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Privacy and the Cloud

Cloud computing provides an opportunity for businesses to lower costs and increase their computing infrastructure’s flexibility. When utilizing a cloud service provider for additional storage, computing power, or a full application you should look into the privacy implications as these are multidimensional.

Let’s start with some privacy basics

Two major concerns for privacy can be summarized as “who can access information” and “how the information can be used”. Below are some basic questions to consider when working with a cloud provider that address these items.

What is the cloud provider doing with your information?
Your organization remains responsible for the protection and use of any personal information you collect regardless of where it is held or who holds the data. If you store information in the cloud, is your vendor using it for their own purposes? Are they gathering statistics about your information and using that data for marketing purposes? Is your cloud application vendor doing any passive data collection from your customers? The essential question becomes “does the cloud vendor comply with your privacy policies and notice for the collection, protection, and use of personal information?”

How are other organizations precluded from seeing your information?
Stating the obvious, cloud computing vendors provide shared environments. In addition to shared computing resources and storage this may also imply shared backups, shared operational procedures, and shared support personnel. How has the cloud provider crafted their operational procedures and policies so that your information is not only protected during the normal run of business but during non-standard events? Is there a possibility that your data may be restored to another client’s data space? Could a service person send an email with your information to another client? Any unauthorized access to your information may be considered a data breach even if it was simply human error.

What privacy training have the cloud provider’s employees received?
The performance of any privacy program must rely on an organization’s members to understand how to properly protect information. This raises the question of how the cloud provider’s staff has been trained. Does their training meet your standards? Is there an awareness program in place that supports the training? If there is gap between the vendor’s training and your organization’s requirements, how will that be bridged?

Some privacy legal considerations

There are also legal implications that must be considered when using a cloud provider.

Where is the data is located?
Many jurisdictions have data export laws which require compliance.  For example, if the data subject is in Europe and the data is in the cloud, is the information considered to be exported?

Where is the data is located (Part 2)?
Knowing where a data breach occurs is part of the process of determining what the legal requirements are for a response to that breach. Will your cloud provider be able to tell you where the data breach geographically occurred?

Was your data breached?
If there is a breach of the cloud provider’s systems, how will the provider know what data was accessed? How will you be notified of a breach and in what time frame?  These first two questions are another part of understanding and complying with legal requirements in response to a data breach. If the cloud vendor cannot positively identify the information that was lost in a breach, will you need to notify your customers even though your data may not have been accessed?

Be sure to vet your cloud vendors before engaging their services

I have seen many organizations begin to take advantage of cloud services before the vendor has been fully vetted. This frequently happens when a department other than Information Technology sees an opportunity to get something done quickly and cheaply without having to get IT involved. These departments may not recognize that the risks and potential costs of their selected approach may outweigh the short term benefit they receive.

The items above are a foundation for reviewing a cloud provider. Before moving to a cloud model, a privacy professional should be consulted to confirm that your business may not be inadvertently assuming a high level of risk and potentially be negatively impacted.