Social media philosophy blog
Friday October 19th 2018

Cloud computing and passwords

A common synonym for password is “access key”. And as a key to our property, the password is increasing in importance. This has a lot to do with the current transformation of the Internet from a highway to a hotel. When the civil Internet broke free from the military ARPANET, in the late 1980s, it came into the hands of the US National Science Foundation. At the time, it was developed with democratic ideals: no privileged access depending on your status or citizenship. The Internet became an anonymous network with no login or identity checks. In the recent decade, the Internet has been colonised by appliances. Today, Internet is increasingly being used as a Hotel rather than a highway as we stop to sleep over at Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

When the PC broke through in the 1980s, it made the old terminal system, connected to one large supercomputer, obsolete. When users shared the same supercomputer, they had to log into the terminal to access the account. But the PC was property. Start it up and you are in. For a period, then, humans were actually spared much of the trouble with passwords. There were neither one on the PC nor on the Internet. Eventually, the passwords came back to the PC. Actually, the personal computer started to look more like a terminal as different users could share the same computer with separate logins and accounts. Also, work PCs became connected to supercomputers. In principle, you were working with a PC, but in practice it was back to the terminal.

Then came Cloud computing. There are two distinct ideas behind Cloud computing. First, convenience, that users can access the same resources regardless of location. Second, increased and more stable revenues for corporations. It is this second idea that is the real driver. There is, quite simply, a lot of money in having users utilise web-based services instead of our PC bound programs. And this is, arguably, one of the most influential business ideas of the new millennium.

The corporate world that produces software and cultural products has had a long standing problem getting users to pay and pay in full. A major complication has been shareware and open source activities as well as filesharing of music, programs and movies. All the talk about information sharing and gifting economies that followed the breakthrough of Napster in 1999 were nightmarish for many corporations. As long as users owned the program and used it on their own computers, it has always been possible to remove protection software and fake activity codes. As a result, activity codes have become longer and more complex and regular paying customers more irritated. Application services on the cloud stops this kind of cheating dead in its tracks.

Cloud computing is being sold as a convenience for the user: access your documents from everywhere. However, the real winners are the providers of software that can bypass the PC and sell software as a service on the web. Furthermore, the move makes it easy to transform buying a program into renting a service. Instead of selling the new program version to the customer, corporations now aim for rental services. Users are being pushed into the cloud as the traditional PC-based programs are emigrating to the cloud. Even Microsoft, the caretakers of our computers, is pushing hard in this direction, for instance in making Microsoft Office 2010 Cloud compatible.

As we increasingly have everything up there in the cloud, we might need to rethink our old ideas about passwords. This simple word, access key, increasingly seem to be of more value than the keys to our cars or homes. Furthermore, we can more easily guard our homes and lock up our car in the garage. But, our Internet possessions are everywhere, it is silly to even visualise them as being located in distinct places. What’s more, once someone has hold of our password, they can access our possessions, conveniently, from anyplace. This is scary and, unfortunately, we are not really good at handling passwords, given the way the web looks like today.

We need a large number of passwords to access everything we have in the cloud.

They all need to be different.

They all need to be complex.

And therefore difficult to remember.

But we must remember them, even those that we use seldom.

And as we become more mobile, we leave them on computers everywhere, at the Hotel, at the computer of a colleague etc

We must be absolutely certain to remember our most important passwords.

We must not mix them up.

We shouldn’t write them down, since notes can be stolen.

And we should change all of them on a regular basis.

We should use secure password-management tools, such as LastPass or Roboform, but it seems scary to put all that power into an appliance.

Isn’t there a better idea out there?

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