Is your information secure in ‘the cloud’?
Small businesses and families have ever-expanding options when it comes to storing their documents, photos with cloud-based services. Here’s how to keep your data safe.

By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer

Former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden addressed technology enthusiasts at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival by video conference in March.

Love him or hate him, Snowden knows something about data security.

Snowden told the crowd to encourage more mainstream use of digital encryption methods, which he said can keep personal data hidden from hackers, private companies and government agencies alike.

“The bottom line is encryption does work,” Snowden said. “This is something people have to be able to interact with. And the way we interact with it right now is not that good.”

Whether you’re a techie or a flip phone user, Snowden’s point about encryption is timely as more individuals and businesses move digital storage of photos, documents and other information to cloud storage.

Cloud-based storage allows computer, tablet and even smartphone users to keep pictures and documents saved and backed up. The documents can be accessed remotely anywhere the user has an Internet connection, which makes document sharing handy for small businesses.

Several cloud storage providers offer between 5 and 15 gigabytes of storage for free. For $1.99 monthly, subscribers can save up to 100 GB on Google Drive.

Encryption adds a layer of encoding to documents to make them more difficult to hack.

Setting up cloud accounts may seem like a hassle, but most computer users can testify to the benefits of backing up files.

With the bedside manner of a seasoned doctor, Kansas City, Mo.-based IT professional Russ Monroe has shared plenty of bad news with computer owners after a hard drive crashes, losing years of photos or financial data.

“You tell them it will cost thousands to send a hard drive off to recover information, and they get this look of disappointment,” said Monroe, who said he favors the use of encryption to protect data.

As identity theft and cyber-hacking remain ever-increasing threats, even technology experts have questioned just how secure that information is while stored on the cloud.

“There are a lot of businesses saving their information on the cloud,” Monroe said. “So if you’re willing to trust a cloud-based service and they have documentation on their site that says it’s encrypted, I don’t see anything you couldn’t keep out there – tax information or otherwise.”

As cloud storage gains popularity, Monroe said he expects more businesses and individuals to use the storage service. Space allotted per account will grow, and users will have more security options.

Saving documents and pictures always poses a small percentage of risk that they’ll disappear, no matter how you save them, he said.

“If you have a free account, it may not be backed up,” Monroe said. “Like anything else, it comes back to faith. You are trusting that provider.”

5 ways to help keep your information on the cloud secure:

1Keep sensitive documents off of the cloud. Although most cloud storage servers are located in the U.S., legal issues surrounding who may access your documents hasn’t been settled.

2Read the fine print of your provider’s user agreement. If you close your account and switch providers, you want to know what happens to your photos and documents previously saved to the old provider. You’ll also learn specific answers to security questions.

3Get serious about passwords, periodically changing passwords for all email and cloud accounts. Monroe suggests that using a system like the first letters for each word of a memorable sentence can be helpful in keeping the passwords strong and memorable.

4Encrypt files individually. “Encryption is, so far, the best way you can protect your data,” CIO Magazine wrote in a December 2013 article. Encryption providers enable users to hide individual files or entire folders with passwords to ensure that only those who have the password may access the file.

5Use an encrypted cloud storage provider. Some providers like SpiderOak and Wuala claim that even server administrators cannot access files saved on those cloud accounts. LL