L.A. needs assurances before moving to Google’s ‘cloud’

Fri, Jul 17, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Frustrated by an out-of-date email system that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s spokesman Matt Szabo calls "Pac-Man-era technology" the City of Los Angeles is considering entrusting its e-mail, as well as many other official documents, to Internet giant Google.

    According to LA Times reporters David Zahniser and Phil Willon, Szabo says the system now used "has got to be the slowest, most inefficient, crash-prone e-mail system in the history of mankind."

    Council’s Information Technology and General Services Committee will consider the $7.25 million contract at its meeting Tuesday. Does the plan make sense? An 18-page report from the City Administrative Officer recommends going ahead with the deal, which would switch 30,000 city e-mail accounts to Google by year’s end.

    But it also warns:

    "As with any significant change in City practice, there is potential risk, uncertainty, as well as advantages and disadvantages with this proposal. If the City decides to utilize these services by Google, it may be cost prohibitive to return to the current City-owned and operated structure. Several findings in this report, including the fact that the proposed system costs more than the current system, the potential operational impact from stopping to use Microsoft Office, the shift in control over the City’s e-mail and office applications to an outside vendor, and uncertainty surrounding security issues, illustrate the potential risks of approving this contract."

    Not exactly a ringing endorsement.  I’d suggest thoughtful, probing questions.

    Let’s understand what’s being proposed.  If you are familiar with Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, and Google Docs, you understand the basics.  All your material is actually stored on Google’s servers.  It is not on your computer. You access your material over the internet.  An advantage is that you can get to it from any computer with Internet access.  And, quite possibly, so can hackers.

    Most people don’t realize it, but Google is essentially an advertising company.  It provides users all kinds of neat services, like search and Gmail for free, but charges advertisers a bundle to show ads to users of most of those services.

    Now the Internet giant is moving beyond that model and offering similar services to businesses, minus the advertisements. It’s called Software as a Service.  For this particular service to LA for the first three years, Google will get $47.99-a-year for each of 30,000 users — $1.43 million a year — not exactly chump change. The necessary software is on Google’s servers on the Internet. This is frequently referred to as the "cloud."

    There is little doubt that cloud computing is the direction of the future, but should Los Angeles jump onto Google’s cloud now? Apparently the only large city that has do so is Washington, DC.  Some corporations like Motorola and Genentech have embraced cloud computing, too.

    But here’s the rub: Google has, shall I say, a cloudy reputation for protecting privacy and security. It wants everybody else to be transparent, but is a black box when it comes to its own operations. Just this week, it was revealed that a hacker was able to get confidential corporate documents from Twitter that were on Google’s cloud.

    Google started out with the mission "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."  That mindset is not likely to put security as a top priority.  If a user gets a service for free in return for the understanding that he’ll see advertisements, he might not expect the highest security as part of the deal.

    Now Google is peddling its cloud computing services to governments and businesses around the world. That changes things. It’s incumbent on the Internet giant to demonstrate that data on its cloud is secure.

    Some defenders of cloud computing security like to point out that most breaches occur because people don’t handle passwords appropriately, that it’s due to human error.  Guess what? People act like people. Technology is supposed to help us; we’re not supposed be slaves to technology. Security systems need to be designed to protect us from ourselves. Seriously.

    Any company — especially Google — that offers Software as a Service — has to demonstrate a true commitment to security.

    Before jumping into the Google deal, city council needs to insist on appropriate guarantees — for instance substantial financial penalties in the event of any security breach.

    And maybe before committing the city’s entire 30,000 users to Google, there should be a trial and thorough assessment in only one or two departments. Mayor Villaraigosa is said to support the Google plan. Why not start in his office? Rushing headlong onto Google’s cloud will only ensure stormy weather in Los Angeles.

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