Special Coverage Series

Network Computing

Special Coverage Series


The Biggest Cloud Computing Security Risk Is Impossible to Eliminate

A recent "epic hacking" that involved Amazon and Apple accounts just goes to show that the biggest security risk in cloud computing is from humans. Learn how mistakes, negligence and even reasonable use can blow apart a digital life.

The past couple of years have been tough for those defending the security of cloud computing and those trying to establish secure cloud infrastructures for themselves. For the most part, there have been DDOS attacks or defacements designed to embarrass or punish site owners.

However, even considering only websites or services from which hackers actually took over accounts, stole data or money, or planted malware to help steal data or money from others, the list of security failures is long and distinguished: Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, Hotmail, Global Payments (credit-card clearinghouse for Visa, MasterCard and others), Federal Express, Zappos, a host of local bank and police agencies, and the China Software Developer Network (which, all by itself, lost personal information on 6 million users to a single hacker named Zeng).

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True, some of those victims offer services with access too restricted and services too limited to be considered "cloud." Except for the potential booty (money, data or notoriety), cloud and non-cloud services look pretty much the same to criminals trying to crack them open.

During 2010, only 4 million user accounts were compromised by hackers; in 2011 hackers penetrated 174 million accounts (thanks, Anonymous), according to the Data Breach Investigations Report published by Verizon in March. If anything, 2012 is going to be even worse, according to anti-virus/security vendor Kaspersky Labs.

All that hackery did generate tons of publicity, plenty of vocal outrage from victims, diluvian volumes of frettage from pundits and solemn warnings from security companies thrilled to find themselves center stage in a drama they've been narrating all but unheard for years.

Despite all that noise, it's odd to realize that the incident with the greatest potential to cause a change in attitude among users and IT is the hack of a single reporter's backup account on Apple's consumer-oriented iCloud storage service.

It wasn't even a cool hack. It barely qualified as social engineering.

Due only to the weak identity verification of Apple and Amazon, Wired reporter Mat Honan suffered what he described as his own digital death and dissolution. Not only did hackers get into his email and iCloud accounts, but they also used the data-sync connections among Honan's all-Apple suite of personal devices to wipe out all his backup data in the cloud. They deleted everything from his MacBook and iPhone, leaving him with no easily recoverable copy of any of his data, most of which was valuable to only him.

"In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted," he explained in a piece for Wired explaining "How Apple and Amazon Security Flaws Led to My Epic Hacking." "Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook."

Details of the attack are telling, but have been left out to annoy the readership into even more outrage at the poor security/customer service of Apple and Amazon. (They're actually in "Anatomy of a Successful Personal Hack," if you haven't read them elsewhere, follow the link to be appalled by them.)

Next: Why the Cloud is a Horrendous Security Risk

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