Meeting the requirements for cloud data security entails applying existing security techniques and following sound security practices. To be effective, cloud data security depends on more than simply applying appropriate countermeasures. Taken collectively, countermeasures must comprise a resilient mosaic that protects data at rest as well as data in motion.
While the use of encryption is a key component for cloud security, even the most robust encryption is pointless if the keys are exposed or if encryption endpoints are insecure. Customer or tenant control over these endpoints will vary depending on the service model and the deployment model.
OVERVIEW OF DATA SECURITY IN CLOUD COMPUTING
It is understandable that prospective cloud adopters would have security concerns around storing and processing sensitive data in a public or hybrid or even in a community cloud. Compared to a private data center, these concerns usually center on two areas:
- Decreased control by the owning organization when data is no longer managed within an organization’s premises
- Concern by the owning organization that multitenancy clouds inherently pose risks to sensitive data
In both cases, the potential risk of data exposure is real but not fundamentally new. This is not to say that cloud computing does not bring unique challenges to data security.
Control over Data and Public Cloud Economics
In contrast to use of a public cloud, maintaining organizational physical control over stored data or data as it traverses internal networks and is processed by on-premises computers does offer potential advantages for security. But the fact is that while many organizations may enforce strict on-premises-only data policies, few organizations actually follow through and implement the broad controls and the disciplined practices that are necessary to achieve full and effective control.
So, additional risks may be present when data doesn’t physically exist within the confines of an organization’s controlled facility—this is not necessarily the security issue that it may appear to be. To begin, achieving the potential advantages with on-premises data requires that your security strategy and implementation deliver on the promise of better security.
The basic problem is that most organizations are neither qualified to be in the information security business nor are they in that business—they are simply using computers and networks to get their work done! Although secure computing is a desired quality, information security expertise is not a core-competency for most computer users nor is it common in most organizations. Returning to the point:
- Moving data off premises does not necessarily pose new risks, and it may in fact improve your security.
- Entrusting your data to an external custodian may result in better security and may well be more cost effective.
Two examples that underscore this are the commercial service offerings to either store highly sensitive data for disaster recovery or assure the destruction of magnetic media. In both cases, many highly paranoid organizations tightly control how they use these services—but the point is that they use external services, and when they do so, they entrust their data to external custodians.
It is important to state that some kinds of data are simply too sensitive and that the consequence of data exposure is too great for some customers to seriously consider using a public cloud for processing. This applies to any information category that entails national security information or information that is subject to regulatory controls, which cannot yet be met by public target cloud offerings. Likewise, it is unlikely that a well-governed organization would release highly sensitive future product plans to any environment where the organization would be uncertain that the information custodian (the CSP) did not enforce the information owning organization’s interests as well as the organization itself would.
In these examples, it is not the case that security needs for these categories can’t be met in a public cloud, rather the cost of providing such security assurance is incompatible with the cost model of a public cloud. If a CSP is to meet these needs that would demand additional controls, procedures, and practices that would make the cloud offering noncompetitive for most users. Consequently, where such data security needs prevail, other delivery models (community or private cloud) may be more appropriate. This is depicted in Figure 1. Note that this situation is a function of generally available and anticipated offerings in the public cloud space. Quite likely, this will change as security becomes more of a competitive discriminator in cloud computing.
FIGURE 1 Meeting security needs: public, community, and private clouds.
One can easily imagine future high-assurance public clouds that charge more for their service than lower-assurance public clouds do today. We might also expect that some higher-assurance clouds would limit access by selective screening of customers based on entry requirements or regulation. Limiting access to such a cloud would reduce risk—not eliminate it—by limiting access if screening is effective.
Organizational Responsibility: Ownership and Custodianship
While an organization has responsibility for ensuring that their data is properly protected as discussed above, it is often the case that when data resides within premises, appropriate data assurance is not practiced or even understood as a set of actionable requirements. When data is stored with a CSP, the CSP assumes at least partial responsibility (PaaS) if not full responsibility (SaaS) in the role of data custodian. But even with divided responsibilities for data ownership and data custodianship, the data owner does not give up the need for diligence for ensuring that data is properly protected by the custodian.
