Security specter still haunts cloud computing

Security for cloud services is improving, but some significant hurdles remain, security experts say.

As the move into cloud environments isn’t slowing down anytime soon, security professionals are working to ensure the security of these computing and storage solutions.

“If you start looking at operational day-to-day needs, the biggest problem that I have today is securing the cloud,” SallieMae's Chief Security Officer Jerry Archer told a crowd at the Cyber Security R&D Showcase hosted by the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate. “If we’re going to move successfully to the cloud, then we’re going to have to change security in some significant ways.”

There are a number of areas where security will have to improve in order to ensure the safety of cloud environments, Archer said. This includes continuous monitoring, resilient operations, highly granular access control and incident response. It also means better encryption. Data should be always be encrypted, he said: while it's being analyzed, while it's at rest and while it's moving.

“If we could have fully homomorphic encryption we would change everything,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it would be the holy grail, but it’s close to it.” Fully homomorphic encryption, which allows users to work with encrypted data without decrypting it, has made strides in the last decade to the point where it can be used for some applications. But for the most part, it slows down operations so much that it’s just not feasible. 

The way security professionals think about the network is also changing as organizations move to the cloud. “We’re going to change the scope of where we are as a perimeter,” he said. “We have to know where we are in order to protect ourselves.”

Additionally, security features offered by large cloud providers would be hard to incorporate into older environments. Retrofitting legacy systems with security that meets the same standards as what’s offered by the large cloud providers is “almost impossible,” he said.

While Archer has concerns, he said he isn’t shying away from cloud technology and has full confidence in its security abilities.

“I think what we’ll see is we can create security in the public cloud that is better than any security I can create in a current infrastructure,” he said.

Large cloud providers have created security capabilities that would be hard to build into distributed systems that are, at this point in their life, legacy systems. Retrofitting legacy systems with security system that meet the same standards as what’s offered by the large cloud providers is “almost impossible,” he said.

Northrop Grumman Chief Information Security Officer Michael Papay offered a qualification.

“I think the technology for security in the cloud could rival the security in the current infrastructure, but it only will if people remember to turn it on and use it correctly,” he said.

Alma Cole, the CISO at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agreed.

“I think it is good that when you look at the major cloud providers they do have lots and lots of secure capabilities. But it certainly still is your responsibility to figure out how you architect security both in that environment and then how you spread that out in a hybrid environment or something else,” Cole said.

For Archer, the notion that having to remember to “turn it on and use it correctly” is a barrier to better security. “You can’t fix stupid," he said. "If you can’t turn it on, then you shouldn’t be there to begin with."

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