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Data encryption and the Cloud

Not what it's cracked up to be

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Survey after survey finds that IT professionals’ number one concern about cloud services is security.

Some may say that concerns are overblown and that IT managers are more worried by loss of control than by real security risks. In some cases, the argument goes, security may even be better with a cloud deployment.

That may be true, but if cloud vendors want to sell their wares to worried IT staff they need to address their concerns about security.

Tales from the encrypt

So should we just encrypt the lot of it and be done? Probably not: encryption is too often the sledgehammer used to smash the data protection nut, according to Mike Jones, a techie-turned marketing man at Symantec.

“Encryption is a component, not the be-all-and-end-all. It must be used appropriately. It is a waste of time and resources to encrypt a social email exchange, for example. Securing information, not infrastructure, is key,” he says.

Once upon a time the IT department was master of all things IT, but its hold is weakening as technology becomes more consumerised.

Data is accessed on devices that have not been bought by the IT department and the flow of data inside an organisation – through virtualised data centres, up in the cloud – becomes ever more complex.

Cloak of anonymity

With access to a cloud service, someone working in marketing can shift a whole load of sales data into that service. Encryption technologies track where it is going and help customers with appropriate security.

But encryption is not the only way of doing that. Data can also be anonymised, the meta-data stripped off so it is not attributable to anyone.

Sometimes it is sensible to add digital rights management so that access is limited, or to track the flow of information. There must be flexibility in the response, Jones stresses.

Rob Blackwell, managing director of AWS, an Azure developer in Ipswich, has been working to deliver on-demand computing power for pharmaceutical research, where data is commercially hypersensitive.

He says encryption is only part of the solution and that different data requires different approaches.

“For really high levels of security, it makes sense to use a hybrid solution – perhaps not to store the data in the cloud but bring cloud infrastructure online to process it. You ship the data into the cloud on demand," he says.

“But sometimes it may be more effective to make data anonymous so there is not enough meaning associated with the data for a casual or hostile observer to make use of it.”

Keys to the kingdom

Blackwell and Jones agree that encryption is not the major challenge facing companies wanting to use cloud services.

"If you encrypt everything haphazardly you are making a nightmare for yourself"

Jones argues that the elephant in the room is key management. Writing an encryption program is not overly taxing for a moderately competent coder, he says. All the algorithms and so on are public. The difficulty is keeping track of your keys.

Sometimes encryption has been used as a blanket approach at every level of a company’s business. All the hard drives, email inboxes, internet connection, the backups on and offsite are encrypted. At every layer, there is another key.

“Companies need to take a strategic approach to their data,” Jones says.

“If you encrypt everything haphazardly with loads of different keys, you are making a nightmare for yourself in five years time when you want to open encrypted files with keys you no longer own.

"It will be like trying to open outdated office files, but so much worse.” ®

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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