Debate: Should Companies Do Most of Their Computing in the Cloud?

From May 26th to June 5th, 2015, The Economist hosted a debate on cloud computing, with Ludwig Siegele as moderator, Simon Crosby taking the Yes position, and Bruce Schneier as No. For the full debate, see The Economist's site. Bruce's entries are reprinted below.

Opening Remarks

Yes. No. Yes. Maybe. Yes. Okay, it’s complicated.

The economics of cloud computing are compelling. For companies, the lower operating costs, the lack of capital expenditure, the ability to quickly scale and the ability to outsource maintenance are just some of the benefits. Computing is infrastructure, like cleaning, payroll, tax preparation and legal services. All of these are outsourced. And computing is becoming a utility, like power and water. Everyone does their power generation and water distribution “in the cloud”. Why should information technology (IT) be any different?

Two reasons. The first is that IT is complicated: it is more like payroll services than like power generation. What this means is that you have to choose your cloud providers wisely, and make sure you have good contracts in place with them. You want to own your data, and be able to download that data at any time. You want assurances that your data will not disappear if the cloud provider goes out of business or discontinues your service. You want reliability and availability assurances, tech support assurances, whatever you need.

The downside is that you will have limited customisation options. Cloud computing is cheaper because of economics of scale, and—like any outsourced task—you tend to get what you get. A restaurant with a limited menu is cheaper than a personal chef who can cook anything you want. Fewer options at a much cheaper price: it’s a feature, not a bug.

The second reason that cloud computing is different is security. This is not an idle concern. IT security is difficult under the best of circumstances, and security risks are one of the major reasons it has taken so long for companies to embrace the cloud. And here it really gets complicated.

On the pro-cloud side, cloud providers have the potential to be far more secure than the corporations whose data they are holding. It is the same economies of scale. For most companies, the cloud provider is likely to have better security than them—by a lot. All but the largest companies benefit from the concentration of security expertise at the cloud provider.

On the anti-cloud side, the cloud provider might not meet your legal needs. You might have regulatory requirements that the cloud provider cannot meet. Your data might be stored in a country with laws you do not like—or cannot legally use. Many foreign companies are thinking twice about putting their data inside America, because of laws allowing the government to get at that data in secret. Other countries around the world have even more draconian government-access rules.

Also on the anti-cloud side, a large cloud provider is a juicier target. Whether or not this matters depends on your threat profile. Criminals already steal far more credit-card numbers than they can monetise; they are more likely to go after the smaller, less-defended networks. But a national intelligence agency will prefer the one-stop shop a cloud provider affords. That is why the National Security Agency (NSA) broke into Google’s data centres.

Finally, the loss of control is a security risk. Moving your data into the cloud means that someone else is controlling that data. This is fine if they do a good job, but terrible if they do not. And for free cloud services, that loss of control can be critical. The cloud provider can delete your data on a whim, if it believes you have violated some term of service that you never even knew existed. And you have no recourse.

As a business, you need to weigh the benefits against the risks. And that will depend on things like the type of cloud service you’re considering, the type of data that’s involved, how  critical the service is, how easily you could do it in house, the size of your company and the regulatory environment, and so on.

Rebuttal

Let me start by describing two approaches to the cloud.

Most of the students I meet at Harvard University live their lives in the cloud. Their e-mail, documents, contacts, calendars, photos and everything else are stored on servers belonging to large internet companies in America and elsewhere. They use cloud services for everything. They converse and share on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. They seamlessly switch among their laptops, tablets and phones. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that they don't really care where their computers end and the internet begins, and they are used to having immediate access to all of their data on the closest screen available.

In contrast, I personally use the cloud as little as possible. My e-mail is on my own computer—I am one of the last Eudora users—and not at a web service like Gmail or Hotmail. I don't store my contacts or calendar in the cloud. I don't use cloud backup. I don't have personal accounts on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. (This makes me a freak, but highly productive.) And I don't use many software and hardware products that I would otherwise really like, because they force you to keep your data in the cloud: Trello, Evernote, Fitbit.

Why don't I embrace the cloud in the same way my younger colleagues do? There are three reasons, and they parallel the trade-offs corporations faced with the same decisions are going to make.