By the nature of the service offerings, and as depicted in Figure 2, a data owning organization can benefit from their CSP having control and responsibility for customer data in the SaaS model. The data owning organization is progressively responsible beginning with PaaS and expanding with IaaS. But appropriate data assurance can entail significant security competence for the owning organization.
FIGURE 2 Owning organization has increasing control and responsibility over data.
Ultimately, risks to data security in clouds are presented to two states of data: data that is at rest (or stored in the cloud) and data that is in motion (or moving into or out of the cloud). Once again, the security triad (confidentiality, integrity, and availability) along with risk tolerance drives the nature of data protection mechanisms, procedures, and processes. The key issue is the exposure that data is subject to in these states.
Data at Rest and in Motion
Data at rest refers to any data in computer storage, including files on an employee’s computer, corporate files on a server, or copies of these files on off-site tape backup. Protecting data at rest in a cloud is not radically different than protecting it outside a cloud. Generally speaking, the same principles apply. As discussed in the previous section, there is the potential for added risk as the data owning enterprise does not physically control the data. But as also noted in that discussion, the trick to achieving actual security advantage with on-premises data is following through with effective security.
Referring back to Figure 1, the less control the data owning organization has—decreasing from private cloud to public cloud—the more concern and the greater the need for assurance that the CSPs security mechanisms and practices are effective for the level of data sensitivity and data value. (But in Figure 2, we saw that the owning organization’s responsibility for security runs deeper into the stack for the owning organization as they move from SaaS to PaaS and again to IaaS.)
If you are going to use an external cloud provider to store data, a prime requirement is that risk exposure is acceptable. Risk exposure varies in part as a function of service delivery as it does for deployment.
A secondary requirement is to verify that the provider will act as a true custodian of your data. A data owning organization has several opportunities in proactively ensuring data assurance by a CSP. To begin with, selecting a CSP should be based on verifiable attestation that the CSP follows industry best practices and implements security that is appropriate for the kinds of data they are entrusted with. Such certifications will vary according to the nature of the information and whether regulatory compliance is necessary. Understandably, one should expect to pay more for services that involve such certifications. One likely trend here is that higher assurance cloud services may come with indemnification as a means of insurance or monetary backing of assurance for a declared level of security. Whatever the future may hold, we can expect that practices in this space will evolve.
Data in Motion
Data in motion refers to data as it is moved from a stored state as a file or database entry to another form in the same or to a different location. Any time you upload data to be stored in the cloud, the time at which the data is being uploaded data is considered to be data in transit. Data in motion can also apply to data that is in transition and not necessarily permanently stored. Your username and password for accessing a Web site or authenticating yourself to the cloud would be considered sensitive pieces of data in motion that are not actually stored in unencrypted form.
Because data in motion only exists as it is in transition between points—such as in memory (RAM) or between end points—securing this data focuses on preventing the data from being tampered with as well as making sure that it remains confidential. One risk has to do with a third party observing the data while it was in motion. But funny things happen when data is transmitted between distant end points, to begin with packets may be cached on intermediate systems, or temporary files may be created at either end point. There is no better protection strategy for data in motion than encryption.
Common Risks with Cloud Data Security
Several risks to cloud computing data security are discussed in this section. None of these are unique to the cloud model, but they do pose risk and must be considered when addressing data security. They include phishing, CSP privileged access, and the source or origin of data itself.
One indirect risk to data in motion in a cloud is phishing. Although it is generally considered unfeasible to break public key infrastructure (PKI) today (and therefore break the authentication and encryption), it is possible to trick end users into providing their credentials for access to clouds. Although phishing is not new to the security world, it represents an additional threat to cloud security. Listed below are some protection measures that some cloud providers have implemented to help address cloud-targeted phishing related attacks:
- Salesforce.com Login Filtering Salesforce has a feature to restrict access to a particular instance of their customer relationship management application. For example, a subscriber can tell Salesforce not to accept logins, even if valid credentials are provided, unless the login is coming from a whitelisted IP address range. This can be very effective in preventing phishing attacks by preventing an attacker login unless he is coming from a known IP address range.
