Secrecy of cloud computing providers raises IT security risks

Getting into the cloud can be a security and legal minefield

Despite how attractive cloud computing can sound as an outsourcing option, there's widespread concern that it presents a security and legal minefield. Cloud service providers often cultivate an aura of secrecy about data centers and operations, claiming this stance improves their security even if it leaves everyone else in the dark.

Despite how attractive cloud computing can sound as an outsourcing option, there's widespread concern that it presents a security and legal minefield for businesses and government. Cloud service providers often cultivate an aura of secrecy about data centers and operations, claiming this stance improves their security even if it leaves everyone else in the dark.

Lawmakers question the security of cloud computing|

Census Bureau counting heads in the cloud

Businesses and industry analysts are getting fed up with this cloud computing version of "don't ask, don't tell," where non-disclosure agreements (NDA) dominate, questions aren't answered, and data center locations and practices are treated like national security secrets. But public cloud service providers argue their penchant for secrecy is appropriate for the cloud model -- and at any rate, everyone's doing it. They often hold out their SAS-70  audit certifications to appease any worry (though some don't have even that)."The business data you store in Google's cloud is safe," said Google product marketing manager Adam Swidler at the recent Gartner security conference held in National Harbor, Md. He emphasized that Google's multi-tenant distributed model entails "splicing data across many hard drives" so that in this "hardened Linux stack" there's a "quick update of all fragments of all files in the hard drives," a process he called "obfuscated files."

Swidler acknowledged there has been some secrecy about where things are located because "we think it's a security risk." Nonetheless, "Google is trying to open up a little transparency in what we do," he said.

Currently, the information Google will disclose publicly or even under NDA won't satisfy everyone, Swidler acknowledged. "It's not enough for everybody. Some people do want to go deeper."

List of cloud security risks

The location of data centers is a big issue in contract negotiations, where legislative and judicial issues abound. For instance, the location of data is an issue under some data-privacy laws, such as those from the European Union. But while customers often care about where their data is physically located, Google "believes this notion of where is data physically located is a bit antiquated," Swidler said.

Many disagree, however.

Customers want to know where a cloud provider's data center is, said Kurt Jackson, managing director in a Pitney Bowes Insight division called OnDemand that offers software-as-a-service applications, such as maps for city services, to business and government customers.

The willingness of cloud provider Terremark to allow site visits and to discuss details about its data centers and its physical and network security was critical in the decision to use Terremark, Jackson said. "If you're running in Miami, you know you're in Miami," he said. "Some other providers just aren't as transparent."

The argument over transparency vs. secrecy in cloud computing is leading to a culture clash between the more traditional ways of handling data outsourcing and the newer cloud-computing utility methods and mindset.

Gartner analyst John Pescatore said it's simply not possible to know whether Google's technique of "hiding the data in a million places" is good security or not since there's no way to evaluate it. Speaking at the Gartner security conference, he said SAS-70 certification of any public cloud provider may be considered adequate for some customers, and not others. "SAS-70 is pretty meaningless from a security level, but it makes auditors happy."

Organizations with certain kinds of sensitive data are simply unlikely to find public cloud computing a right fit until the day comes when they can be sure their favorite security mechanisms are running in their cloud environment, Pescatore said.

Cloud computing challenges traditional notions about auditing and security, and it's possible a new way of auditing needs to evolve.

"If your service provider won't give you information about security processes and plans in order to do what's necessary, you shouldn't trust that provider," said Andreas Antonopoulos, an analyst with Nemertes Research.

The old idea of "security by obscurity," which suggests you can defend your security position best by keeping mum about everything, is misguided, he said. "It doesn't work. There's always someone who knows," Antonpoulos said. If you hear someone try to get your business by uttering that phrase, "run far and fast."

Analyzing the fine print

Legal experts took notice when the City of Los Angeles posted its contract with Google related to the city's migration to Google e-mail and collaboration services with the help of IT services firm CSC..

David Navetta, an attorney at Information Law Group, recently completed an analysis of the lengthy contracts with Google and CSC to determine how each side fared in defining responsibilities related to a potential data breach and indemnification of damages.

He note Google is defined in the arrangement as a CSC "subcontractor," and "therefore, as respects indemnification for a breach of confidentiality obligations or for lost City Data, CSC would be responsible to pay for Google's act or error." However, he thinks the term "lost data" should have been defined more clearly in the contracts.

Speaking in general about the job of evaluating and approving cloud services contracts, Navetta said it's common to encounter a rushed environment where cloud service providers insist they don't have time to discuss details and don't want to make changes.

"The usual line is 'we can't do this one change for one customer,'" Navetta said. Security and legal are typically "on the same side of the aisle," while the IT department wants to get something done quickly to save money. He said cloud providers often don't want to "let people truly look under the hood" and using them "constitutes a trade-off because you're losing control." Not surprisingly, large companies and government agencies can be expected to obtain more concessions from cloud-service providers.But not all organizations have found they fret over contracts.

Lincoln Cannon, director of Web systems at Merit Medical Systems, said the manufacturer has taken a few steps into cloud computing with Google Apps and Telania's eLeap for sales training, as well as Amazon for development work related to a new corporate Web site.

The providers' boilerplate legal agreements were given to the legal department, which redlined them and went back and forth until both partners were satisfied, Cannon said. "The legal team was perfectly happy with Google Apps," he said. The most concern over cloud computing probably came from the CIO because of his data-protection responsibilities related to Sarbanes-Oxley regulations, Cannon said.

Not all cloud service providers harp on secrecy, either.

Cloud infrastructure services provider ReliaCloud has two data centers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and has about 100 cloud customers using its new VMware-based environment built on a management platform designed by, said CTO Jason Baker.

However, most of the hosting provider's 5,000 customers continue to use the more traditional method the firm offers that entails use of dedicated servers in cages, Baker said. The idea of cloud computing is still very new and customers are still trying to understand what's different. But Baker said he's convinced a shared-tenant virtual-machine-based cloud service carries some inherent security attributes in terms of high availability that can't be matched by dedicated servers.

"It's more reliable," he said. "If your application is running on one physical box, the customer would experience downtime. But in a cloud, we have a pool of virtual machines, and if one physical node goes down, we would automatically start somewhere else in the cloud." In addition, he said, use of some APIs in the future could allow customers' applications to sense when an increase in computing power is needed and execute that at once.

Unlike some cloud providers, Baker will willingly tell you about security defenses in use, such as the Cisco ASA firewall.

The question for customers is how far the public cloud providers are going to pull back the kimono, said HP's chief security strategist Chris Whitener. "You should sort of insist on that," he said.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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