It turns out the cloud is kind of evil. We blithely put all our data online, right in the hands of giant corporations (and by extension, hackers and governments) who only too happily control, sell, datamine, steal, and spy on it. But you can take control of your data. Now. Here’s how.
When most people hear “the cloud,” if they have any inkling of what it means, they think of Dropbox, Google Drive, and other file storage and synchronization services of that sort. But if you’re hip to the scene, “the cloud” extends to any service that manages your personal data online. The emphasis is on personal data. The cloud, rather than a device of yours, stores data like your calendar (as hosted by, say, Google Calendar) and contacts (as hosted by, say, Apple’s iCloud) as well.
If you’re a typical plugged-in Internet user, “the cloud” in general manages a stunning amount of your data:
- Document storage and sync: this includes all the files you might have put in Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Documents, iCloud, Box, Amazon Drive, or Microsoft’s OneDrive.
- Email: Gmail is the 800-pound gorilla, of course.
- Calendar: Google Calendar and iCloud storage dominate here.
- Contacts and address books: Google, Microsoft, and iCloud.
- Online photos: Instagram, Facebook, Google Photos, Flickr, iCloud, and Dropbox all have cloud solutions for sharing your pictures with friends and family.
- Home video: Facebook and YouTube are probably the main ways we have of storing and sharing our videos with family and friends. There are other options, of course.
- Movies/TV shows: If you paid for commercially-produced videos that you own the digital rights to, they’re in the cloud. This is the direction Apple, Amazon, and YouTube, for example, want you to move in.
- Notes: Your phone’s note-taking app, etc.: iCloud, Evernote, OneNote. The home of your note data is in the cloud, not on your machine.
- Password apps: Your browser’s password saving + sync feature uses the cloud, as do Dashlane, LastPass, 1Password, Enpass, etc.
- Bookmarks: Your browser (Chrome, Firefox, others) probably syncs your bookmarks for you; the bookmark data is in the cloud.
- Chat: Yes, chat isn’t just a social media type of app. It’s also a cloud app for use by private consumers dealing in small groups or one-on-one. If you’re like me, you have private chats not just with random strangers, but also with family and friends. Insofar as this data can be presumed to be highly private, it’s also “in the cloud” and not just “online.”
- Your blog: If you used to host your own blog, but now write for Medium, Quora, Blogger, Tumblr, WordPress.com, or some other blogging platform, then your blog is now “in the cloud,” hosted alongside a zillion other blogs. That goes for web hosting in general, too.
- Code hosting platforms: If you check your code in on Github or Gitlab, or run it on Digital Ocean or Heroku, your code is in the cloud.
Look at that list, and consider: an amazing amount of our computing is out of our immediate control.
There are two perfectly good reasons for this. First, we own multiple devices and we need to share and sync data among them. We also want to be able to share data with friends and family more easily. But, because this involves networking, it is a much more technically difficult problem for programmers to solve than simply writing desktop software. Since networking and sharing are already done via the Internet, it just makes sense for sharing and syncing services to be coordinated by Internet companies.
Second, simply letting centralized corporate services handle this data coordination is terribly convenient—that’s hard to deny.
The necessity of sharing our data, coupled the undeniable convenience of the cloud, sure make it look like the cloud is going nowhere. I mean, what are you going to do, host your own calendar, home videos, and chat apps? How will you sync the data? That’s a non-starter for non-technical people. Why not just let the professionals handle it?
But it so happens that, now, you can host your own stuff. How? I’ll explain. But first, let’s talk a bit about why you might want to host your own stuff.
We are increasingly suspicious of various cloud services, and we should be. It’s not just Facebook selling your private chats with Netflix and Spotify, or Medium dictating what you can write in your blog, or Google datamining student data in the cloud—to take a few rather random examples. The events of the last couple years have brought home to many of us some truths we simply didn’t want to believe.
What kind of truths?
The vast majority of the cloud services listed above are run by for-profit businesses who naturally place their profits above your interests.
Your data, for them, is an asset. Many cloud companies crucially depend on the ability to exploit data assets. They will sell your data if they can. If they can’t, they’ll datamine it and sell information about you.
