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Risk and Its Impact on Security Within the Cloud - Part 1

The effect of people and processes on cloud technologies

These days when we hear the term "cloud computing" there is an understanding that we are speaking about a flexible, cost-effective, and proven delivery platform that is being utilized or will be utilized to provide IT services over the Internet. As end users or researchers of all things "cloud" we expect to hear about how quickly processes, applications, and services can be provisioned, deployed and scaled, as needed, regardless of users' physical locations.

When we think of the typical traditional IT security environment, we have to be cognizant of the potential for an onslaught of attacks, be they zero day, the ever-evolving malware engines and the increase in attacks via social engineering, the challenge for any security professional is to develop and ensure as secure an IT system as possible.

Thoughts on Traditional Security and Risk
Common discussions within the spectrum of IT security are risks, threats and vulnerability, and an awareness of the impact of people and processes on technologies. Having had opportunities to work on data center migrations as well as cloud services infrastructures, a primary question of mine has been: what then of the cloud and cloud security and the related risk derived from selected services being outsourced to a third-party provider?

ISO 27005 defines risk as a "potential that a given threat will exploit vulnerabilities of an asset or group of assets and thereby cause harm to the organization."

In terms of an organization, risk can be mitigated, transferred or accepted. Calculating risk usually involves:

  • Calculating the value of an asset
  • Giving it a weight of importance in order to prioritize its ranking for analysis
  • Conducting a vulnerability analysis
  • Conducting an impact analysis
  • Determining its associated risk.

As a security consultant, I also like the balanced scorecard as proposed by Robert Kaplan and David Norton, especially when aimed at demonstrating compliance with policies that will protect my organization from loss.

Cloud Security and Risk
In terms of cloud security, one key point to remember is that there is an infrastructure somewhere that supports and provides cloud computing services. In other words the same mitigating factors that apply to ensure security within a traditional IT infrastructure will apply to a cloud provider's infrastructure.

All this is well and good within the traditional IT environment, but how then can we assess, or even forecast for and/or mitigate risk when we are working with a cloud computing system? Some argue that "cloud authorization systems are not robust enough with as little as a password and username to gain access to the system, in many private clouds; usernames can be very similar, degrading the authorization measures" (Curran,Carlin 2011)

We have had the arguments that the concentrated IT security capabilities at cloud service provider (CSP) can be beneficial to a cloud service customer (CSC); however, businesses are in the realm of business to ensure a profit from their engagements. One study by P. McFedries (2008) found that "disciplined companies achieved on average an 18% reduction in their IT budget from cloud computing and a 16% reduction in data center power costs."

To mitigate this concern, a CSC will need to ensure that their CSP defines the cloud environment as the customer moves beyond their "protected" traditional perimeter. Both organizations need to ensure that all high risk security impact to the customer organization meets or exceeds the customer organization's security policy and requirements and their proposed mitigation measures. As part of a "cloud policy" a CSC security team should identify and understand any cloud-specific security risks and their potential impact to the organization.

Additionally a CSP should leverage their economies of scale when it comes to cloud security (assets, personnel, experience) to offer a CSC an amalgamation of security segments and security subsystem boundaries. Any proficient IT Security practitioner then can benefit from the advantage of leveraging a cloud provider's security model. However, when it applies to business needs the 'one size fits all' cloud security strategy will not work.

Of utmost importance when looking to engage the services of a cloud provider is gaining a clear picture of how the provider will ensure the integrity of data to be held within their cloud service/s. That said all the security in the world would not prevent the seizure of equipment from government agencies investigating a crime. Such a seizure can interrupt business operations or even totally halt business for an innocent CSC sharing a server that hosts the VM of an entity under investigation. One way to manage the impact on a CSC function within the cloud as suggested by Chen, Paxon and Katz (2010) is the concept of "mutual auditability."

The researchers further went on to state that CSPs and CSCs will need to develop a mutual trust model, "in a bilateral or multilateral fashion." The outcome of such a model will allow a CSP "in search and seizure incidents to demonstrate to law enforcement that they have turned over all relevant evidence, and prove to users that they turned over only the necessary evidence and nothing more."

Is it then feasible for a CSC to calculate the risk associated with such an event and ensure that there is a continuity plan in place to mitigate such an incident ? That will depend on the business impacted.

Another cause for concern from cloud computing introduces a shared resource environment from which an attacker can exploit covert and side channels.

Risks such as this need to be acknowledged and addressed when documenting the CSP-CSC Service Level Agreement (SLA). This of course may be in addition to demands with respect to concerns for Availability, Integrity, Security, Privacy and Reliability? Would a CSC feel assured that their data is safe when a CSP provides assurance that they follow the traditional static based risk assessment models?

