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Move To Cloud Means Closer Look At Encryption, Experts Say

Recent compromises in cloud environments spur new cryptography strategies
Following massive breaches recently at Sony's PlayStation Network and email marketing firm Epsilon, cloud services users need to look closer look at data protection and encryption, security experts warn.

Information stored on Internet accessible servers, especially customer data or critical corporate data, needs to be properly protected by encryption -- not just to satisfy industry and government regulations, but to protect the business, says John Considine, founder and CTO of CloudSwitch, which provides an encrypted software infrastructure to lock down data in the cloud.

Attackers stole information on about 100 million accounts from Sony, and obtained millions of email addresses -- and possibly other information -- from marketer Epsilon.

"When it is in your data center under your control, you have your access controls, and you know who can touch the data," Considine says. "When you move to cloud services, you are depending on someone else to do that."

In the recent breaches, Sony claimed to have encrypted all credit card information, but other identifying information was not necessarily encrypted, according to press reports. Epsilon failed to adequately protect its data, as well.

You can't always count on a software-as-a-service provider to extensively encrypt your data, says Russ Dietz, CTO for SafeNet, a maker of secure network and cloud technologies.

"We still have a long way to go," Dietz says. "Software-as-a-service providers could deploy [encryption technologies], but it takes time to integrate them into their systems. We are still in the early days."

Instead, companies need to be responsible for their own data security, which means not only encrypting data stored on virtual systems, but also using encryption to properly authenticate employees who can access the data, experts say.

Authentication is as important an application of encryption as securing data, Dietz says. Even in cases where a rootkit allows attackers to access a network from the inside, multifactor authentication based on public-key infrastructures (PKI) can minimize access to important data.

"Almost all Trojan and [advanced persistent threat]-based attacks are based on getting identity material, but if strong authentication and PKI were used, then there is no way the attacker could get anything," Dietz says.

With data accumulating quickly, encrypting every bit of information is a daunting task. Most companies should identify their most valuable data and start their encryption project there, Considine says. Critical corporate data or regulated personally identifiable information should be at the top of the list.

"The best practices for companies dealing with information has to do with segregating who has what kind of access, deploying encryption in key areas, and then severely limiting who has access to the encryption components and data in its unencrypted form," Considine says.

The next step is making sure that data stored in the cloud is segregated from other companies' virtual machines that might share the same cloud infrastructure. While many infrastructure providers claim that machine instances are isolated, companies can add certainty by using strong encryption, Considine explains. Without the added security, any attacker who has access to other virtual machines in the network could attempt to access sensitive data on other systems.

"These kinds of breaches have attackers moving from system to system -- the attackers are trying to find any vulnerabilities," Considine says. "Without encryption, they have the ability of gleaning more, capturing more information from adjacent systems."

CloudSwitch runs its software above the virtual machine's hypervisor within a cloud, such as Amazon's Elastic Computing Cloud, but below the operating system installed by the customer. The software layer encrypts communications and all data stored on the system, preventing access by unauthorized parties, Considine says.

The final step to deploying encryption in cloud services environments is to minimize access to the data and use strong multifactor authorization, SafeNet's Dietz says. Attackers focused on obtaining corporate secrets from select targets -- so-called APT scenarios -- could be blocked by good encryption and multifactor authentication, he says.

"When it comes to anything that is going after a user's identity, encryption technologies and strong authentication eliminate all of those inbound attacks," Dietz says.

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