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Toward a More Confident Cloud Security Strategy

Confidence in cloud encryption depends on understanding on where it needs protection

The cloud has hit the mainstream. Businesses in the United States currently spend more than $13 billion on cloud computing and managed hosting services, and Gartner projects that by 2015, end-user spending on cloud services could be more than $180 billion worldwide. It is estimated that 50 percent of organizations will require employees to use their own devices by 2017, which will depend on shared cloud storage. All of this requires encryption.

Organizational deployment of encryption has increased significantly in recent years. Its use spans everything from encrypting data in databases and file systems, in storage networks, on back-up tapes, and while being transferred over a public and internal networks. Although this might seem that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to enterprise data protection, there's a real risk of creating fragmentation and inconsistency - referred to as encryption sprawl - as different organizations deploy diverse technologies in different places to secure different types of data. Adding fuel to the fire, the cloud poses its own unique threats and challenges. With an undeniable value proposition, it seems clear that the cloud is inevitable and that protecting data within it will be a top priority.

The 2014 Encryption in the Cloud report reveals that more than 50 percent of businesses surveyed have sent confidential or sensitive data to the cloud. Only 11 percent of respondents say that their organization has no plans to use the cloud for sensitive operations, down from 19 percent just two years ago. It is heartening to see that use of encryption to protect that sensitive data in the cloud is also increasing, but it's disturbing that over half of the respondents who store sensitive data in the cloud report that their data is "cleartext" and therefore readable by anyone who can access it.

Cloud Confidence Through Key Management
Cloud usage may be ubiquitous, but opinions on securing data in it are no unanimous. Viewpoints abound when it comes to deciding where and how to apply encryption in the cloud. The report shows an almost equal split between those who encrypt data before it is sent to the cloud and those who choose to apply encryption directly within the cloud. Regardless of approach, key management remains a pain point, as businesses tread the line between trust and control between their own organization and the cloud provider.

In fact, key management is foundational to an effective encryption strategy. Although many regard encryption itself as being black and white - data is either encrypted or not - the reality is that there is such a thing as good or bad encryption. Much of the variance comes down to implementation and key management - a point that became crystal clear with the recent "Heartbleed" vulnerability in OpenSSL. With this in mind, we were pleased to see that 34 percent of respondents report that their own organization is in control of encryption keys when data is encrypted in the cloud. Only 18 percent of respondents report that the cloud provider has full control over keys.

Letting the cloud provider hold the reins is a dicey proposition. If the provider holds the encryption keys, how do you know they're safe? If someone shows up with a lawsuit or subpoena, will the cloud provider release these keys without your knowledge? From a criminal's perspective, stealing keys is far more interesting than stealing data. Stealing data is the modern equivalent of stealing money, yet stealing keys is like stealing the machine that makes the money - an attack that keeps on giving, or to be more accurate, an attack that keeps on taking!

As demand for cloud services continues to rise, security threats to data stored in the cloud will rise as well. Confidence in cloud encryption depends on understanding on where it needs protection, what the consequences are of it being compromised and what level of protection is required. Best practices dictate a cloud encryption strategy to protect critical data while maintaining control of keys.

More Stories By Richard Moulds

Richard Moulds is VP of product strategy at Thales e-Security. Previously he was nCipher's vice president of marketing. He has a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Birmingham University and an MBA from Warwick University in the UK.

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