I argue not, since we are working within a dynamic environment. According to Kaliski, Ristenpart, Tromer, Shacham, and Savage (2009) "neighbouring content is more at risk of contamination, or at least compromise, from the content in nearby containers."

So how then should we calculate risk within the Cloud? According to Kaliski and Pauley of the EMC Corporation, "just as the cloud is "on-demand," increasingly, risk assessments applied to the cloud will need to be "on-demand" as well."

The suggestion by Kaliski and Pauley was to implement a risk as a service model that integrates an autonomic system, which must be able to effectively measure its environment as well as "adjust its behavior based on goals and the current context".

Of course this is a theoretical model and further research will have to be conducted to gather data points and "an autonomic manager that analyses risks and implements changes".

In terms of now, I believe that if we can utilize a portion of a static risk assessment, define specific controls and control objectives as well as map such to that within a CSP or, define it during the SLA process, a CSC can then observe control activities that manage and/or mitigate risk to their data housed at the CSP.

Traditionally governance and compliance requirements should also still apply to the CSP, e.g., there must be a third-party auditor for the CSP cloud services and these services should have industry recognized security certificates where applicable.

Some things that a CSC needs to be cognizant of with regard to cloud security in addition to tradition IT security measures with a CSP are:

  1. The ability of the CSP to support dynamic data operation for cloud data storage applications while ensuring the security and integrity of data at rest
  2. Have a process in place to challenge the cloud storage servers to ensure the correctness of the cloud data with the ability of original files being able to be recovered by interacting with the server (Wang 2011)
  3. Encryption-on-demand ability or other encryption metrics that meets an industry standard, e.g., NIST
  4. A privacy-preserving public auditing system for data storage security in Cloud Computing  (W. L. Wang 2010)
  5. Cloud application security policies automation
  6. Cloud model-driven security process, broken down in the following steps: policy modelling, automatic policy generation, policy enforcement, policy auditing, and automatic update (Lang 2011) 

Continued in Part 2

Works Cited

  • Curran, Sean Carlin and Kevin. "Cloud Computing Security. ." International Journal of Ambient Computing and Intelligence, 2011: 38-46.
  • Lang, Ulrich. Model-driven cloud security. IBM, 2011.
  • Thomas Ristenpart, Eran Tromer, Hovav Shacham, and Stefan Savage. Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud!Exploring Information Leakage in Third-Party Compute Clouds. CCS 2009, ACM Press, 2009.
  • Wang, Wang, Li, Ren. Privacy-Preserving Public Auditing for Data Storage Security in Cloud Computing. IEEE INFOCOM, 2010.
  • Wang, Wang,Li Ren. Lou. "Enabling Public Verifiability and Data Dynamics for Storage Security in Cloud Computing." Chicago, 2011.
  • Yanpei Chen, Vern Paxson,Randy H. Katz. What's New About Cloud Computing Security? Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley, 2010.

More Stories By Jon Shende

Jon RG Shende is an executive with over 18 years of industry experience. He commenced his career, in the medical arena, then moved into the Oil and Gas environment where he was introduced to SCADA and network technologies,also becoming certified in Industrial Pump and Valve repairs. Jon gained global experience over his career working within several verticals to include pharma, medical sales and marketing services as well as within the technology services environment, eventually becoming the youngest VP of an international enterprise. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford, holds a Masters certificate in Business Administration, as well as an MSc in IT Security, specializing in Computer Crime and Forensics with a thesis on security in the Cloud. Jon, well versed with the technology startup and mid sized venture ecosystems, has contributed at the C and Senior Director level for former clients. As an IT Security Executive, Jon has experience with Virtualization,Strategy, Governance,Risk Management, Continuity and Compliance. He was an early adopter of web-services, web-based tools and successfully beta tested a remote assistance and support software for a major telecom. Within the realm of sales, marketing and business development, Jon earned commendations for turnaround strategies within the services and pharma industry. For one pharma contract he was responsibe for bringing low performing districts up to number 1 rankings for consecutive quarters; as well as outperforming quotas from 125% up to 314%. Part of this was achieved by working closely with sales and marketing teams to ensure message and product placement were on point. Professionally he is a Fellow of the BCS Chartered Institute for IT, an HITRUST Certified CSF Practitioner and holds the CITP and CRISC certifications.Jon Shende currently works as a Senior Director for a CSP. A recognised thought Leader, Jon has been invited to speak for the SANs Institute, has spoken at Cloud Expo in New York as well as sat on a panel at Cloud Expo Santa Clara, and has been an Ernst and Young CPE conference speaker. His personal blog is located at http://jonshende.blogspot.com/view/magazine "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit."

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