Risk and Its Impact on Security Within the Cloud - Part 1
The effect of people and processes on cloud technologies
By: Jon Shende
Jul. 27, 2011 09:15 AM
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
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:
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
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.
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