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Vetting The Security Of Cloud Service Providers

A registry offered by the Cloud Security Alliance allows customers to compare the security measures of participating service providers. Is that enough to make cloud more secure?
A major step in selecting a good cloud provider is researching and comparing the security measures that each provider uses to keep its customers' data safe.

Today, conducting due diligence requires contacting each potential provider to gain access to independent audits and security assessments, possibly requiring the signing of a nondisclosure agreement. The process can be onerous: A company considering a handful of cloud vendors has to request the security information from each, translate their internal documents into a common language, and then compare the security specifications.

"They will look at six different companies, and they will get different controls, different issues that have been identified," says Jon Heimerl, director of strategy for Solutionary, a managed security services provider. "There will be a lot in common, obviously, but things are phrased differently and built differently between all those companies."

To tame the confusion, the Cloud Security Alliance launched the Security, Trust and Assurance Registry (STAR) to give potential cloud customers a central database from which they can compare providers' security assertions. Participating providers submit their answers to a self-assessment questionnaire, attesting to the security controls and monitoring that they have put in place to protect customer data.

While only four providers, including Solutionary and Microsoft Office 365, have submitted self-assessments to date, a much larger number are currently working through the documents, according to the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA).

"It should create a little bit more competition to make security part of the differentiation between services," says Jim Reavis, founder and executive director of the CSA. "I think by the end of this year, we will have a very complete set of providers on the site."

Using the service gives customers a way to compare providers' security rather than requesting an audit. Last year, a Ponemon Institute study found that 69 percent of providers placed the responsibility for security with their customers, while only 35 percent of customers believed they needed to worry about data security. Yet most cloud service providers will not allow most clients to audit their security because they cannot accommodate a large number of such requests.

"Allowing potentially thousands of customers to audit our services would not be a scalable practice and might compromise security," says Tim Rains, director of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group.

But the company understands that before committing their data to the cloud, companies want to know that their provider will treat their sensitive information in accordance with their governance and compliance requirements. For that reason, Microsoft supplied one of the first self-assessments to the STAR program.

"Cloud providers that provide potential customers with an appropriate level of transparency will go a long way in building their trust," Rains says. "Not only does this include how a vendor's online services are being operated, but also how those online services are being developed."

The 50-page document covers compliance, governance, physical-security measures, human-resources security, and a variety of information-security policies. The information requested by the CSA questionnaire is based on the efforts of working groups within the CSA and brings together customer and vendor concerns, says Solutionary's Heimerl.

In the end, Solutionary and others hope that potential customers will use the list to find companies whose security practices match their requirements.

"Customers now ask, 'How am I going to find out where the good cloud providers are in this space?'" he says. "The registry will become the short list."

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