The first is control. I want to be in control of my data, and I don't want to give it up. I have the ability to keep control by running my own services my way. Most of those students lack the technical expertise, and have no choice. They also want services that are only available on the cloud, and have no choice. I have deliberately made my life harder, simply to keep that control. Similarly, companies are going to decide whether or not they want to—or even can—keep control of their data.

The second is security. I talked about this at length in my opening statement. Suffice it to say that I am extremely paranoid about cloud security, and think I can do better. Lots of those students don't care very much. Again, companies are going to have to make the same decision about who is going to do a better job, and depending on their own internal resources, they might make a different decision.

The third is the big one: trust. I simply don't trust large corporations with my data. I know that, at least in America, they can sell my data at will and disclose it to whomever they want. It can be made public inadvertently by their lax security. My government can get access to it without a warrant. Again, lots of those students don't care. And again, companies are going to have to make the same decisions.

Like any outsourcing relationship, cloud services are based on trust. If anything, that is what you should take away from this exchange. Try to do business only with trustworthy providers, and put contracts in place to ensure their trustworthiness. Push for government regulations that establish a baseline of trustworthiness for cases where you don't have that negotiation power. Fight laws that give governments secret access to your data in the cloud. Cloud computing is the future of computing; we need to ensure that it is secure and reliable.

Despite my personal choices, my belief is that, in most cases, the benefits of cloud computing outweigh the risks. My company, Resilient Systems, uses cloud services both to run the business and to host our own products that we sell to other companies. For us it makes the most sense. But we spend a lot of effort ensuring that we use only trustworthy cloud providers, and that we are a trustworthy cloud provider to our own customers.

Closing Remarks

Cloud computing is the future of computing. Specialisation and outsourcing make society more efficient and scalable, and computing isn't any different.

But why aren't we there yet? Why don't we, in Simon Crosby's words, "get on with it"? I have discussed some reasons: loss of control, new and unquantifiable security risks, and—above all—a lack of trust. It is not enough to simply discount them, as the number of companies not embracing the cloud shows. It is more useful to consider what we need to do to bridge the trust gap.

A variety of mechanisms can create trust. When I outsourced my food preparation to a restaurant last night, it never occurred to me to worry about food safety. That blind trust is largely created by government regulation. It ensures that our food is safe to eat, just as it ensures our paint will not kill us and our planes are safe to fly. It is all well and good for Mr Crosby to write that cloud companies "will invest heavily to ensure that they can satisfy complex...regulations", but this presupposes that we have comprehensive regulations. Right now, it is largely a free-for-all out there, and it can be impossible to see how security in the cloud works. When robust consumer-safety regulations underpin outsourcing, people can trust the systems.

This is true for any kind of outsourcing. Attorneys, tax preparers and doctors are licensed and highly regulated, by both governments and professional organisations. We trust our doctors to cut open our bodies because we know they are not just making it up. We need a similar professionalism in cloud computing.

Reputation is another big part of trust. We rely on both word-of-mouth and professional reviews to decide on a particular car or restaurant. But none of that works without considerable transparency. Security is an example. Mr Crosby writes: "Cloud providers design security into their systems and dedicate enormous resources to protect their customers." Maybe some do; many certainly do not. Without more transparency, as a cloud customer you cannot tell the difference. Try asking either Amazon Web Services or Salesforce.com to see the details of their security arrangements, or even to indemnify you for data breaches on their networks. It is even worse for free consumer cloud services like Gmail and iCloud.

We need to trust cloud computing's performance, reliability and security. We need open standards, rules about being able to remove our data from cloud services, and the assurance that we can switch cloud services if we want to.

We also need to trust who has access to our data, and under what circumstances. One commenter wrote: "After Snowden, the idea of doing your computing in the cloud is preposterous." He isn't making a technical argument: a typical corporate data centre isn't any better defended than a cloud-computing one. He is making a legal argument. Under American law—and similar laws in other countries—the government can force your cloud provider to give up your data without your knowledge and consent. If your data is in your own data centre, you at least get to see a copy of the court order.

Corporate surveillance matters, too. Many cloud companies mine and sell your data or use it to manipulate you into buying things. Blocking broad surveillance by both governments and corporations is critical to trusting the cloud, as is eliminating secret laws and orders regarding data access.

In the future, we will do all our computing in the cloud: both commodity computing and computing that requires personalised expertise. But this future will only come to pass when we manage to create trust in the cloud.

Categories: Computer and Information Security

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

Schneier on Security is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of IBM Resilient.