You agreed to that.
You are, like it or not, a participant in many large, standarized systems. Therefore, even though you simply want to use a basic service, if you don’t play by their rules, they can control or even block you. Moreover, you probably can’t customize the service too much for your own uses. The service providers make the choices for you. You have to go with the flow.
Search and subpoena laws, censorship laws, and government regulations apply to corporations that do not apply to you, the individual. That means information you put in corporate clouds is under the watchful gaze not just of those corporations but also of governments. If you’re lucky, you live in a country that respects privacy and free speech even when your data is on a corporate server. But don’t count on it.
The reason so many violations of your privacy (something most of us should be a lot more hardcore about) have come to light is that so much of our data is in the cloud now, and a lot of people in business just don’t care very much about your privacy. When will Google start using zero-knowledge encryption for all your data that they store? Never. They want access to your data. They need access to your data. It’s their business.
Sorry, but them’s the facts.
What can we possibly do? Are we at their mercy? Should we, perhaps, trust governments—who also want access to all your data, for your safety—to monitor, regulate, and improve the situation?
But you can take back your data. Now. And if this is news to you, let me admit to you that it was news to me a few months ago when I first heard about it: you can install and manage your very own personal cloud for every single one of the cloud services listed above. And it’s not expensive. And it’s not that hard to do.
I know it sounds bizarre. It is bizarre, but it’s true.
A NAS, or network-attached storage device, was once thought of mainly as a hard drive (or several) attached to your network. But as NAS vendors began selling devices with their own operating systems and Internet connections, the term was repurposed to mean your very own turn-key server. Turn it on, put your stuff on it, and you can access your personal data from anywhere.
NASes are easy to use, but “turn-key” is not quite right. No NAS on the market, that I know of, is as easy to start using as a regular computer is. Getting one up and running takes some time; there is, as they say, a learning curve. But “turn-key” does get the flavor of the most popular NAS brands. The NAS devices for sale by Synology and QNAP especially, and others to a lesser extent, are intended to make it easy to have your own server, or your own “cloud.” In fact, Western Digital (WD) sells NASes under the brand name “My Cloud” and markets them as “personal clouds.” There’s a bit of challenge, but it’s not that hard to set these things up (more details below).
The reason to get a NAS, for me—or to get any personal server—is to replace all the software that has moved to the cloud. In case you’re skeptical, let me give you a rundown. While I’ll be talking about the NAS I just installed for myself and my family, which happens to be from Synology, there’s an equally well-reviewed NAS system available from QNAP, and for those who have more technical skill, NextCloud (perhaps on a FreeNAS machine you set up) does many of the same things.
Let’s just go down the list I gave above.
- Document storage and sync. I now have an app that can sync documents on at least eight of my family’s devices. I can update the document on my desktop, and if I save it in the Synology’s office format, I can edit it directly in the browser, with changes showing up for other users in real time, just like Google Docs. There are documents, spreadsheets, and slides. Chat with other user accounts on your NAS (for me, my family members) is available in every document. This is available everywhere, because it’s truly in the cloud. It’s just that it’s your cloud.
- Email: You can host your own email on a NAS, if you want to go to heroic lengths that I don’t recommend. Like web hosting, this is something you probably should leave to the professionals, for now. I have a feeling this is going to change in coming years, though.
- Calendar: There’s a rather nice app for that.
- Contacts and address books: It’s not “turnkey” yet. But something is available.
- Online photos: Synology’s Moments app automatically syncs your pictures with your camera, identifies people (without sharing data with Synology), uses (stand-alone) sophisticated algorithms to put pictures into categories, etc. Again, the pictures are available for quick and easy download from anywhere, and you don’t have to worry about Dropbox or Google or whatever snooping.
- Home video: Ditto—Moments works fine for this, but so does Video Station. Easily share your home movies with grandma, right from your own machine.
- Movies/TV shows: Rip all your DVDs and Blu-Rays, then stream them anywhere (to your phone, tablet, computer, or TV) with an interface that looks a lot like Netflix. No need to rely on Apple or Amazon to keep digital copies of your movies for you. Wouldn’t you much rather own and serve your own copies? I know I would.
