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The line of trust – the open source column

Online services may be taking on work traditionally done by desktop software – but Simon wonders how we know if they’re safe...

I was stuck. I had a TIFF file that needed converting to something workable, and one that needed to be a JPG within five minutes flat. Had I been at one of my own machines, this would have taken seconds. Instead, it induced mild panic, a near-spilling of my cherished coffee cup, and a very serious stroking of my chin. Within two minutes, though, courtesy of a free online service, it was job done.

It’s not a new development, of course, that increasingly sophisticated online tools can take on pieces of work that are ordinarily the domain of desktop software. In a way, it reminds me of the old PC budget software market, where smaller publishers broke jobs that office suites could comfortably do, and then sold them for a teasing price.

The inherent problem, of course, is where you draw the line of trust. I was in such a hurry with the task I needed doing, and the deadline was looming akin to one Harry Potter’s most fearful death eaters. The fine editor of Linux user & Developer could regale you already with stories of me and deadlines. He would, of course, assure you that said deadline performance was in the ballpark of exemplary. Just, er, not near the middle of it. Let’s leave it at that.

It struck me that a growing number of people, thankfully, approach computing and personal security with a little more common sense than they once did. Most of us don’t go around sticking our passwords on a Post-It note attached to our screens, nor do we leave the default as ‘password’ anymore. What fun we used to have going around trade shows, tapping in ‘password’ on the demo machines and leaving witty messages behind. How the staff used to really love those of us who did that. It was particularly moving when they showed their appreciation using nothing more than some very short words, a shower of moisture from their mouth, and some nonsense about never being welcome again. The cads.

It occurred to me, then: this picture that I’d converted in a hurry, I’d thrown caution to the proverbial wind with. All because I had a clock ticking. Ordinarily, I’d want to know who I was uploading my image too. What’s their policy? Do they claim copyright over it? Is there a term or condition I’ve accepted somewhere along the line that I usually shouldn’t and/or wouldn’t? And, ultimately, by the time I came round to actually answering those questions – fortunately with some fairly satisfactory answers – it was all too late anyway.

It’s hard enough sometimes with desktop software to work out where you stand with things. But web-based services do present a level of extra problems in that regard, especially when you’re trusting them with your work. You can hardly set your firewall to deny access.

Convenience is no small feature with some of the tools that are being offered, and I remain grateful in my particular instance for the one that dug me out of problems. While I may be being a little over-dramatic here – it wouldn’t be the first time – what did my haste in this regard potentially expose me to?

It wasn’t even a very good picture that I needed to convert in the first place…