Over the past five years, many companies have become highly dependent on free cloud-based software services to run their businesses. However, they often either forget – or are oblivious – to the fact that service providers must pay for infrastructure behind these services and they have to get that money from somewhere. Although many free services are technically excellent, the risks associated with their use can be significant. Companies – and SMEs in particular – need to think carefully before using them.
So what is the problem? After all, if you are an SME, you may feel that these big organisations providing free services consider individual small companies of no interest and that therefore there is no downside to using them. But there may well become a time when the SME becomes interesting, and even small companies can own data that only large companies can monetise. And, as a group, SMEs make up the majority of their business.
Let’s look at one source of data whose value is almost universally undervalued.
The value in email?
Relatively few businesses, large or small, run their own email servers. This means that all their email passes through the email service provider’s network. Unless the sender encrypts the email, which few client companies will do, any email can be read by the service provider.
The usual suspects – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook, and so on – have captured the lion’s share of the email hosting market. Some of their services are free and some must be paid for.
So how can the data in emails be monetised?
Google is able to leverage the fact that its email users will probably use its search engine, and possibly web applications such as Google Docs as well.
The Google search engine responds to web searches by displaying both paid advertisements and so-called organic results for which they receive no payment. In order for users to trust the engine, it must display highly relevant organic search results, and although the advertisements don’t have to be relevant, if they are not, it is less likely that the searcher will click on them. And clicking on them is the way Google gets revenue. It’s called pay per click (PPC).
Indeed, the process of getting something to the first page of a Google search result has spawned a complete industry called Search Engine Optimisation or SEO.
To ensure that both organic and PPC results are as relevant as possible, Google needs to know as much information as possible about the person doing the search. And one highly fruitful source of information is their emails. Send an email to your mother about dog food, and you become far more likely to see dog food adverts.
So while Google may provide free email services, it uses the content of emails to improve the advertising revenue.
Lock me in?
You may not think that you care, but as more people become addicted to a free email service, it gives the email provider the opportunity to lock you in further. Email exchange originally exploded because it used open standards, which allowed any computer user to exchange messages with any other computer user. But as almost always happens, when something becomes popular, the provider seizes the opportunity to lock the customer in further. This has happened with email, where each provider has made changes to the standards to suit their needs, and to make it more difficult for the customer to change provider or even use services that access their email for them.
What about the contract?
Email is just one of several services that may be offered below cost or free. But surely, before signing up for some such service, there is a set of terms the user must agree to? Yes, absolutely, but how often do users read the terms? And even if they understand the risks, what can they do about it if they disagree? Unfortunately, when dealing with a multi-billion dollar corporation, it is take it or leave it.
Many SMEs choose to “take it” at a time when it is the least of their worries. When they realise the implications of what they have agreed to, it can be expensive to change horses.
More interestingly, large corporate customers, who have teams of lawyers scrutinising their contracts, often agree to terms not realising the access they are providing, or if they do, assume the provider to be beyond reproach. For example, spam filters get access to every single email in and out of an organisation, yet their terms often allow any email to be shared with any “relevant” party.
You don’t have to be IBM to come up with a great idea. And the chances are that you will have exchanged the information about that idea in many of the free services that you use – and the paid ones too.
Add to trade secrets, emails with compromising personal information and financial information, there can be a more to risk than meets the eye.
Service providers may take reasonable precautions to protect user’s privacy but, in most cases, it would be very difficult to prove any breach. Furthermore, there is little that can be done to prevent individual employees acting outside their terms of employment.
If your email provider suddenly pips you to the post for a patent on your idea for running a car on water, then you shouldn’t be surprised. Or perhaps a new company emerges, run by an ex-employee. If you do discover that someone has read your confidential email, there will not be a lot you can do about it, let alone prove it.
Denial of service
From the supplier’s viewpoint, the great thing about providing a free service is that the customer can have no redress if you deny them that service.
Almost any SME using a free service could suffer quite a setback if the service was denied. Not only is there the inconvenience of loss of the service, but potentially also all the data stored with that service.
So what to do?
The use of free services is a very tempting pill to swallow and one which can become highly addictive. It would be difficult to shun the use of these services altogether because the bottom line is that some are extremely good and far better than those you pay for.
But there are some precautions you can take:-
Don’t feel guilty about not reading the contract.
This seems bizarre I know, but if you have the legal expertise to understand most of the contracts you are required to agree to, you would probably never agree to them. But even if you do, the likelihood you can get the agreement changed, or in the event of a dispute, win the case is almost zero. Companies have even fewer rights than individuals, so the courts would assume if you agreed to the contract, you read and understood it.
Spread your options
If you can, try and avoid getting multiple services from one provider.
Pay for things
Free services give you little or no rights. If you pay for something you have a legal right to compensation if the supplier does not uphold their part of the agreement. If you are denied access to something you haven’t paid for, you do not have much cause for complaint.
Many free service providers claim that they anonymise your data before monetising it. However, it is not difficult to establish identities by comparing several different sources of anonymous datasets. Bear that in mind.
Understand the power of the computer
It is easy to think that your tidbit of information buried in the hundreds of emails and documents you store in the cloud wild never be noticed. Not true. There are programs that spend 24/7 looking for keywords and phrases in just about any document they can access. And then deciding what use they can make of it.
Use the tools
Use whatever tools are available to you to reduce the amount of information you exchange.
Browse the web incognito and disable all cookies, use multiple accounts, access the internet from different places.
Share you lists with caution
There are services for mail-shotting that offer free use for what seems like a large number of contacts. If these services sell your details or even get hacked, you may never know – but your customers will.
Back everything up
Denial of service may happen for any number of reasons – technical and strategic – so make sure you have copies of all your data backed up somewhere secure that is not dependent on web access.
Using free software services seems like a no-brainer and mostly, it is. Yet, that does not mean you should not take some basic precautions to avoid losing more than you gain.
As the internet gets faster and more services are deployed in the cloud, the benefits are enormous. But so too are the risks.
Note to Editors
About John Yardley
Dr John Yardley
Managing Director, JPY Limited and Threads Software Ltd
John began his career as a researcher in computer science and electronic engineering with the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), where he undertook a PhD in speech recognition. In early 2019, John founded Threads Software Ltd as a spin off from his company JPY Ltd to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub, developed originally by JPY Ltd.
Today, JPY represents manufacturers of over 30 software products, distributed through a channel of 100 specialist resellers.
John brings a depth of understanding of a wide range of the technologies that underpin the software industry.
John has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Essex and a BSc in Computer Science from City University, London.
In his spare time, he enjoys playing jazz saxophone and debating astrophysics.
About Threads Software
Threads Software Limited was founded in February 2019 by Dr John Yardley to commercialise and exploit the Threads Intelligent Message Hub. Threads software allows for easy searching and retrieval of data by uniquely collecting, aggregating and indexing all required digital business communications – both written and spoken. These are gathered from a range of sources including emails and VOIP calls, intelligently into one seamless, highly intuitive, secure and very easy-to-use dashboard. The system stores these communications in a secure Cloud database so that authorised users can share and search any form of digital message to gain as complete a view as possible of their organisation’s dealings with third parties.
Benefits: Threads not only makes employee collaboration much easier, but because it facilitates very rapid message storing, searching and information-sharing users gain a complete overview of all projects, greater efficiency, better-decision making and improved revenues.
Customers include PropLogix, suppliers of real estate due diligence, and Urban Volt, an eco energy company.