Is Cloud Storage Secure?
Are you using cloud-based services like online backup, webmail and document sharing? Most people don't know much about the safety and security of cloud computing. Are your files and sensitive data safe and secure in the cloud, or are they vulnerable to hackers and other threats? Here's the scoop on cloud storage security...
Is Your Head in The Clouds?
Cloud computing – storing data and using application software "out there" in the cloud of Internet servers – is becoming more and more common. See my related article Seven Free Cloud Services You Should Try for some examples of popular cloud services. But are they safe? Can you trust some company on the other side of the globe with your business and personal data? Can you depend on software that isn't on your computer to be available when you need it? What are the risks of cloud computing, and how can you mitigate them?
The first risk you run is being cut off from your computing resources by some breakdown in communication between you and them. But that's rather unlikely, really. The Internet was designed to route data around broken communication lines, crashed routers, and other obstacles. Unless you live in a country with a totalitarian form of government, the Internet tends to be self-healing, unlike your desktop computer. So before fuming at your cloud storage provider for going down a whole five minutes, estimate how long it would take you to obtain and install a new hard drive, then restore everything from your local backup. Half a day, at least?
Oh, and you DO have a backup, right? If not, see How I Got Hacked... And Why You MUST Have a Backup! for a cautionary tale, and Hard Drives Are Not Forever to learn more about options for backing up your important files.
Risks of Cloud Storage
Data theft is a second and more serious risk of cloud computing. It's not that cloud-computing providers are sloppy about security. They're more conscientious about it than many large enterprises and most small users. But the bigger the castle, the more barbarians there are at the gates. As more companies deposit their top-secret data in cloud-computing providers' castles, more hackers turn their efforts to breaching those high walls. It's a never-ending battle, but fundamentally no different from you versus a lone hacker -- and most home users are no match for a skilled hacker.
To those who say "I would NEVER put my files out there on some cloud server... they're much safer on my hard drive," I say the following. Do you have gated perimeter access, 24x7 on-site security guards, and security cameras? Do you have a fire detection and suppression system, backup power generators, and a disaster recovery plan in the event of hurricane, flood or earthquake? You can bet your cloud storage provider has all that and more in place to safeguard your data.
Government monitoring and seizure of data is a third issue with cloud computing. The European Union has strict, high standards of privacy protecting citizens against government intrusion into their personal business. Not so in the United States, where the Patriot Act and other laws give government agents enormous latitude to spy upon and seize personal data, if they can get their hands on it. It's easier to serve a subpoena on a cloud-computing provider than to serve hundreds or thousands upon individuals.
And it's always possible that your cloud-computing provider will go out of business. What happens to your data in that case? Well, you should be keeping local backups, or engaging a second cloud-computing provider to back up your data for you. On the other hand, if the applications that you use are provided through the cloud, it can be a serious blow if your provider suddenly goes dark. That's what a business continuity plan is for. You should make plans to recover your data and keep using it in the event that a cloud-computing provider goes out of buinsess.
What About Encryption?
Popular cloud storage services like Microsoft Skydrive and Google Drive will encrypt files as they travel between your computer and the cloud servers. So you don't have to worry about some hacker or wifi sniffer peeking inside your spreadsheet as it zips along the information highway. Your files are protected by strong physical security measures, but they're not encrypted while they're stored on the Microsoft or Google servers in the cloud. There are good reasons for that, however. If the files were encrypted in the cloud, you couldn't easily view them over a web interface, share them with other users or do collaborative online editing.
Dropbox does take the extra step of encrypting user files with SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and AES-256 bit encryption, once they've been stashed on the cloud server. That gives you the assurance that if Evil Hackers were able to break into Dropbox, they wouldn't be able to read your scrambled files. But the caveat is that Dropbox itself has the decryption keys needed to unscramble the files. This quote from the Dropbox security FAQ explains why:
If you're uncomfortable about the lack of encryption for files in SkyDrive or Google Drive's cloud storage, or you just don't trust the server-side encryption that services like Dropbox offer, you do have another option. With client-side encryption, you can encrypt the files BEFORE they leave your hard drive, and you control the decryption keys. My article Encrypt Your Hard Drive discusses TrueCrypt and some other options for encrypting your files. Honestly, I'd recommend this only for very sensitive data.
Cloud computing is definitely here to stay, and its benefits are compelling. You shouldn't avoid cloud storage services because of imagined or falsely inflated fears, but you should be ready to deal with the real risks.
Are you storing files in the cloud? Got comments or questions about cloud storage? Post your thoughts below...
Posted by Bob Rankin on 17 Sep 2012
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Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved