Entries Tagged "risk assessment"

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Should Companies Do Most of Their Computing in the Cloud? (Part 2)

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.

This essay previously appeared on the Economist website, as part of a debate on cloud computing. It’s the second of three essays. Here are Parts 1 and 3. Visit the site for the other side of the debate and other commentary.

Posted on June 10, 2015 at 11:27 AMView Comments

Should Companies Do Most of Their Computing in the Cloud? (Part 1)

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 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 customization 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 monetize; 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 NSA broke into Google’s data centers.

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.

This essay previously appeared on the Economist website, as part of a debate on cloud computing. It’s the first of three essays. Here are Parts 2 and 3. Visit the site for the other side of the debate and other commentary.

Posted on June 10, 2015 at 6:43 AMView Comments

The Effects of Near Misses on Risk Decision-Making

This is interesting research: “How Near-Miss Events Amplify or Attenuate Risky Decision Making,” Catherine H. Tinsley, Robin L. Dillon, and Matthew A. Cronin.

In the aftermath of many natural and man-made disasters, people often wonder why those affected were underprepared, especially when the disaster was the result of known or regularly occurring hazards (e.g., hurricanes). We study one contributing factor: prior near-miss experiences. Near misses are events that have some nontrivial expectation of ending in disaster but, by chance, do not. We demonstrate that when near misses are interpreted as disasters that did not occur, people illegitimately underestimate the danger of subsequent hazardous situations and make riskier decisions (e.g., choosing not to engage in mitigation activities for the potential hazard). On the other hand, if near misses can be recognized and interpreted as disasters that almost happened, this will counter the basic “near-miss” effect and encourage more mitigation. We illustrate the robustness of this pattern across populations with varying levels of real expertise with hazards and different hazard contexts (household evacuation for a hurricane, Caribbean cruises during hurricane season, and deep-water oil drilling). We conclude with ideas to help people manage and communicate about risk.

Another paper.

Posted on June 9, 2015 at 8:15 AMView Comments

Hacking Airplanes

Imagine this: A terrorist hacks into a commercial airplane from the ground, takes over the controls from the pilots and flies the plane into the ground. It sounds like the plot of some “Die Hard” reboot, but it’s actually one of the possible scenarios outlined in a new Government Accountability Office report on security vulnerabilities in modern airplanes.

It’s certainly possible, but in the scheme of Internet risks I worry about, it’s not very high. I’m more worried about the more pedestrian attacks against more common Internet-connected devices. I’m more worried, for example, about a multination cyber arms race that stockpiles capabilities such as this, and prioritizes attack over defense in an effort to gain relative advantage. I worry about the democratization of cyberattack techniques, and who might have the capabilities currently reserved for nation-states. And I worry about a future a decade from now if these problems aren’t addressed.

First, the airplanes. The problem the GAO identifies is one computer security experts have talked about for years. Newer planes such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 and A380 have a single network that is used both by pilots to fly the plane and passengers for their Wi-Fi connections. The risk is that a hacker sitting in the back of the plane, or even one on the ground, could use the Wi-Fi connection to hack into the avionics and then remotely fly the plane.

The report doesn’t explain how someone could do this, and there are currently no known vulnerabilities that a hacker could exploit. But all systems are vulnerable—we simply don’t have the engineering expertise to design and build perfectly secure computers and networks—so of course we believe this kind of attack is theoretically possible.

Previous planes had separate networks, which is much more secure.

As terrifying as this movie-plot threat is—and it has been the plot of several recent works of fiction—this is just one example of an increasingly critical problem: As the computers already critical to running our infrastructure become connected, our vulnerability to cyberattack grows. We’ve already seen vulnerabilities in baby monitors, cars, medical equipment and all sorts of other Internet-connected devices. In February, Toyota recalled 1.9 million Prius cars because of a software vulnerability. Expect similar vulnerabilities in our smart thermostats, smart light bulbs and everything else connected to the smart power grid. The Internet of Things will bring computers into every aspect of our life and society. Those computers will be on the network and will be vulnerable to attack.

And because they’ll all be networked together, a vulnerability in one device will affect the security of everything else. Right now, a vulnerability in your home router can compromise the security of your entire home network. A vulnerability in your Internet-enabled refrigerator can reportedly be used as a launching pad for further attacks.

Future attacks will be exactly like what’s happening on the Internet today with your computer and smartphones, only they will be with everything. It’s all one network, and it’s all critical infrastructure.

