This summer, the word “cloud” has popped up in conversation with some frequency. However, you are probably also seeing the term used beyond descriptions of the awful weather.

The internet cloud basically refers to running applications or storing data somewhere on the internet, rather than on your local computer. To some extent, you probably do this already.

If you run an online game or store your photos on Facebook or TwitPic, you are using the cloud. Creating documents on Google Docs or using offsite data storage is a common practice, and cloud computing is becoming a more frequent occurrence.

What do you, as a regular computer user, need to know about cloud computing?

There are conveniences and disadvantages to its use and you should look at these carefully before committing yourself to relying on the cloud as a resource.

First to consider are the terms of use. When you store your information on a cloud storage site, what rights are you granting to those storing the data?

For example, the terms of reference for Google Drive, an offsite storage and collaboration site, state:

“… you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide licence to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content.”

You allow Google to publish your work and this happens without your notification. If you are a professional photographer, for example, you may want to avoid cloud storage for your images.

Do you want sensitive information available for use by either the storage company or their partners? If not, you probably want to ensure that such information is not stored on external sites.

Items such as business information, financial information, or other such personal information are not good candidates for offsite storage.

The second consideration is to ask where the information is being stored. The data is protected in terms of the laws of the country where it is stored.

Any data storage sites physically located in the U.S. are subject to the Homeland Security Act and that information can be searched by the Homeland Security Department without your permission or knowledge.

Again, personal information or business information should not be stored using cloud computing.

Finally, consider the actual integrity of the storage company itself. Is it a reputable business with good references?

Unscrupulous companies could use their facility to peruse and steal the very data you depend upon them to safeguard. Or, in cases where they allow criminal activity to take place, you may find that governments may close down their operation (the MegaUpload case in the U.S. is an example).

This mean your data, as legitimate as it may be, is no longer available to you until such time as legal issues are solved. This could take years to rectify and, if you have no other copies of your data, you will not be able to recover it.

So, while the cloud is convenient for saving and sharing large amounts of information, remember that you do have to exercise some caution in its use.

Read the terms of usage carefully and, where necessary, remember that your information, properly backed up and saved on your own computer, is far safer than storing it in a location on the internet over which you have no control.

Doug Rutherford teaches computer networking and security for Yukon College and three post-secondary educational institutions in British Columbia.