Cloudy Data

Privacy concerns and social networking
January 31, 2010

A world map

Millions of Internet users have been enjoying the fun—and free—services provided by advertiser-supported online social networks like Facebook. But Landon Cox '99, assistant professor of computer science, worries about their privacy.

When people post pictures or political opinions to share with their friends, they're actually turning them over to the owners of the network as well, he says.

Though users may not have caught this when they clicked to accept a site's terms of service, they've largely signed away the rights to their own data by joining an online social network. "These rights commonly include a license to display and distribute all content posted by users in any way the provider sees fit," Cox says.

Cox is collaborating with graduate students at Duke and with AT&T Labs to delve deeper into these issues and begin the search for alternatives. His notion is to create what network architects call a peer-to-peer system in which information is spread among users, making it harder to steal or otherwise exploit.

The challenge, he says, is re-creating the same levels of access and performance while breaking the data into millions of different pieces. He has proposed a plan whereby users would load their personal information into what is called a virtual individual server. These servers could be stored on the users' desktops, on off-site, remote cloud servers, or on some combination of both.

Cox says the research into the data storage plans will point in a couple of directions: "Can we get a desktop machine to intelligently switch over to a cloud? Can we reduce the cost by only using a cloud when the desktop is not available?

"The problem there is that now you're trusting somebody else to serve and store your data. We have some interesting challenges ahead."