The safest place to keep your data…”Cloud” or “Train”..?

How will “Cloud” compete with “Train”?

We all know that the Cloud is the place to store all your data right? We used to think that “Train” was the best place to store our data and some traditionalists, such as the person who left the Olympic Security plans on Train” clearly think it’s still the best data storage option. Of course, there is also “Taxi”  – still popular but you can only get your data to go on a maximum 20 mile round trip, so it’s a bit limited really. Not as limited as “Pub” though this is a data storage concept that is still hanging around after all these years.

“I found this on the back seat of a Taxi.”

OK,  joking aside, are businesses and organisations going into the Cloud fully armed with information? If they aren’t, then they may as well stick with Train and Taxi. We have put together a guide to help inform, dispel some myths – as we see them, and give some real clarity and guidance. With sincere thanks to our gifted and expert Consultants.

SC Magazine published an interesting piece just before Christmas on Cloud computing (

Amongst the issues identified in the article were:

  • That Cloud-based infrastructure has a distinctive threat profile (right);
  • That the answer to Cloud security is through compliance and standards (to a degree); and
  • That Cloud service providers should be regulated by an independent body (we don’t agree).

These three assertions are worth some further digging and clarification.

The distinguishing threats relating to Cloud services have been well publicised but here is a quick run-down of our top Cloud-based information security threats:

I.            System Complexity – Public Cloud services offered by providers have a serious underlying complication—subscribing organisations typically share components and resources with other subscribers that are unknown to them. Threats to network and computing infrastructures continue to increase each year and have become more sophisticated. Having to share an infrastructure with unknown outside parties can be a major drawback for some applications and requires a high level of assurance for the strength of the security mechanisms used for logical separation.

II.            Shared Multi-tenancy – While not unique to Cloud computing, logical separation is a non-trivial problem that is exacerbated by the scale of Cloud computing.  An attacker could also pose as a subscriber to exploit vulnerabilities from within the Cloud environment to gain unauthorized access.

III.            The Internet – Applications and data that were previously accessed from the confines an organisation’s network, but moved to the Cloud, must now face increased risk from network threats that were previously defended against at the perimeter of the organisation’s network and from new threats that target the exposed end-points.

IV.            Compliance – When information crosses borders the governing legal, privacy, and regulatory regimes can be ambiguous and raise a variety of concerns. Consequently, constraints on the trans-border flow of sensitive data, as well as the requirements on the protection afforded the data, have become the subject of national and regional privacy and security laws and regulations. Among the concerns to be addressed are whether the laws in the jurisdiction where the data was collected permit the flow, whether those laws continue to apply to the data post transfer, and whether the laws at the destination present additional risks or benefits.

V.            Loss of control – Remote administrative access as the single means of managing the assets of the organisation held in the Cloud also increases risk, compared with a traditional data centre, where administrative access to platforms can be restricted to direct or internal connections

VI.            Mechanism cracking – With Cloud computing, a task that would take five days to run on a single computer takes only 20 minutes to accomplish on a cluster of 400 virtual machines. Because cryptography is used widely in authentication, data confidentiality and integrity, and other security mechanisms, these mechanisms become, in effect, less effective with the availability of cryptographic key cracking Cloud services. Granted this isn’t just a Cloud based threat – traditional types of system are also possible targets.

VII.            Insider Access / Threat – Data processed or stored outside the confines of an organisation, its firewall, and other security controls bring with it an inherent level of risk. The insider security threat is a well-known issue for most organisations and, despite the name, applies as well to outsourced Cloud services. With the Cloud, insider threats go beyond those posed by current or former employees to include contractors, organisational affiliates, and other parties that have received access to an organisation’s networks, systems, and data to carry out or facilitate operations. Incidents may involve various types of fraud, sabotage of information resources, and theft of confidential information. Incidents may also be caused unintentionally—for instance, a bank employee sending out sensitive customer information to the wrong Google mail account.

