Personal cloud services have become so entwined with smartphones and other consumer devices that it can be difficult to work out whether or not you use them.

That’s one of the findings of an intensive study by RMIT that was funded by The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN).

The study, Demystifying personal cloud services for Australian consumers, finds an alarming lack of awareness among consumers about whether or not they even consume cloud services.

“In some cases, the consumers did not consciously choose to use a cloud service; instead, the service was attached to their device, leading to an unintentional form of cloud use,” the RMIT study found.

“In particular, cloud services that are bundled with device purchases, such as iCloud from Apple, OneDrive from Microsoft, Google Drive for Android, fell into this category.”

One of those surveyed, an experienced University administrator, noted her experiences with iCloud:

“Some of it happens automatically,” she told the researchers.

“I don’t do it consciously and it’s because I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to know how to go about physically saving it myself.

“I know it happens but my knowledge is very little for me to know when it happens, when it doesn’t happen. I don’t actively go out searching to save things on the iCloud.’

The trend could be common among many consumers, RMIT said, noting that consumers who identified themselves as non-users of personal cloud services weren’t actually sure.

RMIT found 66 percent of so-called non-users “did not necessarily recognise when they were using a personal cloud service”.

“Only 14 percent reported knowing when they were using a cloud; the rest were unsure about whether they knew or did not,” RMIT said.

Untrustworthy computing

Of the consumers that knew they were using a cloud service, 85 percent “did so without, or with very little, understanding of how service providers use their data or metadata, or the risks involved and the precautions to be taken in using [it].”

Awareness in this area was often low because consumers often just agreed to terms and conditions without bothering to read them.

Though RMIT recommended consumers take a stronger interest in the T&Cs, it acknowledged the reason the problem existed.

“The majority of consumers had experienced frequently changing service terms and conditions, which might be one of the reasons why very few of them read them,” the researchers found.

Although not fully aware of privacy risks, the majority of consumers heard or read enough about personal cloud services not to put much trust in them.

“Only 33 percent of consumers considered personal cloud services trustworthy,” RMIT said.

Born free

Although the study turned up a large number of personal cloud services in use by Australians, in reality a small number of services dominate the market.

“[Australians] tend to stick with well-known global brands rather than local Australian companies,” RMIT found.

“Apple, Dropbox, Google and Microsoft make up 86 percent of the personal cloud services reported in the survey and interviews.”

About an equal proportion didn’t pay to use the services. Some set up multiple accounts to actively skirt freemium limits.

The researchers noted that those who did go on to pay spent an average $222 a year – but only 12 percent of respondents indicated they’d pay for a service over the next year.