- Google Apps/Docs/Services Logged In Sessions & Password Rechecking Many Google services randomly prompt users for their passwords, especially in response when a suspicious event was observed. Furthermore, many Google’s services display the IP address from the previous login session along with automatic notification of suspicious events, such as login from China shortly after an IP address from the United States did for the same account.
- Amazon Web Services Authentication Amazon takes authentication to cloud resources seriously. When a subscriber uses EC2 to provision a new cloudhosted virtual server, by default, Amazon creates cryptographically strong PKI keys and requires those keys to be used for authentication to that resource. If you provision a new LINUX VM and want to SSH to it, you have to use SSH with key-based authentication and not a static password.
But these methods are not always fool proof—with phishing, the best protection is employee/subscriber training and awareness to recognize fraudulent login/ capturing events. Some questions that you might ask your CSP related to protection from phishing-related attacks are:
- Referring URL Monitoring Does the CSP actively monitor the referring URLs for authenticated sessions? A wide-spread phishing attack targeting multiple customers can come from a bogus or fraudulent URL.
- Behavioral Policies Does the CSP employ policies and procedures that mandate that a consistent brand is in place (often phishing attacks take advantages of branding weaknesses to deceive users)? Does their security policy prohibit weak security activities that could be exploited? An example would be if they prohibit the sending of e-mails with links that users can click on that automatically interact with their data. Another example would be whether they allow password resets to occur without actively proving user identity via a previously confirmed factor of authentication (that is, initiate a password request on the Web and they confirm the identity of the user based on an out-of-band SMS text message to their cell phone).
Phishing is a threat largely because most cloud services currently rely on simple username and password authentication. If an attacker succeeds in obtaining credentials, there is not much preventing them from gaining access.
Provider Personnel with Privileged Access
Another risk to cloud data security has to do with a number of potential vectors for inappropriate access to customer sensitive data by cloud personnel. Plainly stated, outsourced services—be they cloud-based or not—can bypass the typical controls that IT organizations typically enforce via physical and logical controls.
This risk is a function of two primary factors: first, it largely has to do with the potential for exposure with unencrypted data and second, it has to do with privileged cloud provider personnel access to that data. Evaluating this risk largely entails CSP practices and assurances that CSP personnel with privileged access will not access customer data.
Data Origin and Lineage
The origin, integrity, lineage, and provenance of data can be a primary concern in cloud computing. Proving the origin of information or data has importance in many areas, including patents or proving ownership of valuable data sets that are based on independent analysis of commonly available information sources.
For compliance purposes, it may be necessary to have exact records as to what data was placed in a public cloud, when it occurred, what VMs and storage it resided on, and where it was processed. In fact, it may be equally important to be able to prove that certain datasets were not transferred to a cloud, for instance, when there are sensitivity or EU-privacy concerns about what national borders such data may have crossed.
While reporting on data lineage and provenance may be very important for regulatory purposes, it may be very difficult to do so with a public cloud. This is largely due to the degree of abstraction that exists between actual physical resources—such as disk drives and servers—and the virtualized resources that a public cloud user has access to. Visibility into a provider’s operations in terms of technical mechanisms can be impossible to obtain, for understandable reasons.
Where such requirements exist that the origin and custody of data or information must be maintained in order to prevent tampering, to preclude exposure outside a jurisdictional realm, or to assure continuing integrity of data, it may be completely inappropriate to use a public cloud or even a low-assurance private cloud. One can imagine that if such requirements become increasingly common, cloud-based services will arise to profit from the opportunity. In the absence of a public service and where a private cloud is cost prohibitive, alternative approaches should be considered— easiest among them the use of a hybrid or community cloud.