How to protect a companies data from surveillance in the cloud?

June 20, 2013 |

With PRISM the U.S. government has further increased the uncertainty among Internet users and companies, and therefore strengthened the loss of confidence in U.S. vendors enormously. After the Patriot Act, which was often cited as the main argument against the use of cloud solutions from US-based providers, the surveillance by the NSA be the final straw. From a business perspective, under these present circumstances, the decision can only be to opt out of a cloud provider in the United States, even if it has a subsidiary with a location and a data center in Europe or Germany. That I already pointed out in this article. Nevertheless, the economic life must go on, which can also work with the cloud. However, here is a need for pay attention to the technical security, which is discussed in this article.

Affected parties

This whole issue is not necessarily just for companies but for every user of actively communicating in the cloud and shares and synchronized its data. Although the issue of data protection can not be neglected in this context. For companies it is usually still more at stake when internal company information is intercepted or voice and video communication is observed. At this point it must be mentioned that this has nothing to do primarily with the cloud. Data communication was operated long before cloud infrastructures and services. However, the cloud leads to an increasingly interconnection, and act as a focal point of modern communications and collaboration infrastructure in the future.

The current security situation

The PRISM scandal shows the full extent of the possibilities that allows U.S. security agencies, unimpeded and regardlessly access the global data communication. For this, the U.S. government officially use the “National Security Letter (NSL)” of the U.S. Patriot Act and the “Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).” Due to these anti-terror laws, the U.S. vendor firms and their subsidiaries abroad are obliged to provide further details about requested information.

As part of the PRISM revelations it is also speculated about supposed interfaces, “copy-rooms” or backdoors at the providers with which third parties can directly and freely tap the data. However, the provider opposed this vehemently.

U.S. vendors. I’m good, thanks?

While choosing a cloud provider* different segments are considered that can be roughly divided into technical and organizational areas. In this case the technical area is reflecting the technical security and the organizational the legal security.

The organizational security is to be treated with caution. The Patriot Act opens the U.S. security agencies legally the doors if there is a suspected case. How far this remains within the legal framework, meanwhile many to doubt. At this point, trust is essential.

Technologically the data centers of cloud providers can be classified as safe. The effort and investment which are operated by the vendors cannot be provide by a normal company. But again, 100% safety can never be guaranteed. If possible, the user should also use its own security mechanisms. Furthermore, the rumors about government hits by the NSA should not be ignored.

About two U.S. phone companies confirmed reports are circulating that are talking about direct access to the communication by the NSA and strong saved rooms that are equipped with modern surveillance technologies. In this context, the provider of on-premise IT solutions should also be considered how far these are undermined.

From both terms and the current security situation, U.S. vendors should be treated with caution. This also applies to its subsidiaries in the EU. After all, they are even not able to meet at least the necessary legal safety.

But even the German secret service should not be ignored. Recent reports indicate that the “Federal Intelligence Service (BND)” will also massively expand the surveillance of the internet. This amounts to a budget of 100 million Euro, of which the federal government already released five million EUR. Compared to the NSA, the BND will not store the complete data traffic on the Internet, but only check for certain suspicious content. For this purpose he may read along up to 20 percent of the communication data between Germany and abroad, according to the G 10 Act.

Hardliners have to adjust all digital and analog communication immediately. But this will not work, because the dependency has become too large and the modern business life is determined by the communication. Therefore, despite surveillance, other legal ways must be found to ensure secure communication and data transmission.

* In this context a cloud provider can be a service provider or a provider of private cloud or IT hardware and software solutions.

Requirements for secure cloud services and IT solutions

First, it must be clearly stated that there is no universal remedy. The risk shall be made ​​by the user, who is not aware of the dangerous situation or who has stolen corporate data on purpose. Regardless of this, the PRISM findings lead to a new safety assessment in the IT sector. And it is hoped that this also increases the security awareness of users.

Companies can obtain support from cloud services and IT solutions, which have made ​​the issue of an unconditional security to be part of their leitmotif from the beginning. Under present circumstances these providers should preferred be from Europe or Germany.

Even if there are already first reports of implications and influences by the U.S. government and U.S. providers to the European Commission, which have prevented an “Anti-FISA” clause in the EU data protection reform, exist no similar laws such as the U.S. Patriot Act, or FISA in Europe.

Therefore also European and German IT vendors, which are not subject to the Patriot Act and not infiltrated by the state, can help U.S. users to operate their secure data communication.

Criteria for vendor selection

On the subject of security it is always about trust. This trust a provider only achieved through openness, by giving its customers a technologically look in the cards. IT vendors are often in the criticism to be sealed and do not provide information on their proprietary security protocols. This is partly because there are also provider willing to talk about it and make no secret. Thus, it is important to find this kind of provider.

In addition to the subjective issue of trust, it is in particular the implemented security, which plays a very important role. Here it should be ensured that the provider uses current encryption mechanisms. This includes:

  • Advanced Encryption Standard – AES 256 to encrypt the data.
  • Diffie-Hellman und RSA 3072 for key exchange.
  • Message Digest 5/6 – MD5/MD6 for the hash function.

Furthermore, the importance of end-to-end encryption of all communication takes is getting stronger. This means that the whole process, which a user passes through the solution, is encrypted continuously from the beginning to the end. This includes inter alia:

  • The user registration
  • The Login
  • The data transfer (send/receive)
  • Transfer of key pairs (public/private key)
  • The storage location on the server
  • The storage location on the local device
  • The session while a document is edited

In this context it is very important to understand that the private key which is used to access the data and the system only may exclusively be owned by the user. And is only stored encrypted on the local system of the user. The vendor may have no ways to restore this private key and never get access to the stored data. Caution: There are cloud storage provider that can restore both the private key, as can also obtain access to the data of the user.

Furthermore, there are vendor which discuss the control over the own data. This is indeed true. However, sooner or later it is inevitably to communicate externally and then a hard end-to-end encryption is essential.

Management advisory

In this context, I would like to mention TeamDrive, which I have analyzed recently. The German file sharing and synchronization solution for businesses is awarded with the Data Protection Seal of the “Independent Centre for Privacy Protection Schleswig-Holstein (ULD)” and is a Gartner “Cool Vendor in Privacy” 2013. From time to time TeamDrive is described as proprietary and closed in the media. I can not confirm this. For my analysis TeamDrive willingly gave me extensive information (partly under NDA). Even the self developed protocol will be disclosed on request for an audit.

More information on selecting a secure share, sync and collaboration solution

I want to point out my security comparison between TeamDrive and ownCloud, in which I compared both security architectures. The comparison also provides further clues to consider when choosing a secure share, sync and collaboration solution.

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Category: Analysis

About the Author ()

Rene Buest is Senior Analyst and Cloud Practice Lead at Crisp Research, covering cloud computing, IT infrastructure, open source and Internet of Things. He is member of the worldwide Gigaom Research Analyst Network, top cloud computing blogger in Germany and one of the worldwide top 50 bloggers in this area. In addition, he is one of the world’s top cloud computing influencers and belongs to the top 100 cloud computing experts on Twitter. For more than 16 years he is focused on the strategic use of information technology in businesses and the IT impact on our society as well as disruptive technologies. Rene Buest is the author of numerous professional cloud computing and technology articles, speaker and participant of experts rounds. On CloudUser.de he writes about topics from the fields of cloud computing, it-infrastructures, technologies, management and strategies. He holds a diploma in computer engineering from the Hochschule Bremen (Dipl.-Informatiker (FH)) as well as a M.Sc. in IT-Management and Information Systems from the FHDW Paderborn.

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