VIII.            Data Ownership – The organisation’s ownership rights over the data must be firmly established in the service contract to enable a basis for trust. The continuing controversy over privacy and data ownership rights for social networking users illustrates the impact that ambiguous terms can have on the parties involved. Ideally, the contract should state clearly that the organisation retains ownership over all its data; that the Cloud provider acquires no rights or licenses through the agreement to use the data for its own purposes, including intellectual property rights or licenses; and that the Cloud provider does not acquire and may not claim any ownership interest in the data.

IX.            Data Sanitisation – The data sanitisation practices that a Cloud provider implements have obvious implications for security. Sanitisation is the removal of sensitive data from a storage device, including servers, in various situations, such as when a storage device is removed from service or moved elsewhere to be stored. Data sanitisation also applies to backup copies made for recovery and restoration of service, and also residual data remaining upon termination of service. In a Cloud computing environment, data from one subscriber is physically combined with the data of other subscribers, which can complicate matters. For instance, many examples exist of researchers obtaining used drives from online auctions and other sources and recovering large amounts of sensitive information from them.

So what is the answer to these Cloud-based security conundrums?  Compliance with information security standards as Mr Churchward* suggests.  Well, in part is the rather cryptic answer to that one, I think.  There are some very good information security standards and control sets out there (COBIT, ISO/IEC27001:2005 and the UK government’s HMG Information Assurance Standards being just some examples).  However, every experienced information security professional will know or have known at least one organisation for which the having the standard is the means as well as the ends and that frustratingly they maintain a visage of information security competency when the assessor arrives for their next audit but that in-between audits security is just a byword for inconvenience.  So if

The sight of a Cloud services provider brandishing a given security certification is not sufficient assurance, what is?  We suggest these three steps to Cloud contractual heaven:

  1. The right to audit.  And then do it.  And don’t pick a service provider who is based a 36 hour flight away unless you – and your management – are prepared to send someone to their data centre to do the audit!
  2. Talk to prospective service providers about the threats above.  If they are coy, defensive, or babble techno-speak make sure you are content to receive the same level of effrontery when you have a query, business interruption scenario or concern about your data.
  3. Does the would-be service provider sub-contract out its storage, security, administration or anything else?  The very flexibility of Cloud-based services means your data or responsibility of your data can be syndicated out by your nominal provider in the blink of an eye.  You wouldn’t sub-contract out your office space so readily would you…?

On the point of standards, it is probably worth clarifying a couple of points for the unwary arising from the SC Magazine article:

  • ISO/IEC27001:2005 is the international (not just UK) standard for Information Security Management Systems.  ISO/IEC27002:2005 is the accompanying guidance for the implementation of the security controls listed in Annex A of ISO/IEC27001:2005;
  • Neither ISO/IEC27001:2005 or ISO/IEC27002:2005 mention Cloud computing however most of the 133 controls are or could be applicable to a Cloud computing environment.  The explicit inclusion of reference to Cloud services is amongst proposals for changes to the Standard in the future; and
  • There are already two approved international standards for Cloud-based technology relevant to security ( and, though they are definitely for the propeller-heads amongst you!!

And what of Mr Churchward’s* assertion that “we need something externally policed, not self-certified, and a recognised industry body”?  Well, I am not sure we agree insomuch as regulatory, and enforcement bodies already exist for all sorts of activities relating to information security, Cloud-based or otherwise, and it seems an unnecessary burden to introduce another.  Bodies with an interest in maintaining and improving Cloud security include statutory regulators such as the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), and indeed the Irish Data Protection Commissioner is currently working with one well-known international Cloud operation (Facebook) to improve their compliance arrangements (

So to wrap up, we recommend that organisations considering entering in to agreements with Cloud service providers:

Conduct appropriate due diligence before doing so, including a full risk assessment, considering the risks laid out above;

  1. Make sure that they have the right contractual security clauses in place falling out from the risk assessment (e.g. if data sanitisation is a major issue for your organisation, make sure it is robustly referenced in the contract); and
  2. Ensure that your external service providers, including Cloud operators, are part of your audit and assurance programme (this programme should also be risk based – looking at the higher priority areas more frequently and in more depth).

*LogLogic CEO Guy Churchward – quoted in SC Magazine article

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