Questioning the Government's Cloud

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Digital Rights on the Cloud

Questioning the Government's Cloud

By: Issa
Mahasneh
17.10.2011

It is almost sure that the Government of Jordan will sign an agreement with Microsoft to develop a cloud computing strategy, the signing of the agreement is scheduled to happen at the World Economic Forum at the Dead Sea which is starting on October 21st.

As this project and its agreement could not be considered as one of the best examples of transparency, many doubts arise regarding the implementation and various future utilizations of this cloud.

 

Cloud Computing is Good

Let's start with the assumption that the use of cloud computing will really provide benefits to Jordan's public sector. The Ministry of Information and Communication Technology stated that with cloud computing they would be able to reduce costs, increase performance and faster response time.

Anyway, I will not raise any questions in this article about cloud computing itself as a technology, especially if we consider cloud infrastructure services (IaaS) or cloud's server layer.

To people who are not familiar to this concept this would mean having a large cloud-powered server farm for the whole public administration rather than running a bigger number of individual servers in each governmental institution. To make it clearer, this would be similar to connect houses to the electricity grid rather than having each house running its stand alone power generator.

Connecting people or collecting data?

One of the problems behind the cloud is that users' data are stored within a central repository (that in this case is under the control of the government). This is not a relatively big issue if we consider that only public employees will use the cloud and the government applications shared between the public agencies, but the project could be expanded to include normal citizens as well.

The government's intentions to push citizens into the use of its cloud are clear. In one of my previous meetings with a former Minister of ICT he explained that this is the final objective; to provide on-the-cloud technologies to every Jordanian home, especially in poorer areas.

If this would really happen, it might become a disaster. A Wikileaks cable gives an overview of the project and how it will allow accessing Internet and e-mails through the cloud (A/N: the fact that I am referring to Wikileaks shows the lack of publicly available information regarding this project).

To be more precise, the cable says that "MOICT officials have [...] discussed utilizing cloud technology (software shared by a group of users via the internet) to provide easy and cost-efficient computing to underserved parts of the country".
More details are mentioned as well, Nidal Quanadilo, Director of ICT Investment and Promotion at MOICT, said that "the GOJ is pursuing a partnership with Microsoft to set up cloud computing systems in small towns and to provide residents with low-cost desktop units they could use to access the internet and e-mail".

This is pushing me to ask myself what are the guarantees that personal data of citizens, in addition to their online activities and email records will not become under the surveillence of government? If there are already doubts concerning the monitoring of the web by the government, using software and applications on the government's own cloud (and therefore its infrastructure and data bases) will make monitoring even easier.


Why it is always Microsoft?

Quanadilo asserted that "Microsoft is excited about using this project as a prototype to test cloud technology in the developing world".

You could imply -in a traditional Jordanian way- that our citizens are going to be human guinea pigs for a big company that is testing some new technology in Jordan, but this is not the point. The real meaning of such statement is that this is the first time Microsoft implements a project like this, this let us think a lot about the level of technical expertise Microsoft has in similar cloud computing projects.

It is true, when you talk about cloud computing you will probably think of Amazon, probably IBM (that has tailor-made cloud solutions for governments), but are there convincing reasons for why Microsoft has been selected? Was there a public call for bids for this project?

If this governmental cloud will provide software and applications, will this mean that only Microsoft applications will run on it? What is the point behind forcing cloud's users to exclusively use applications of this company?

Then, the Microsoft's attitude regarding similar big government projects is not a secret. Do you remember the deal between Microsoft and former Tunisian regime to "expand government capacity to monitor its own citizens"? Who can determine this will not happen again in Jordan, since the cloud makes this technically easier? It would be also interesting to know if there are transparency criteria taken into account here.

 

Government Cloud Computing, the Good Way

As probably you will be told that there are several governments that are switching to cloud computing, do know that this is true, but a small research will open your eyes on the relevant differences between those projects and what is supposed to be implemented here in Jordan.

Let's take UK as an example, but you know these brits have a more technologically advanced and more intelligent government, her majesty's government is building its own cloud, not implementing one of Microsoft. By the way, there are several used tools to create cloud computing systems which are open source, and are widely effective, allowing building from scratch easily.

In fact, UK is not only using open source for the platform, the cloud will completely run on Linux and open source software, actually they want to create the cloud "to push open source into government".

John Suffolk, the UK government CIO, said that "Cost savings of just £100 per machine would total £400m across government. Unlike Windows, open source operating systems such as Linux have no licensing costs and can be used on as many machines as required".

On a highlighted Guardian article he also stressed about personal data of the citizens, although the cloud is limited to public agencies (I think this is actually the most important point to a successfull government cloud implementation) in a sense that citizens will not directly interact with the cloud (on the contrary of the Jordanian proposal), the article states that "security of data, and the data centres, would be a high priority" and that data will not be transferred outside.

But again, you know brits have a more technologically advanced and more intelligent government.

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Issa
Mahasneh
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