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Cloud technology: the legal and practical issues

With public sector organisations looking to take advantage of technology to deliver cost saving benefits, Dan Read highlights some of the legal issues when collaborating as well as the practical and operational challenges.

New Cloud Technology

Cloud technology has been around for over 20 years and is now a vital component of any organisation's IT strategy and infrastructure. The legal, organisational and commercial benefits and pitfalls of using cloud technologies are now well documented and understood. It is increasingly accepted that it is neither a solution to all problems nor something to fear.

The cloud technology market has not stood still in that time. There are now a number of alternatives to what traditionally would have been seen as ubiquitous one size fits all cloud services.

Organisations are considering and implementing a hybrid approach to using cloud technology with key infrastructure and services being provided from dedicated hardware and systems in private clouds. Less critical or sensitive services are being provided by using one of a number of commodity public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure.

Using a hybrid approach has the key benefit of making sure that an organisation is paying for the most appropriate level of service for each type of requirement. For example you may use a dedicated cloud environment for an HR system or a system that includes a lot of sensitive personal data for security and resilience purposes. But you do not necessarily need the same level of control and assurance over a system which deals with catering facilities in schools or public buildings. Rather than necessarily always working to the highest level of requirement, an analysis should be done to make sure your cloud services are right sized and specified for the actual requirement being addressed.

Another emerging cloud technology is the use of Community Cloud. This is a collaborative environment where IT infrastructure is shared between several organisations within a specific community. This is amongst those who have shared needs and concerns such as security, compliance, jurisdiction etc. It could be a particularly useful option for public sector organisations as although not all of the cost benefits of a public cloud are realised it would give a greater level of control over key issues such as security and compliance. It could also be an enabler for collaborative arrangements across public organisations as we discussed in the first of this series of articles.

As with any cloud arrangement there are some legal and practical issues to consider including:

  • Pick the correct cloud service for your particular needs, different services will need different cloud models. There are now more alternatives available; 
  • Take a pragmatic approach to the type and nature of the data, which will be hosted in or transit through the cloud service. Not all data is necessarily personal data and partitioning or anonymisation can enable you to use cloud services where you may have thought they were not appropriate; 
  • If you are looking at Community Cloud, be clear as to what each organisations relationship, obligations and expectations are. Make sure that this is documented and agreed; 
  • Make sure that service level agreements are sufficient for your needs and work through examples of what you may be able to recover in terms of service credits. Cloud providers may provide service levels and credits but they are normally relatively low in value; and 
  • Consider the government G-Cloud framework and Digital Marketplace, but also consider setting up your own local frameworks for cloud services. This may allow a lead authority to procure a cloud service for a number of other organisations in order to deliver further cost benefits and save procurement time and resources.

Taking analytics to the edge

One downside of the trend towards centralising IT infrastructure is that it can take a reasonable amount of time to get data from an end point device, back to a central data centre for analysis and then back out to the device again. This process relies heavily on the network infrastructure being place to support high speed data transmission, which is often not always available.

Edge Analytics and what has become known as "Fog Computing" allows a number of end point devices or clients to store and analyse data at the edge of a cloud network. In time critical applications such as fire, security, traffic management and crime prevention, continuous and accurate data is vital in making sure that decisions are made using current and accurate data. For less critical applications such as consumption of media or local information, Fog Computing will reduce the amount of time it takes for content to be streamed. It also increases the ability for localised redundancy in the event of failures and therefore increasing user experience.

Although it seems to be counter intuitive to have spent so long centralising data through cloud computing and then now reverting to a more dispersed network of devices, it is however reflective of both users expectations. Especially when thinking about speed of delivery and consumption of content and data as well as the dramatic increase in the number of connected devices for domestic, commercial and civic uses. Fog Computing is said to be one of the key enablers of the Internet of Things and Internet of Everything.

A good example is a project being run in Bristol known as SPHERE (Sensor Platform for Healthcare in a Residential Environment). It uses 90 Internet of Things devices, from wearables to environmental sensors, within the home to better manage and avoid long term health conditions. The data is acquired and analysed locally on a real time basis using machine learning algorithms to make quick and vital decisions about the users' health. At the same time it uses cloud services to pool reference data helping organisations such as community groups, local authorities and NHS organisations track and monitor longer term health trends.

A further example of how Fog Computing and Edge Analytics could be used in the future would be for CCTV and local surveillance. By placing analytics capability closer to the end point of the network and an increase in connected devices the connected device such as a security camera, could make an informed decision based on real time information and data. It can then decide whether to call emergency services or take other action rather than relying on centralised video analysis and call centres having to provide human monitoring.

Inevitably this type of innovative technology and fully realising the benefits of Internet of Things and connected devices will take time. But often the public sector is best placed to take advantage and test this emerging technology in order to make our cities and environments more effective places to live and work.

The social, legal and ethical impact of using this technology will need greater analysis and research to make sure that there is a clear framework in which autonomous decision making, and data collection and analytics technology can and should be used. But it is clear that the use of this technology will only continue to increase and maybe the public sector could be the perfect spearhead in pushing new boundaries.

First published by Local Government Lawyer on 23 June 2016.

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at June 2016. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.

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