Some of these attacks will require sufficient budget and organization to limit them to nation-state aggressors. But that’s hardly comforting. North Korea is last year believed to have launched a massive cyberattack against Sony Pictures. Last month, China used a cyberweapon called the “Great Cannon” against the website GitHub. In 2010, the U.S. and Israeli governments launched a sophisticated cyberweapon called Stuxnet against the Iranian Natanz nuclear power plant; it used a series of vulnerabilities to cripple centrifuges critical for separating nuclear material. In fact, the United States has done more to weaponize the Internet than any other country.

Governments only have a fleeting advantage over everyone else, though. Today’s top-secret National Security Agency programs become tomorrow’s Ph.D. theses and the next day’s hacker’s tools. So while remotely hacking the 787 Dreamliner’s avionics might be well beyond the capabilities of anyone except Boeing engineers today, that’s not going to be true forever.

What this all means is that we have to start thinking about the security of the Internet of Things—whether the issue in question is today’s airplanes or tomorrow’s smart clothing. We can’t repeat the mistakes of the early days of the PC and then the Internet, where we initially ignored security and then spent years playing catch-up. We have to build security into everything that is going to be connected to the Internet.

This is going to require both significant research and major commitments by companies. It’s also going to require legislation mandating certain levels of security on devices connecting to the Internet, and at network providers that make the Internet work. This isn’t something the market can solve on its own, because there are just too many incentives to ignore security and hope that someone else will solve it.

As a nation, we need to prioritize defense over offense. Right now, the NSA and U.S. Cyber Command have a strong interest in keeping the Internet insecure so they can better eavesdrop on and attack our enemies. But this prioritization cuts both ways: We can’t leave others’ networks vulnerable without also leaving our own vulnerable. And as one of the most networked countries on the planet, we are highly vulnerable to attack. It would be better to focus the NSA’s mission on defense and harden our infrastructure against attack.

Remember the GAO’s nightmare scenario: A hacker on the ground exploits a vulnerability in the airplane’s Wi-Fi system to gain access to the airplane’s network. Then he exploits a vulnerability in the firewall that separates the passengers’ network from the avionics to gain access to the flight controls. Then he uses other vulnerabilities both to lock the pilots out of the cockpit controls and take control of the plane himself.

It’s a scenario made possible by insecure computers and insecure networks. And while it might take a government-led secret project on the order of Stuxnet to pull it off today, that won’t always be true.

Of course, this particular movie-plot threat might never become a real one. But it is almost certain that some equally unlikely scenario will. I just hope we have enough security expertise to deal with whatever it ends up being.

This essay originally appeared on CNN.com.

EDITED TO ADD: News articles.

Posted on April 21, 2015 at 1:40 PMView Comments

Obama Says Terrorism Is Not an Existential Threat

In an interview this week, President Obama said that terrorism does not pose an existential threat:

What I do insist on is that we maintain a proper perspective and that we do not provide a victory to these terrorist networks by overinflating their importance and suggesting in some fashion that they are an existential threat to the United States or the world order. You know, the truth of the matter is that they can do harm. But we have the capacity to control how we respond in ways that do not undercut what’s the—you know, what’s essence of who we are.

He said something similar in January.

On one hand, what he said is blindingly obvious; and overinflating terrorism’s risks plays into the terrorists’ hands. Climate change is an existential threat. So is a comet hitting the earth, intelligent robots taking over the planet, and genetically engineered viruses. There are lots of existential threats to humanity, and we can argue about their feasibility and probability. But terrorism is not one of them. Even things that actually kill tens of thousands of people each year—car accidents, handguns, heart disease—are not existential threats.

But no matter how obvious this is, until recently it hasn’t been something that serious politicians have been able to say. When Vice President Biden said something similar last year, one commentary carried the headline “Truth or Gaffe?” In 2004, when presidential candidate John Kerry gave a common-sense answer to a question about the threat of terrorism, President Bush used those words in an attack ad. As far as I know, these comments by Obama and Biden are the first time major politicians are admitting that terrorism does not pose an existential threat and are not being pilloried for it.

Overreacting to the threat is still common, and exaggeration and fear still make good politics. But maybe now, a dozen years after 9/11, we can finally start having rational conversations about terrorism and security: what works, what doesn’t, what’s worth it, and what’s not.

