooping. In a practical sense, if a government agency is able to view your data in the cloud, then are you really the sole ‘owner’ of that data? Granted, direct and unauthorized replication and re-use of your information would be an infringement of your IPR. But there are other ways that your information might be exploited to somebody else’s advantage – and your potential disadvantage.
Going Out of Business
Who – You or your cloud storage provider? In fact, questions about data ownership arise in both cases. The terms of service of some cloud providers say they reserve the right to delete a customer’s data in the event of a subscription remaining unpaid. If no other copy exists, the provider is then potentially destroying a customer’s asset, which suggests the provider is asserting ownership. Conversely, the cloud storage provider itself may announce it is closing down. In the recent case of Nirvanix, ‘customers need to actively participate in getting their data off the infrastructure; the implication is that once again the data will be destroyed.
Half a Free Lunch
Suppose you decided to use one of the cloud services that offers free storage up to a certain limit – and for a certain length of time. Device manufacturers are bundling such offers in with their machines, but just how much you own your data at the end may vary. Some cloud providers involved promise not to delete your files, but offer no guarantees about prolonging previous functionality like syncing of files between the device and the cloud. Others may simply stop a service after an unspecified period following a warning. As they say, you get what you pay for, and this may well be true here too.