Outsourcing government functions to private companies has long been a popular idea here in Wyoming. Now the state is leading the nation in taking that trend into the digital age. Wyoming will soon transfer much of its public data to the care of private companies, which will host it on the internet. State officials say this so called “cloud” hosting is cheaper and more efficient than state owned data centers. But putting all that public data in corporate hands has some privacy advocates nervous.
From the outside, Cheyenne Wyoming’s Green House data center looks fairly nondescript, just another boring building in a corporate office park.
But get past security and it feels like something out of the Matrix: a long white hallway leads to row after row of blinking servers. They’re extremely well protected, says staff engineer Courtney Thompson.
Laser grid based systems on penetrations on the outside of our walls. Kevlar bullet proofing anywhere there is a window. We like to show people we go to the nth degree to make sure our client’s data is secure.”
The clients that use Green House’s cloud hosting services include New Belgium Brewing Company, the National Outdoor Leadership School, and now the state of Wyoming.
“We are getting higher quality servers, higher quality data protection,” Wyoming Chief Information Officer Flint Waters tells me in one of Greenhouse’s conference rooms. “So it’s more economical for us, but it’s also far more bang for the buck.”
Waters is leading the transition of most of the state’s data from state owned servers to the cloud--space on the internet rented from big data companies, like a giant version of dropbox or google drive. Pennsylvania is also moving government data to the cloud.
Waters says there are lots of benefits: he gets access to the very best IT guys, and the state only has to pay for the storage it needs. He says there’s no way Wyoming can compete with companies that manage data for a living.
“When it comes time to put together a bunch of new trucks for our fleet we don’t say ‘let’s put together a factory and assemble trucks.’ We look at GM, Ford, Chrysler, and this is a very similar paradigm.”
But while a majority of states are looking into the cloud, last year a nationwide survey found that most states are worried it could violate privacy laws. Waters says he understands the concern, but it is silly to think that government-owned servers definitely are any safer.
“Folks say its more secure because I control the server--well yeah but I can pick it up and walk out to my car with it. And that citizen data isn’t secure anymore.”
Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien isn’t convinced.
“If you are controlling your own data center you have the control that matches your responsibility,” he says. “When you move into the cloud something could go wrong.”
Tien points to an example out of California as a reason to worry. School kids there use a cloud service called Google Apps for Education. But last spring it came out that Google had been clandestinely mining their emails for ad research. Trein says governments need to be good stewards of their citizens’ data.
“There is a tendency for there not to be whole lot of public oversight over these kinds of decisions even when they can be quite fateful for everyone involved.”
For small governments, navigating the world of cloud computing can be confusing. Thankfully, there is Australia.
“Australia has always been a country where the citizens have valued their privacy.”
John Sheridan is Australia’s Information minister. Australia is moving a lot onto the cloud too, and last year it came out with one of the most extensive guides to data privacy out there. Sheridan says government cloud computing contracts need to be able to hold private companies accountable.
“We need to look at their security. So we don’t want someone hacking our websites or doing those sorts of things.”
And Sheridan says if there is a hack governments need to be sure they’ll know about it and know how it’ll fixed
In Cheyenne Courtney Thompson would be one of those fixers if something went wrong. Pointing at the banks of humming servers, he says Wyoming is just the beginning for states heading to the cloud.
“Massive data centers like this---they’re the future of computing.”