Edward Snowden: Closed public cloud platforms risk "disempowering" enterprises

NSA whistleblower tells OpenStack Summit, via video link, that investing in closed public cloud platforms can lead to users parting with more than just their money

Public cloud services risks disempowering enterprises, as they pour investment into platforms they have no control or influence over, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden warns.

Speaking via video link at the OpenStack Summit in Boston, US, Snowden said enterprises are parting with more than just their money when “sinking” investment into some public cloud platforms.

“You could use [Amazon Web Services] EC2 or Google Cloud Engine or whatever. These are fine – they work. But the problem here is they are fundamentally disempowering. You give them money [and] in exchange you are supposed to be provided with a service,” he said.

“And that exists, but you’re providing them with more than money. You’re also providing them with data and you’re giving up control, giving up influence. You can’t reshape their infrastructure, they’re not going to change things and tailor to your needs.”

While it is possible for users to reclaim some of this control by using technologies to boost the portability of their data, the fact remains that enterprises are still paying to use an infrastructure they have no real hold over.

“You can containerise things and shift them around, but you’re sinking cost into an infrastructure that is not yours, fundamentally,” he said.

Computer Weekly contacted both Amazon and Google for a response to Snowden’s claims, but had not received a response at the time of publication.

It is worth noting, however, that the two public cloud giants regularly talk about the customer feedback mechanisms they have in place so they can respond to their respective user demands for new features and functionality.  

The appeal of OpenStack

By opting to use a cloud built on OpenStack, Snowden said, enterprises have greater control over what happens to their data and – through contributing to the open source community – have  much more say over where the technology goes in future.

“OpenStack makes you lose that fundamental, inherent vulnerability of investing into things you do not influence, that you do not own, you do not control or even shape,” said Snowden.

“Here we can start to envisage a world where cloud infrastructures are not private in the sense of private corporations, but private in the sense of personal.

“Whether you are a small business, a large business or a community of technologists – you can own it, you can control it, you can shape it and you can lay the foundation on which everyone builds.”

Lack of control is just part of the issue Snowden said he has with the use of closed systems, before going on to say they make it easier for developers to shield users from what they are doing.

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“All systems should be designed to obey the user and should not be designed to lie to the user, and they should not hide things material from the user. This is one of the largest problems we have with closed source,” he said.

“It’s not so much that someone doesn’t want to share source code, but that matters in the abstract sense – what [does] that actually mean when they don’t?”

During the course of his appearance, Snowden fielded a number of crowd-sourced questions, with Summit attendees asking about his experience of using open source technologies, prompting him to reveal details about a project he’s working to give users greater control of their mobile location data.

He said: “When we turn on airplane mode or turn off location services, how do we know the GPS is actually off? How do we know the baseline antenna is powered down?

“We’re developing hardware that is free and open and anyone can replicate this, where you’ll be able to monitor the electron flow over these circuit paths to confirm this for yourself.”

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