Posted on February 3, 2015 at 6:15 AMView Comments

Common Risks in America: Cars and Guns

I have long said that driving a car is the most dangerous thing regularly do in our lives. Turns out deaths due to automobiles are declining, while deaths due to firearms are on the rise:

Guns and cars have long been among the leading causes of non-medical deaths in the U.S. By 2015, firearm fatalities will probably exceed traffic fatalities for the first time, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.

While motor-vehicle deaths dropped 22 percent from 2005 to 2010, gun fatalities are rising again after a low point in 2000, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shooting deaths in 2015 will probably rise to almost 33,000, and those related to autos will decline to about 32,000, based on the 10-year average trend.

There’s also this story.

Posted on January 16, 2015 at 6:19 AMView Comments

The Risk of Unfounded Ebola Fears

Good essay.

Worry about Ebola (or anything) manifests physically as what’s known as a fight, flight, or freeze response. Biological systems ramp up or down to focus the body’s resources on the threat at hand. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, immune function is suppressed (after an initial burst), brain chemistry changes, and the normal functioning of the digestive system is interrupted, among other effects. Like fear itself, these changes are protective in the short term. But when they persist, the changes prompted by chronic stress—defined as stress beyond the normal hassles of life, lasting at least one to two weeks—are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the leading cause of death in America); increased likelihood and severity of clinical depression (suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America); depressed memory formation and recall; impaired fertility; reduced bone growth; and gastrointestinal disorders.

Perhaps most insidious of all, by suppressing our immune systems, chronic stress makes us more likely to catch infectious diseases, or suffer more­—or die­—from diseases that a healthy immune system would be better able to control. The fear of Ebola may well have an impact on the breadth and severity of how many people get sick, or die, from influenza this flu season. (The CDC reports that, either directly or indirectly, influenza kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people per year.)

There is no question that America’s physical, economic, and social health is far more at risk from the fear of Ebola than from the virus itself.

Posted on January 13, 2015 at 7:10 AMView Comments

Survey on What Americans Fear

Interesting data:

Turning to the crime section of the Chapman Survey on American Fears, the team discovered findings that not only surprised them, but also those who work in fields pertaining to crime.

“What we found when we asked a series of questions pertaining to fears of various crimes is that a majority of Americans not only fear crimes such as, child abduction, gang violence, sexual assaults and others; but they also believe these crimes (and others) have increased over the past 20 years,” said Dr. Edward Day who led this portion of the research and analysis. “When we looked at statistical data from police and FBI records, it showed crime has actually decreased in America in the past 20 years. Criminologists often get angry responses when we try to tell people the crime rate has gone down.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, Americans do not feel like the United States is becoming a safer place. The Chapman Survey on American Fears asked how they think prevalence of several crimes today compare with 20 years ago. In all cases, the clear majority of respondents were pessimistic; and in all cases Americans believe crime has at least remained steady. Crimes specifically asked about were: child abduction, gang violence, human trafficking, mass riots, pedophilia, school shootings, serial killing and sexual assault.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): Direct link to the data as well as the survey methodology.

Posted on October 28, 2014 at 1:03 PMView Comments

Security Trade-offs of Cloud Backup

This is a good essay on the security trade-offs with cloud backup:

iCloud backups have not eliminated this problem, but they have made it far less common. This is, like almost everything in tech, a trade-off:

  • Your data is far safer from irretrievable loss if it is synced/backed up, regularly, to a cloud-based service.
  • Your data is more at risk of being stolen if it is synced/backed up, regularly, to a cloud-based service.

Ideally, the companies that provide such services minimize the risk of your account being hijacked while maximizing the simplicity and ease of setting it up and using it. But clearly these two goals are in conflict. There’s no way around the fact that the proper balance is somewhere in between maximal security and minimal complexity.

Further, I would wager heavily that there are thousands and thousands more people who have been traumatized by irretrievable data loss (who would have been saved if they’d had cloud-based backups) than those who have been victimized by having their cloud-based accounts hijacked (who would have been saved if they had only stored their data locally on their devices).

It is thus, in my opinion, terribly irresponsible to advise people to blindly not trust Apple (or Google, or Dropbox, or Microsoft, etc.) with “any of your data” without emphasizing, clearly and adamantly, that by only storing their data on-device, they greatly increase the risk of losing everything.

It’s true. For most people, the risk of data loss is greater than the risk of data theft.

Posted on September 25, 2014 at 2:17 PMView Comments

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.