What Is Cloud Computing?

These days, you’re probably seeing a lot of new TV commercials for gadgets and Internet services that mention “the cloud” -- or “cloud computing.” It may sound like the next big thing, but cloud computing has actually been around for a few years. Some popular examples of cloud services you may already be using are Gmail, YouTube or Google Docs.

So, what is cloud computing?

The Cloud Demystified
When people talk about the cloud, they’re still talking about the Internet. In the past, you went online to visit websites and use email, but most of your data and applications still lived locally on your computer. But now, you can store all your files on the Internet in the “cloud” and work directly on them at any time via your Web-connected devices (e.g., smartphone, laptop or desktop computer). Your PC or device is simply what’s connecting you to the cloud.

“The cloud is really about having the freedom to access and store information and get work done when you need it, wherever you are,” says Marcia Kaufman of analyst firm Hurwitz & Associates and co-author of Cloud Computing for Dummies. “No one is tied to their office or laptop computer anymore.”

Life Before and After the Cloud
You may not even realize how much the cloud helps you with your daily tasks. Consider these cloud benefits, along with what life online was like before:

Cloud Benefit No. 1: Store Your Files Online

  • Before the cloud: To store your files, you had to save them on the hard drive of your personal laptop or computer. And if you wanted to take your files with you, you’d save them on a thumb drive or CD.
  • With the cloud: Create a document within a cloud service like Google Docs, and you’ve securely stored it online. As a result, you don’t have to carry your laptop everywhere. You can access files -- and not just documents, but photos, videos and audio too -- from virtually any Web-connected computer or device. You can even use sites such as Deezer.com or Maestro.fm to store your music library in the cloud and listen to it anywhere you go.

Cloud Benefit No. 2: Get Your Apps Online

  • Before the cloud: You depended on costly software installations on your personal computer to get the benefit of various applications.
  • With the cloud: Many helpful applications now run in the cloud. Are you into video editing? Instead of purchasing costly movie-making software for pros on your computer, use YouTube Video Editor online. Or, want to jot down thoughts or links as you browse? Just log onto Evernote, a cloud-based note-taking application. The app will save your notes in the cloud for the next time you log on. You can even avoid paying for productivity software like Microsoft Office by using Google Docs or Zoho.

Cloud Benefit No. 3: Back up for Less

  • Before the cloud: To back up your files, you had to buy expensive hardware.
  • With the cloud: Rather than buying an expensive hard drive to back up your computer, try an inexpensive online backup service such as Mozy. Some cloud services you come to rely on may charge a monthly or annual subscription fee. So read the fine print to make sure you’re not signing up for a free trial that will eventually run out. Even so, if you love the service, the benefits may be worth avoiding costly software upgrades or the pitfalls of using an outdated desktop package.

Cloud Benefit No. 4: Save and Share Your Photos Easily

  • Before the cloud: You saved your photos on your personal computer. If you wanted to share them with a friend, you emailed them. And if your hard drive or external drive crashed, you lost all your photos forever.
  • With the cloud: Organize and back up your photos on multiple sites on the Web. You can control who sees your photos, and even if something happens to your hardware, your photos are still safe in the cloud. “I love sharing with Picasa Web albums,” says Milica Knezevic, a mother of two from Chicago. “You can share with family and friends who can choose to order prints from a variety of providers, set stricter privacy settings, comment on photos and upload original photos.”

Cloud Benefit 5: Get the Latest Updates Fast

  • Before the cloud: You had to wait for hours on the phone with tech support when one of your computer’s desktop applications wasn’t working.
  • With the cloud: Cloud apps are typically maintained and updated automatically by their provider, so you are less likely to encounter technical problems. And if you do, the cloud service provider is probably already working on ironing out the kinks.

The last thing you may be wondering is, Are cloud-based services safe? In general, yes. But before you trust your data to any cloud provider, be sure to read the terms of service and understand your privacy settings -- especially if you’ll be sharing content. The cloud can also deliver security services -- SaaS, aka “software as a service” -- that make it easier to keep your spyware, antivirus and other security features updated while you’re on the go for all your devices.

Is Free Public Wi-Fi Safe?

If you work remotely or travel a lot for your job, you probably take advantage of free public Wi-Fi often. Unfortunately, that probably means you’re regularly opening up your devices and your data to serious security threats. And if you’re a heavy user of cloud services, which often store your data on a remote server rather than your computer, Wi-Fi security is even more crucial.

Most people these days have password-protected networks at home, so it’s unlikely that anybody is able to snoop on your data as it passes between your device and your router. But when you’re surfing the Web via a free public Wi-Fi at a cafe, library or airport, you should be suspicious of everyone, says technology consultant Leo Notenboom of Ask-Leo.com. “It’s trivially easy for any of them to be watching your unencrypted information flying by.”

Here’s what you need to know to stay safe next time you’re surfing on a free public Wi-Fi connection.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 1: Turn on your firewall.
The cafe might use firewall software to protect your computer from outside attacks, but that doesn’t protect you from other people surfing around the same Wi-Fi network inside the cafe. Be sure your computer’s firewall is turned on.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 2: Protect your smartphone or tablet.
If your smartphone or tablet connects to Wi-Fi networks, require it to ask your permission before joining any network. A lot of people never change the default network name, so if you logged on to your friend’s “linksys” network, your device will remember that and could automatically join any network of the same name in the future -- unless you tell it to ask your permission first.

