ehCloud: why Canada (and every other country) needs its own cloud computing tools

I recently helped one of our scientists put together an application for an industry-partnered bioinformatics grant. I understand the company in question to be more or less universally recognised as the leader in its field and therefore the obvious partner for this grant, but because it’s based in the US we had to complete a one-page justification for choosing a non-Canadian partner. After reading the very technical document explaining in great detail why this company is the only one in the world with the right products and expertise for the job, I joked with the scientist who wrote it that we should really just be able to write “you can’t do this stuff on a Blackberry” and be done with it.

In this specific case, the lack of an equivalent Canadian partner isn’t a problem – it won’t make or break this grant’s chances in review. But we’re increasingly running into situations where the lack of Canadian equivalents to American tech companies and their products is hampering our ability to take advantage of all those wonderful cloud computing tools that make research flow so much more smoothly. I’m sure that researchers in other countries with small populations and/or a lack of resources are experiencing the same thing.

The problem is caused by the fact that any data hosted even temporarily on US-based servers are subject to the Patriot Act, meaning that their confidentiality can not be assured. This Act is incompatible with our own privacy laws – Canada in general and British Columbia in particular have very strict regulations on the sharing of personal data – and the BC government agency to which we ultimately report is starting to really crack down on the use of potentially problematic tools. We’ve already been told that we can’t use Doodle Polls to organise meetings without inserting three paragraphs worth of privacy disclaimers into the email linking to the poll, and might soon lose our ability to use this tool at all; we just heard that SurveyMonkey is being banned outright; and Google Drive / DropBox / iCloud / Skype / Google Chat & Hangout / blogs / social media / various webinar and desktop sharing tools will quite possibly be next.

We use these tools all the time – to schedule and conduct meetings with internal staff and external collaborators, to share data with collaborators, to collaboratively write grants and papers with people from all over the world. Sure, we managed before these tools existed, but when all the other investigators involved in a massive global genomics consortium can use the cloud and we’re the only ones not able to participate, it’s going to be a problem.

We’ve been trying to find Canadian equivalents of everything listed above, but so far all we’ve come up with is FluidSurveys – a replacement for SurveyMonkey, one of the least-used tools on the list. A good start, but not good enough! If I had the technical ability I’d be working on creating some alternative tools myself, but since I don’t, I’m putting this post out there with the hope that readers will either be able to point me to some options we haven’t found yet, and / or that someone who knows what they’re doing will use it as inspiration. Who knows, maybe the big US tech companies will even read it and decide to create some country-specific servers to allow the rest of us to join in the American cloud dream… that would be a silver lining indeed!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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15 Responses to ehCloud: why Canada (and every other country) needs its own cloud computing tools

  1. Bob O'H says:

    It sounds like there’s an opportunity there for an entrepreneur. Just make sure the company is set up in the right country.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Yes, there’s definitely money to be made by someone with the right skills, i.e. not me…

      • Bob O'H says:

        Not me either.

        Perhaps Mr e-Man could make a mock-up that would fool Hollywood actors for long enough that they would invest in the project, and then use that money to hire someone who has the skills.

  2. As you might imagine, we’ve had a lot of similar discussions here (note to readers – I work in a Children’s Hospital in the same country, but not the same Province, as Cath). For us there is an additional layer of institutional risk management – i.e., much of our data is potentially identifiable patient data, and of minors to boot.

    The cloud-based data situation is a real problem, particularly with ever-increasing reliance of instrument vendors on cloud-based analytical tools and storage. “Private” clouds based in Canada are one possible solution, but kind of defeating the whole idea of a cloud in the first place in my opinion.

    As for the other tools – Dropbox I can understand since it’s easy to move files around between any internet-connected computers, but Skype? I’m not sure I believe it’s any less secure than a regular phone line, or a cell phone connection. And blocking/banning all of these tools seems a little counter-innovative, if I can take the liberty of inventing that term.

    • yep, we have the patient data issue too – not necessarily for all the projects I’m involved in, but the rules that affect us were definitely made with patient data protection specifically in mind.

      I agree that a private cloud for each country isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing. It would probably be better if Google, Apple et al would set up specific servers for data originating from each country so everyone could use the same tools but in a way that’s compatible with differing local privacy laws.

      Or, y’know, if all countries would have the same privacy laws. That might actually be easier to achieve…

    • p.s. Skype is an issue because of the text messaging feature – the actual calls are OK. I was more surprised about Doodle Poll, but apparently someone’s availability (and therefore geographical location) at a given time counts as protected data

      • Of course, there’s geography too… because Google and Apple would probably set up their “Canada” server in a data centre in Russia, or India, or somewhere. Which would contravene the various and assorted federal and provincial laws anyway, no matter how compliant the architecture was logically (rather than physically).

        I think my head hurts now. Oops, that’s personal medical data, forget I said anything.

        • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

          I don’t even know where OT is hosted. I’d assumed the UK. Hmmmm. The US government might have some *very* interesting information about all of us on file by now…

  3. Casey says:

    I’ve seen photos of billboards up around Silicon Valley trying to recruit tech workers with visa problems to move to Canada. So maybe? But on the other hand, I’m guessing private Canadian companies are free to use whatever they want (or at least they do, regardless), so the market might not be that large.

    • I’m not sure how the private sector operates, but surely if they have confidential customer information on file then they’ll eventually run into some of the same problems.

  4. Beth says:

    I’m also surprised about the Doodle poll! That is the most handy thing in the world for setting up meetings. Could you assign everyone a code number and then instead of putting their actual “name” in the name spot they could put their ID number, so you as the organizer would know who was who, but if the US government decided it wanted to invoke the Patriot Act to look at your Doodle poll, they wouldn’t actually know that you were available at 9 am on Tuesday, but not at noon on Wednesday for that task group meeting?

    I realize that seems quite ridiculous, but I’d pretty much do anything not to lose Doodling ability, if I were you!

    • Bob O'H says:

      But the US government would still know that some Canadian was available 9 am on Tuesday, but not at noon on Wednesday. And that would be enough information for them to act on.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        “they mentioned bisulphite sequencing – that’s our cue to invade! GO GO GO GO GO!”

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I really like the idea of using code numbers. Code names would be even better, especially if I get to assign them to the PIs.

      For some reason, that old joke that “Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore” just popped into my head…

      I’m not on the best of terms with Doodle Poll right now, because the last two polls I’ve created both involved two essential attendees with mutually exclusive availability. Which I realise isn’t DP’s fault, but it’s very frustrating.

  5. Well, this article about the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is a) timely and b) highly worrying… I suspect that this will accelerate our Agency’s plans to formally ban these services.

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