- Notes: There’s an app for that, both for browsers and for your phone.
- Password apps: Use your NAS’s WebDAV server to sync your password data on your own machine; WebDAV is something that Enpass, for example, supports.
- Bookmarks: Synology and QNAP offer no solution yet, but Nextcloud (which can be run on both) does.
- Chat: There’s a pretty awesome app for that; it closely resembles Slack. There are decent clients for browser, desktop, and mobile, again just like Slack.
- Your blog: NASes allow you to host blogs and simple websites using your choice of platforms, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. I’m not saying I recommend this, though; your machine would have to be pretty beefy to handle the traffic you want to get. Server hosting for your blog is another thing that’s best left to the professionals. But it’s pretty damn cool that you could use a NAS for this.
- Code hosting platforms: Would you rather not check in your code publicly or on an external server at all? Want to keep it to yourself but continue to be able to share it with people and use Git? There’s an app for that. You can also host more advanced websites with many popular programming languages (including Ruby, which I use).
A NAS (which, again, comes in many brands, not just the one I happened to buy) can do all that for you. It’s pretty awesome.
But maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, a NAS is a fully-functional server, and web hosts now bundle all sorts of turn-key (that word again) software solutions and make it available to their clients. So if you go to GoDaddy or Inmotion Hosting or whatever, they offer all sorts of complex software available to install at the press of a button. Why not slap similar software bundles on a server and sell it to the ordinary consumer? That’s what NASes do. (And again, for reasonably skilled IT professionals with time on their hands, they can more easily than ever create their own real servers, which are typically much more powerful and cheaper than NASes. With a proprietary NAS system like Synology, you pay a lot for integrated software, ease of use, and support.) Then just think: insofar as cloud services are, essentially, just putting formerly private data online in the context of a server someone else manages, as soon as consumer web servers became feasible, it makes total sense that you could move your data back to a server you manage.
What do we have to thank for this? The years of fantastic labor by programmers to build and refine all the necessary software layers and scaffolding needed to create something like a “turnkey” solution to running your own server, complete with multiple, ready-made software packages—even if you are nowhere near a professional server administrator.
Put even more simply, a NAS device gives you the power to take control of your own data in your own home. It used to be that we had to rely on the Apples, Googles, and Microsofts of the world in order to connect all the devices we own together, share data with friends, and get the use of common Internet services. With the advent of increasingly easy-to-use NASes, we don’t have to. We can declare our independence from Big Tech.
But, you ask, doesn’t all this rather awesome software power cost a lot of money? Well, entry-level NAS devices (like this from Synology and this from QNAP) cost less than $200, plus another $80 (say) each for a couple of hard drives. I’m not saying I recommend buying a cheap machine like this, any more than I would recommend buying a cheap laptop. But that might serve your purposes just fine. The point is that these machines are basically computers, so they cost about as much as a computer. The Synology NAS and three drives I got (with space for two more drives whenever I want), together with my fancy new router and modem, cost a little more than my new laptop. (By the way, if you have the time and technical chops to able to set up and maintain a web server with less support, it’s easier than ever to do so, and for the same amount of money, you could get a machine that would be much faster and better than my NAS.)
“OK,” you say, “maybe it’s possible to set up. But how good could it be? I mean, you really think I’ll be able to replace my family’s Slack group with Synology’s chat app? It must be inadequate. Or replace Google Docs with their Office app? That seems unlikely.”
Before I saw the capabilities of the systems, that’s what I thought, too. Then when I got my own, and started using it (several days ago), the proverbial scales fell from my eyes, and I’m a believer. This is surprisingly solid software. It might have been “bleeding edge” a few years ago, but it’s excellent today. The functionality is all accessible via the browser, but there are also a few good desktop apps. It also comes with a lot of excellent iOS apps that you can use to access your NAS’s functionality. So far I’ve installed the photo app (replaces whatever you used to upload your pix to permanent storage and gives you access to all of your pictures, not just the ones currently on your phone), the chat app, the drive app (which is a replacement for both Google Docs and Dropbox), the video app (which allows me to stream videos my boys are ripping from our DVD collection), the notes app (replaces iOS Notes), and the calendar app. So far, I don’t see any advantages Slack has over the chat app (just for example). Their collaborative document editing app Synology (Office, installed when you install Drive) is excellent for basic editing, and it seems to be just as good as Google Docs.