Free Public Wi-Fi Tip No. 3: Use strong encryption.

Encryption works by disguising data that your computer wirelessly sends to a router. Without it, that person sitting near you at the cafe could use special software to intercept and see all the data that travels back and forth between your device and the router. And that means everything: emails, passwords and things you search for. That’s why it’s imperative, says Notenboom, to use encrypted sites when possible.

How do you know when a site offers encryption? Instead of “http” at the beginning of the address, you’ll see “https.” You’ll also see a little padlock icon in your browser window, usually on the bottom right.

What else should you consider encrypting?

  • Your email. If you use a locally installed email program such as Outlook or Entourage, you can protect your mail and passwords by using something called SSL (secure sockets layer) on each of your accounts. This encrypts all your data when you send and receive email. Not all email providers allow the use of SSL, though, so check your provider’s help page.
  • Your Facebook and Twitter pages. Facebook and Twitter recently began offering encrypted sessions; just go into your account settings and find the option that says “Always use https.”
  • Your Google search. If you think the keywords you’re searching could be embarrassing or you prefer to keep your privacy, try the secure version of Google search. Instead of going to Google.com, do all of your searching at Encrypted.Google.com.
  • Everything. Consider a VPN service. VPN stands for virtual private network and encrypts everything you send and receive. You can download free mobile VPN software from such a site as Hotspot Shield and everything -- instant messages, passwords, emails and websites -- will be virtually impenetrable to prying eyes whenever you’re using a free public Wi-Fi connection. Or if your employer offers its own VPN, always connect to it through your computer or mobile device.

“That guy in the corner of Starbucks with his laptop -- do you trust him with your private data?” asks Notenboom. Follow these Wi-Fi safety tips, and you won’t ever have to ever wonder.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

You’re ready to drive that new minivan off the lot when the salesperson gives you the bad news: You didn’t qualify for the loan. He shows you your credit report with numerous unpaid accounts. Until today, you thought you had perfect credit.

“If a thief has your social security number and date of birth, he can look legitimate on a credit application,” says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit information and consumer advocacy organization. “I’ve seen people lose their dream homes because they suddenly can’t qualify for a mortgage.”

Sounds scary, but don’t pull the plug on your computer just yet. You can reduce the risk of online identity theft by taking these steps:

Identity Theft Tip No. 1
Understand phishing and spyware.

Have you ever gotten an email that claims to be from your bank or favorite online auction and says something along the lines of “You must restore account access” or “Your credit card number on file is about to expire”? Well, most of these emails are actually sent by phishers, who take you to a spoof website where you unknowingly enter your account information -- only to have it stolen. Delete emails that ask you to reveal sensitive information, because reputable companies will never ask for your account information via email.

You also need to beware of spyware. These programs sneak onto your computer through email and pop-ups. Then they gather data as you type and send your passwords and other sensitive information to malicious hackers. Use antispyware software or an online security service to keep your computer and devices safe.
Identity Theft Tip No. 2
Read the privacy policy before giving up your social security number.

Here’s the thing: Your online DVD rental service doesn’t need your social security number to set up your account. In general, be stingy with the data you give out online. Always read the site’s privacy policy to see why it needs your data and how it will be used. Also monitor your accounts. Federal law entitles you to one free copy of your credit report each year. Get a copy of your credit report and then go over it carefully to spot potential red flags.

Identity Theft Tip No. 3
Don’t use real words in your passwords.

If your passwords include words from the dictionary, your birth date, the year you graduated college or the name of someone close to you (even spelled backwards), a criminal can easily figure them out on their own or with the help of specialized software. Instead, create passwords with more than six characters, and combine letters and numbers. For example, you might create a password that sounds like something you can easily remember -- such as lyrics to your favorite song -- but is spelled cleverly with letters and numbers.

Identity Theft Tip No. 4
Don’t give to random charities.
Some unsolicited emails may ask you to contribute to unfamiliar charities or to get involved with real estate offers in other countries. These scams ask you to provide your bank account information online to someone you’ve never met. Once the scammer has your information, he can use it to clean out your bank account or commit other types of fraud. Never respond to email offers asking you for your bank account number or for money. If you have a favorite charity, contribute directly through its secure website.

Identity Theft Tip No. 5
Warn your kids about identity theft.
Filtering software can help prevent your kids from sending out their home address and other personal information via email or the Web. But experts say you shouldn’t rely on technology alone. Make sure your kids know why you don’t want them giving out private data or responding to phishing emails. Let them know that they can always come to you with questions if they’re not sure what to do. Also, gather your kids and check out safety-tip sites like GetNetWise.com together to make learning about online privacy a bit more fun.

If your identity is stolen, your first call should be to the police. Report the theft and get a copy of your police report. You’ll need it when you call the three credit reporting agencies to put a 7-year fraud alert on your account. Also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission. Remember, the earlier you catch identity thieves, the easier it will be to recover.