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The Six Worst Cloud Security Mistakes? I Can Do You One Better…

I recently read a story from Kelly Jackson Higgins of Dark Reading outlining what are described as the “Six Worst Cloud Security Mistakes:

  1. Assuming the cloud is less secure than your data
  2. Not verifying, testing, or auditing the security of your cloud-based service provider.
  3. Failing to vet your cloud provider’s viability as a business.
  4. Assuming you’re no longer responsible for securing data once it’s in the cloud.
  5. Putting insecure apps in the cloud and expecting that to make them more secure.
  6. Having no clue that your business units are already using some cloud-based services.

A very interesting list, for sure, and a reasonable set of potential “mistakes” to ponder, but I’m really having trouble with one in particular.

The one that’s getting my goose honking is #1: Assuming the cloud is less secure than your data.

Really? I maintain that this generalization about Cloud being more or less secure (in regards to one’s own capabilities) is a silly thing to argue; let’s see why.

We start off with what I think is a strange bit of contradiction:

It’s only natural for security pros to be control freaks. Being charged with securing a company’s data and intellectual property requires a healthy dose of paranoia and protectionism. But sometimes that leads to false impressions about cloud security. “One common mistake is that as soon as you talk about the cloud, [organizations] assume it’s less secure than their own IT security operation,” says Chenxi Wang, principal analyst at Forrester Research. “More control does not necessarily lead to more security.”

Assuming that one of the reasons a company might consider outsourcing their IT security operations to a third party [Cloud] provider IS the fact that they have more control or at least equal to what a company can provide themselves, it occurs to me this sort of statement can be interpreted many ways.  Here’s one, for example.

I find myself confused by the highlighted sentence regarding control and security within the context of what is written.  In fact, if you read the next paragraph, it seems to imply that the because a Cloud provider has more control they can offer better security:

In fact, with services such as Google’s SaaS, data loss is less likely because the information is accessible from anywhere and anytime without saving it to an easily lost or stolen USB stick or CD, according to Eran Feigenbaum, director of security for Google Apps. And Google’s security-patching process is more streamlined than a typical enterprise because its server architecture is homogeneous, he says. “Many attacks [come from a] lack of patch management and server misconfiguration…For Google, when the time comes to patch, we can do so across the entire platform in a uniform fashion,” he said.

I’ll say it again: SaaS is a convenient way of dumbing down “Cloud Computing” to a singular instance/application/service but it completely obviates Platform and Infrastructure as a Service offerings, which are wildly different animals, especially from a security perspective.  Please see my latest commentary about this in my response to Bruce Schneier’s equation of SaaS with Cloud Computing to the exclusion of PaaS/IaaS.

I’ve made the point before that comparing managing/patching a single application and its supporting infrastructure in a SaaS offering to an enterprise that would otherwise have to support not only that service but potentially hundreds more is a completely unfair comparison.  If you want to compare apples to apples, I’d maintain that any organization with a mature security program whose only charter was to support (securely) a single application could do it just as well as a SaaS provider, all other things being equal.

The differences here become scale and multi-tenancy in the case of the Cloud provider, I think these issues actually make a Cloud environment more difficult to secure.

Also, suggesting with the Google example that “data loss is less likely” because it’s “accessible from anywhere” and doesn’t involve “…lost or stolen USB stick(s) or CD(s)” seems an awfully arbitrary one given the fact that one of the most interesting data loss/leakage incidents in recent Cloud history came from Google’s Docs offering due to an operator (Google) system misconfiguration.  USB sticks and CDs are also a very narrow definition of data loss/leakage.

Then there’s the more global view SaaS and other cloud providers have, Feigenbaum says. “As an enterprise, you only see a small slice of what’s affecting you [threat-wise],” Feigenbaum said during a panel on cloud security at the RSA Conference in April. “A cloud provider can have the economy of scale for a holistic vision…the cloud shifts security and also makes it better,” he said.

I don’t have anything to argue about here; a wider perspective and better visibility is a good thing.  Again, however, this depends upon the type of service, what is being monitored and protected, on behalf of whom and from whom.

But that doesn’t mean you should blindly trust your cloud provider, though the larger ones do tend to have a better handle on threats due to their size, Forrester’s Wang says. “These people deal with security issues at more complex levels than your own IT team sees on a daily basis,” Wang says. “It’s a misconception to say cloud security is definitely less capable or more problematic.”

No, you shouldn’t blindly trust your providers but that last statement suggests we should similary trust that providers do a better job and deal with security issues at more complex levels?  What does that even mean? Please do NOT tell me that a SAS70 Type II is your answer.  Just as “It’s a misconception to say cloud security is definitely less capable or more problematic,” I can just as easily suggest the converse is true without evidence.

I would like to see the empirical data that backs that set of statements up and the common metrics I can use to measure across providers and enterprises alike.  Thought so.

Thus far, security has been one of the main hurdles to adoption of cloud-based services, says Michelle Dennedy, chief governance officer for cloud computing at Sun Microsystems. “Trust in the cloud, more than technical abilities, has been hindering adoption,” Dennedy says. “But the cloud can be more secure than a private environment in many cases.”

Michelle is definitely correct; trust represents a fundamental issue with Cloud adoption, and it rolls both ways.  Asking us to “trust but verify” when what we’re being asked to verify can’t easily be trusted poses a very difficult scenario indeed.

By the way, I think the worst Cloud Security mistake is not knowing what Cloud Security even means.


  1. Roland Dobbins
    June 7th, 2009 at 15:10 | #1

    What about DDoS?

    [Not silly 'EDoS', heh. ;>]

    DDoS is the big security-related elephant in the room everyone seems to be pretending doesn't exist. DDoS is an existential threat to the cloud, and must be considered cloud security threat #1, IMHO.

  2. June 7th, 2009 at 20:41 | #2

    good to read abt saas having better security often. We provide users of our project collaboration SaaS with SSL, better security, hope these kind of facilities but different vendors will also help assuage fears abt security problems with SaaS usage.

  1. August 18th, 2009 at 22:25 | #1