“OK,” you say, “maybe it’s not that expensive, and maybe it’s decent quality software. But isn’t this a lot of work to install?”
Less than you might think. But it depends on what you mean by “a lot.” It takes a few hours, maybe, to turn the thing on, network it with your devices, and get the first services up and running. You’ll probably spend more time actually picking the thing out and upgrading your Internet speed as well as modem and router (which is something you’ll need to do if you have old equipment). It takes more hours (depending on how much of the functionality of the thing you use) to get the full range of functionality set up—anywhere from ten minutes to several hours, depending on the app. Getting started with Synology’s chat app is dead simple, for example, but importing all your pictures might take serious time. A lot of the time I’ve spent so far has been in migrating data from the Internet and my desktop and backup drives to the NAS.
So, sure, it takes a reasonable time investment. But it is so worth it.
“But,” you say, “I’m not a terribly technical person. I can run all the software of the sort you mention if somebody has set it up for me in the cloud, but I can’t imagine running my own server.”
It’s not that bad. Let’s just say you need to be a “power user” if you want to do it all yourself. If you have ever set up your own WordPress website, or installed Linux, or registered and pointed a domain name (without help), or done basic programming, then you’re up to the task of installing one of these devices without too much help. If you’re just a regular computer user, but you have never done anything like that, then installing a NAS might be a bit beyond you. You still might be able to handle it, though.
In any case, I’ll bet you know someone who could install one for you if you bought them dinner, or paid them a little. It’s not a huge deal. It’s not like “setting up your own web server.” It’s more like “setting up your own home network.” It’s easy enough for the local geeks to handle.
In short, installing and running your own server is today approximately as difficult as computer installation was in 1985, or home networking in 1995, or home theater today. (As it happens, NASes are often purchased as a component in a home theater system.)
The low price and high value of NAS devices, together with their ease of installation, makes me think they’re ready to take over the world. I for one am never going back to centralized cloud corporations. I hate them (yes, even Apple), and a growing number of people share my feelings: we absolutely despise the encroachments of those corporations on our privacy and liberty.
Many of us are looking for answers. Many are already doing the sorts of things I listed back in January in “How I’m locking down my cyber-life.” In their responses to me there, a few people mentioned they were using their own cloud servers. (Those mentions are what first introduced me to NASes, so please keep up the excellent blog comments!) That struck me at first as being a little too hardcore. Having actually bought and installed a NAS, though, I don’t think so. Getting your first NAS is like getting your first computer back in the 80s, or your first smartphone in the 00s. You might have had to wrap your mind around it. It causes a bit of trouble. It requires some getting used to. But probably, you’ll forevermore have a computer and a smart phone.
The consumer potential of NAS devices strikes me as being potentially similar. Maybe it will become the sort of device that will seem indispensable in 10 or 20 years. I imagine a conversation with a future child, looking back at the cloud era of 2005-2025:
Child: “How could we ever choose to just give all our data to giant corporations? It was so insecure and allowed mass surveillance by government. Were people crazy?”
Greybeard: “Sort of, but you can’t really blame us. During that time, the software for NASes wasn’t developed well enough yet for ordinary people to run their own servers. But once a few companies started really nailing it, everybody started buying their own NASes, because it was easy. The people who kept using Gcal, Dropbox, Google Docs, Instagram, etc.—well, if you were as old as I am, you’d know what these are—those people started looking uncool. All the cool kids were serving their data themselves.”
Child: “Like everybody does now?”
Greybeard: “Yes, like everybody does now.”
