Cloud Security Measures Too Opaque For Customers

With nearly half of IT managers avoiding cloud services over worries that their data will be leaked, it is time for cloud providers to become more transparent
The apparent cost benefits and flexibility of cloud services may have convinced companies' front offices to dive into the cloud, but convincing corporate security teams is another matter.

Nearly seven out of eight information-technology professionals do not trust cloud providers to protect their companies' most sensitive data, according to a recent survey conducted by Lieberman Software, a provider of privileged access management products. The majority would not trust cloud providers with their own personal data, either.

It's not necessarily about hackers and cybercriminals. Security-sensitive firms are concerned that a rogue employee at a cloud service provider or a government agency could access their data without their knowledge, says Philip Lieberman, president of the firm.

"The big problem is there is a lot of opaqueness in what cloud providers do," he says. "Companies want transparency, access to audit log data, and visibility into internal controls that go beyond best practices."

The survey, conducted at the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) Summit in November and released last week, collected responses from 300 IT professionals, with 70 percent representing companies with more than 1,000 employees and half working at companies with more than 5,000 employees.

The disconnect between cloud providers and their customers on the topic of security has been highlighted by other studies as well. In a 2011 study by the Ponemon Institute, more than two-thirds of IT managers placed responsibility for the security of their data with the cloud provider, while only one-third of providers agreed. A more recent Ponemon survey (pdf) found that IT professionals nearly equally split over who should take responsibility for the security of applications in the cloud: A third tasked cloud providers with the security of their applications, a third responded that security was a shared responsibility, and a bit less than a third placed the onus on the company to secure their own applications in the cloud.

[Anyone with access to your cloud providers' servers has access to your data. Don't think burglars or Ethan Hunt of 'Mission Impossible': think insiders and search warrants. See The Physical Security Factor With Cloud Providers.]

While customers are gaining trust in their cloud providers, the process is extremely slow because cloud services have failed to give customers visibility into their security measures, says John Howie, chief operating officer for the Cloud Security Alliance.

"Cloud providers can only really win the hearts and minds of their customers if they are open and transparent," Howie says. "Don't treat the cloud as a black box and tell the customers, no, you can't see the inner workings."

Through its Security, Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR), the Cloud Security Alliance gives cloud providers a way to publicly state some of their security measures to satisfy concerns. To date, more than a score of companies have published their answers to a self-assessment questionnaire to provide more information to customers.

However, the CSA believes that more is needed--but not too much more. A combination of certifications, standards, and audit reports could give cloud consumers enough information to gauge a provider's security without giving up too much information about security measures to potential attackers. At the RSA Conference at month's end, the CSA plans to publish a position paper that will discuss how much detail cloud services should share with their customers.

For that to work, however, companies need to talk to their security teams to gauge their needs as well. Many firms subscribe to a cloud service as an end run around the information-technology department with little thought about security, says Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Ponemon Institute, a business intelligence and survey firm.

"The security people are out of the loop," he says. "A lot of the companies we talk to don't even talk to their CISOs about moves to the cloud."

Adding security through a cloud security broker or hybrid cloud infrastructure can help mitigate risk and significantly reduces the level of trust a company needs to have in their service provider. Yet, such technologies can undermine the cost advantage that convinced the company to move to the cloud in the first place, says Ponemon.

Unless companies indicate their displeasure at cloud providers' lack of security--or at least, the lack of visibility into cloud providers' security--change will continue to be slow, says Lieberman.

"Cloud providers are not going to provide security until customers demand it, and it becomes a roadblock to revenue," he says. "It is a chicken-and-the-egg problem: Cloud providers don't want to provide security and large companies don't want to deploy it."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.