With billions of people confined to their homes, the concept of "critical infrastructure" needs to be extended. To the traditional list of bridges, power plants, water filtration plants, airports, etc., we need to add cloud-based web conferencing (think Zoom, Webex, and Skype), online financial services, telehealth services, e-commerce, online delivery, and more.
In a very real way, our global economy and daily lives now depend on these online services. For example, teleconferencing services are de facto replacing air travel, with the aviation sector and most airports nearly shut down. Yet the sad fact is that if cloud-based services were regulated critical infrastructure like your average airport, the Transportation Security Administration would have shuttered many of them long before COVID-19 came along.
If Your Web Service Was an Airport
I travel a lot — or used to, before the coronavirus crisis. It's interesting that our sad experience with terrorism in recent decades led us to trust travelers — whom we can still see and touch — far less than we seem to trust faceless, remotely connected employees, contractors, users, or admins.
The security paradigm under which organizations like the TSA operate to secure modern airports has clear parallels in the web services arena — but also some vast differences. To illustrate, let's drill down into what we as travelers go through before we get on a plane, in comparison to what we online users go through before accessing critical web services:
- Initial identification: At the entrance to the TSA screening line, you need to show your passport and boarding card. This is the equivalent to logging in to your web service of choice. Yet online, one can imitate the identity of a trusted person. In the real world, if I steal the passport of an 87-year-old grandmother from Kansas, a TSA agent is probably going to notice.
- Security screening: The TSA is very concerned about both who I am and what I bring with me. They check that I have nothing harmful in my pockets or in my carry-on. Web services have some verification procedures in place — two-factor authentication, for example. Yet millions of known and unknown vulnerabilities in many popular software packages allow one to essentially skip this verification step, get unauthorized access, and go right to the virtual departure gate.
- In the terminal: Despite the strict access security described above, all serious airports also have internal security personnel on constant watch for anything out of the ordinary in the terminal itself. In most web services and applications, runtime security is lacking and often nonexistent, as it can take months to implement. Once attackers get in, they can remain undetected for months.
- The insider threat: Airports are large and complex organizations that cover vast physical areas and require a huge workforce. Despite this, airports manage to conduct extensive employee background checks and ongoing security screening. Web services that serve millions can be administered and accessed by individual administrators or a small development team with extensive access. Many companies don't have sufficient controls in place to mitigate that risk.
But Web Services Are Not Airports
Thankfully, web services are not airports. Nor can they be secured like airports without destroying what makes them so great. To deliver the robust and massive-scale service they provide us, web services interact with thousands of other services and need to be accessible from every place and device. Hyper-connectivity is what makes these services so powerful — putting up barriers would simply ruin this.
While airports are only built once, cloud services are rebuilt every day by developers who introduce hundreds of changes. Every change introduced in an airport's architecture is thoroughly reviewed before implementation. The same level of scrutiny over changes in web applications would simply kill innovation.
Plus, do we really want to go through a TSA agent every time we access our bank account?
So, What Can Be Done?
Airport analogies aside, it's clear that we need to enhance the resilience of the web services on which we've grown increasingly reliant in recent years — and utterly reliant on today. Business, IT, and security leaders urgently need to ask themselves how to effectively reduce this risk without affecting the dynamism and connectivity that makes these services so great. Here are three questions cloud-services vendors should ask themselves:
- How do we implement controls without impeding productivity and agility in such critical times? Deploying and operating controls that catch and thwart intruders is notoriously difficult at the overwhelming scale and complexity of modern cloud services. Vendors must make sure they adopt next-generation autonomous controls that can be implemented quickly at scale.
- Are IT and security teams focusing on those vulnerabilities that matter? Cloud services vendors are flooded with thousands of vulnerabilities they need to patch. However, most of these vulnerabilities do not represent an actual threat to the system. Using vulnerability prioritization tools, vendors can address their high and critical-risk vulnerabilities by patching less than 10% of all vulnerabilities.
- How can I control developer access without adhering to the level of TSA-vetting? Thoroughly vetting every developer and contractor with access to cloud services is not feasible. However, web services providers should strictly ensure that all code changes are implemented through pre-existing pipelines (called "CI/CD pipelines") where code can be screened for vulnerabilities and malware.
Given that remote is the new normal now, and is likely to continue being so after the crisis, it's time for our newest critical infrastructure providers to offer their awesome online services with a correspondingly awesome level of resilience.
A listing of free products and services compiled for Dark Reading by Omdia analysts to help meet the challenges of COVID-19.