That could happen. But is it realistic? Time will tell. Sure, it’s possible that owning your own cloud server will forever be the domain of geeks. But an industry analysis from a year ago says we’re moving in that direction:
The NAS market is witnessing an accelerated growth and is projected to register robust [20%] growth over the forecast timeline [to 2024] due to the rapidly increasing applications of Big Data analytics & data mining, increasing popularity of NAS solutions in home/consumer applications, and the growing adoption of cloud-based network attached storage solutions.Global Market Insights, May 2018
In the struggle against privacy incursions, we have tools beyond NASes, of course. In fact, I see two other, concurrent trends that will allow us to fight back. There is the growing demand to own your own data and decentralize social media. (I was writing and speaking a lot about that in the last few months, but don’t think I’ve dropped the issue.) And there is, of course, the massive, revolutionary impact of blockchain, the essential effect of which is to disintermediate economic relationships. Being all about encryption, the blockchain world holds out the promise of a new kind of secure, private, encrypted cloud computing.
Allow me to speculate about how the Internet might work in ten or twenty years.
Many of us (I imagine someone saying, a few decades hence) have installed a NAS or, if we’re geekier, have a server rack at home. Pretty much all small businesses run their own NASes as well. From these devices, we serve most of the data that was formerly held by Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc. Many of us even run our own mail servers, both because it’s more secure and because the software and industry standards have improved so much that it became feasible. Our blogs are also hosted at home; the shift came with NAS tools that made it dead simple to transfer data and settings from remote servers to our local one.
Of course, some of us hit the big time with our blogs and websites. But they are still run from home. This is not something we could possibly have imagined in 2010. At that time, no one even imagined the implications of distributed computing on the blockchain, of which EOS was an early supporter. Whenever we update our NAS, it communicates with various blockchain services using zero-knowledge encryption. This shares out our data (and, when we choose, the keys to unlock it) among many other users who participate in the same system; thus our NASes are constantly working, supporting the whole tech ecosystem. We have no way of knowing which encrypted Internet services are being worked on in this decentralized cloud, which is much more of a “cloud” than the early Dropbox ever was. In any event, if a blog of ours gets a lot more traffic than our NAS can handle, then if we have turned on blockchain integration, the traffic is assembled and served using many other machines—and we, of course, have to pay more into the system or else our users will experience bad old-fashioned server lag.
In a similar way, our social media data is served, and locked down, using our own NASes. The days of Facebook selling our private, proprietary data are long over; social media companies still have dossiers on you, but they aren’t as thick, and they aren’t informed by any private information.
Perhaps what really got the ball rolling was Edward Snowden in 2013 and others revealing that the NSA (and other government agencies) were listening in on pretty much everything you do online. Once Facebook repeatedly made it clear that they don’t care one little bit about your privacy, and people started moving their social media data to their NASes, the usual suspects in government began to complain loudly that encryption prevented them from their mass surveillance. They didn’t put it that way, of course, but that’s what they were upset about. They really didn’t like it when NAS companies made easy, turnkey drive encryption standard and started pushing and teaching two-factor authentication.
In any event, now that social media content is served from our NASes—with support from blockchain networks—your feed is constructed by pulling your data from literally all over, but incredibly fast, because requests can be fulfilled from many different machines, some of which are bound to be nearby.
There was a time when IoT (the Internet of Things) was regarded as not very viable, because people didn’t want to buy objects that could be used to spy on them. NASes and the blockchain, again, changed all that. When open source NAS software came into existence proving that your IoT data was stored on your NAS and unlikely to leak out (or, no more than any other of your data), and that it was always routed using encryption, and when this data became possible to sell on the blockchain without compromising your personal security, the whole ecosystem just took off: that’s when “secure, monetizable IoT data” became a thing. Even data from your car is routed through your NAS (not through the NSA) if everything is set up properly, so that the NSA and automobile manufacturers can’t spy on you. Of course, in an emergency, your data is sent by the fastest (and less secure) route possible, but you always get a notice in that case.
In a lot of ways, the Internet is the same as it was in the 1990s and 2000s. But most websites store your information encrypted in the blockchain, and they know they have to interact via blockchain services if they want to do work on it securely—because nobody is willing, any longer, to expose their data if they don’t have to.
Well, we can dream.