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BLOGViewpoint: Cuba, Data sovereignty, and the Cloud

by Randall CraigFiled in: Blog, Global Business, Make It Happen Tipsheet, Technology, ViewpointTagged as: , ,

Information wants to be free.  Unless it doesn’t want to be.  Nowhere was this more clear than on a recent vacation to one of the western hemisphere’s last bastions of non-freedom, Cuba.

Viewpoint: Cuba, Data sovereignty, and the Cloud

The Cubans we met were super-friendly, happy, and entrepreneurial.  The culture was replete with amazing music, history, architecture, and national pride.  And the beaches were amongst the best in the world.

The country, however, is literally cut off from much of the western world, largely because of the remnants of the 1960s cold war, and the philosophical divide between the American and Cuban governments.  Cuba does trade with Russia, China, Venezuela, Eastern Europe, Canada, and a few others.  Perhaps because of the closed nature of the country, perhaps because of the American embargo, or perhaps because of geography, Cuba has become a society seemingly frozen in amber.

Cuba is one of the few places where there is no web access, and for citizens who happen to have a computer, email only.  On one hand, this virtual firewall is repressive; no news can find its way in, and no Cuban culture can find its way out.  On the other hand, you don’t see people attached to their mobile devices, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and all of the other solitary activities those in the west seem addicted to.  In the words of Modesto, a driver we hired for the day to see Cuba beyond our resort: “Why do I need computer[s]?  I have my job, my family, my friends.”  And indeed, he does have these.  But like a blind man trying to fathom the difference between two colors, is his comment borne of not knowing what he can’t know?  Or of a deeper wisdom that was stifled in the west, when the Social Media genie was let out of the bottle?

A lesson, perhaps, for those with the option to choose: Does every minute spent connected online strengthen our relationships with others, or distract us from being “in the moment” with those we care about most?

Cuba actually does have internet access.  In the entire Varadero area, there are two locations where those with passports can purchase an access card for 30 minutes for the equivalent of $3.00.  While the connection speed is exceptionally slow, and likely monitored by the government, it is a way for a tourist to gain access to the outside world.  Or, in my case, check for critical emails from the office.

Unfortunately, I was not able to.

Our firm decided (wisely) to place all of our critical infrastructure (telephone, email, fileservers, etc) in the cloud.  This meant, for example, that we would rely on Google Workspace (formerly GSuite) to host and manage our corporate email.  We never guessed that access to it would be blocked when out of the United States or Canada.

Interestingly, it was neither the internet cafe nor the Cuban government that prevented access.  Instead, it was Google itself.  That’s right – Google!  Upon login, a “helpful” screen informed me that Google Workspace does not allow email logins from Cuba, and a handful of other countries. (The free gmail has no such restrictions though.)

Putting aside the gall of Google for preventing me from accessing my corporate email, for which they are paid a fee to provide, this is a tremendous argument for ensuring that corporate data, functionality, and access to it does not fall prey to another country’s extraterritorial laws.  I don’t recall agreeing to this restriction, although I expect that digging deeply into Google’s terms and conditions, I would find it.

The benefits of cloud-hosted data and functionality cannot be overstated.  Yet how often, when outsourced to a third party, are we fully aware of the constraints under which these third parties operate?  And particularly, whose laws?

While this question might seem more appropriate for Corporate IT managers, consider what this means for us as individuals: Don’t think you use the cloud?  Think again:

  • Dropbox filesharing
  • iCloud and iTunes
  • Google Drive, Google Docs, and Gmail
  • Hotmail, Microsoft (Office) 365, and Microsoft OneDrive
  • Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, and all other public Social Networks.

Whether they are free or paid is irrelevant: the question is whether you actually know where the data is stored?  Or what laws apply that may restrict your access to it?  Or for that matter, gives 3rd parties access to your data, sometimes without your knowledge, and sometimes without a court order?

Most sophisticated IT managers understand the due diligence that is required to address the issues of cloud risks, including data sovereignty and access.  But there are two gaps:  Social Media – often mission critical from a strategic marketing perspective – is noticeably absent from the cloud-risk checklist.  And as cloud functionality migrates to the individual level, most people don’t even know what questions to ask.  They rely on the cloud “magic” to just work, without a second thought about data sovereignty, access, or other risks.

While a vacation to Cuba is actually supposed to be a vacation from work, it is hard not to look around and beyond the beauty of the country, find a lesson or two… in the clouds.


List all of the cloud-hosted systems that you use, both corporately and personally.  Then one-by-one, discover which have fine print that can limit your access, or give back-door access to others.

Action plan #2:  When you’re on vacation, it’s actually not a bad decision to… be on vacation. Do you really need that internet access…?


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