Yottabytes: Storage and Disaster Recovery

May 12 2011   11:06PM GMT

The ‘Lost or Seized Laptop Data’ Case for the Chromebook

Sharon Fisher Sharon Fisher Profile: Sharon Fisher

A lot of my friends spent the day scoffing at the notion that anybody would spend $28 a month (for a business user), $20 a month (for a student), or almost $500 to outright purchase a Chromebook, a netbook computer that uses Google Apps to use data stored entirely in the cloud.

Okay, I’ve got geeky friends. Granted.

The thing is, I think my friends are wrong, and that there’s quite the business case to be made for Chromebooks.

Consider. In March alone, there were several incidents of laptops lost with large amounts of sensitive personally identifiable information. And in recent months, the Ponemon Institute has performed studies about the cost involved in data lost through laptops, both in Europe and the U.S. The numbers are astonishing.

According to the findings, the number of lost or stolen laptops is huge. Participating organizations reported that in a 12 month period 86,455 laptops were lost or missing. The average number of lost laptops per organization was 263.”

That’s in the U.S. In Europe, the figures 72,789 laptops, and 265 laptops per organization. This adds up to $2.1 billion in the U.S., and 1.29 billion Euros in Europe.

That’d lease a lotta Chromebooks.

But even if companies suddenly became much more careful of their laptops, there’s another issue, one over which they don’t have much control, and that’s search and seizure by the U.S. government.

In August 2009, the U.S. government implemented a new policy for the Department of Homeland Security giving the department the right to search laptops in border areas. The problem is, according to Udi Ofer, Advocacy Director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, in a letter he wrote to the New York Times in August, 2010, Border Patrol agents have the right to conduct such seizures within 100 miles of the U.S. border, which covers much more of the United States than it sounds. In fact, two-thirds of the population of the U.S. lives in one of those areas, he wrote — and people in those areas could be subject to losing their laptops. (Indeed, the Ninth Circuit Court recently ruled that such laptops could be transported more than 100 miles away to do a more thorough search.)

In addition to business executives, this makes two other groups very nervous: Attorneys, who are concerned about privileged client information, and photojournalists, who are concerned about having their pictures taken away. This is why, last September, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) announced they were fighting this law. (The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which had already been following the issue, supported them.)

The advantage of data in the cloud is, it can’t be seized at the border. You might be out a $500 notebook, but not the much more valuable data that would otherwise be on it.

That’s not to say that data can be stored in the cloud with impunity — there are indications that cloud providers, too, are vulnerable to persuasion from law enforcement. But there’s at least some standard of proof required for that.

And yes, as my friends argued, there’s other ways to get thin client cloud-oriented notebooks than from Google. But Google is making it simple. And considering how many people are managing to lose their laptops these days, simple may be what we need.

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