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Apple iCloud: how safe is your data?

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By Shawna Ohm

Apple’s iCloud – you know it as the annoying thing your computer (or iPhone) is always asking you to back up. You may also know it from that Cameron Diaz movie “Sex Tape.” But if you’ve been paying attention this weekend, you now know it as the means a hacker used to access photos of A-list celebrities, like Jennifer Lawrence, nude.

Over the weekend, a hacker posting to the site 4chan shared photos of Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Kate Upton and horror actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead. A number of victims – including Grande – have claimed the photos are fake. 

Winstead, who acknowledged the authenticity of the photos, said they were deleted years ago – meaning the hacker would have had to do more than just access her current computer or phone, they likely hacked the cloud.

She tweeted, “Knowing those photos were deleted long ago, I can only imagine the creepy effort that went into this. Feeling for everyone who got hacked.”

The cloud, in its simplest terms, is Internet-based data storage. That means deleting a photo or document on your device won’t necessarily delete it form its ‘cloud’ storage home.

“It’s kind of a default mode in many devices, that it’s going to sort of use the cloud and put your data up there,” Yahoo Finance Senior Columnist Michael Santoli said. “It’s one of the reasons, by the way, that your phone can do so much.

For example, when you lose your phone and can instantly re-load all of your information? That’s because the information was stored on the cloud. But with great power, comes great potential for mishap (see, “Sex Tape.”)

The FBI and Apple are both investigating the data breach, though general consensus on tech and security sites is that the breach did not come from Apple itself. A breach of this kind could have started anywhere from a glitch in an app, to a person divulging nonpublic information, to a phishing scam.

“There was sort of a fleeting weak link in terms of individual accounts,” said Santoli. “[This was] not necessarily some kind of huge assault on Apple’s data infrastructure. So I do think that’s somewhat reassuring.”

But with some 300 million people using Apple’s iCloud according to company information in summer 2013, the safety of the cloud is everyone’s business.

“This seems like a really opportunistic hack, kind of isolating some the very few things that might get tremendous attention focusing on data vulnerability of the cloud,” said Santoli. He also added that there is no evidence that other companies have more secure clouds than Apple.

The cloud has long been joke fodder for the less technically savvy. “This is the kind of thing that’s going to bring attention to kind of a systemic structural thing that’s going on, has been going on for years with our data, but we just don’t pay any attention to it,” Santoli said.

Celebrities, to be sure, are now going to start paying attention. But for average people, your information may not be in immediate danger. Hackers would have had to go through tremendous effort to access this information, and are asking for payment, in the form of Bitcoin, for revealing what they’ve stolen. The demand for pictures from your family vacation is likely not so fervent.

Still, it’s best to use common sense by dealing with the cloud. And if you’re a celebrity, it’s probably best not to draw attention to technological clumsiness . Jennifer Lawrence herself once joked, “My iCloud keeps telling me to back it up and I’m like ‘I don’t know how to back you up! Do it yourself!’”

Ultimately, the cloud will likely survive this negative publicity. “There’s a reason for it and actually there’s massive utility for it, and there’s a industry based around it,” said Santoli. The cloud doesn’t just store data from celebrities and average Joes. Massive corporations use these virtual networks to store legions of information as well.

If you’re sensitive about your information falling into the wrong hands, there are steps you can take. A secure password is one. Delete photos on photo stream and iCloud as well as your camera roll. You can also use one of a plethora of apps that promise to delete your data as soon as you’re done with it.

Snapchat allows you to have conversations and send messages that disappear after opening. Mark Cuban’s new venture Cyber Dust does the same – promising that your data will never, ever be stored in any mainframe.

Still, Santoli doesn’t think this scandal will help launch those apps into everyday, mainstream use.

“I think basically that will still be the opportunity for material that you don’t want out there in a lasting way,” said Santoli. Though Santoli is not sure how many people that may appeal to, it may be one option Hollywood considers in the wake of this scandal.