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Experts provide a scary peek into cloud computing security risks

The cloudiness of cloud computing security is already getting to be an old joke — certainly, an overused headline. But it was no joke this week listening to the head of IT security at Boston College, the CISO of Brown University, a prominent Boston intellectual property lawyer and the CEO of a cloud-based application security provider talk about the lack of transparency in cloud computing.

“Security in the Cloud” was the title for the session at the Olin Innovation Lab, an annual event at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass. As the four panelists made clear, however, there is precious little of that in most cloud computing arrangements.

For attorney Iuean Mahony, a partner at Holland & Knight LLP, the opacity or transparency of the cloud computing engagement is determined by the contract. “But the problem now is that these contracts are fairly impenetrable,” he said. Indeed, the ability of the potential consumer of cloud computing services to actually do the due diligence required to write a contract that provides transparency is a “huge problem,” agreed David Escalante, the director of computer policy and security at Boston College, because the market is so immature.

In fact, when Boston College’s legal and contract people have been asked to look into cloud computing, they tend to “pull out the old paradigms,” used for the typical earthbound vendor for whom service-level agreements, software escrow, and spelling out where the data is stored is standard operating procedure. Pinning down cloud providers on such cloud computing security issues, or on how employees are vetted, or on legal protections if that provider goes belly up, is very tough.

“All those provisions of a customer contract, these cloud computing providers can’t do and still utilize their economies of scale,” Escalante said.

(CEO Matt Moynahan, of the cloud-based application security provider Veracode, for example, said his company offers service-level objectives rather than SLAs, in part because his customers’ demands are morphing so quickly. The Veracode promise to return an application within 72 hours is harder to guarantee when customers are now sending 100 million lines of code to vet, compared with earlier days, when customers were sending 50, 000 lines of code.)

The solution will be to move to a set of agreed-upon cloud computing security standards, and the legal and technology communities are inching toward standards. Meantime, Escalante has leaned on the due diligence being done by Shared Assessments, a member organization in the banking industry that was formed to evaluate the security of controls of service providers.

Dave Sherry, CISO at Brown University, where student email is now on Google Apps, said he consulted the nonprofit Cloud Security Alliance, which puts out free guidance and recently issued its Top Threats to Cloud Computing report, for his “many, many rounds” of contract negotiations with Google. Sherry had one big advantage going into negotiations, namely, Google’s strong desire to add a name-brand Ivy League university to its roster of academic customers. So the 800-pound gorilla proved flexible on some counts, he said, including allowing Brown to look at its hiring practices. Still, when it came to a formal risk assessment, Sherry added, Google “was going to give us precious little.”

On the other hand, Brown gets four years of Google Apps for free, and it’s hard to argue with free, Sherry said.

We’ll be writing more about the conundrums CIOs face in deciding whether and exactly how to utilize the cloud in an upcoming ezine for our sister site, Meantime, I’d like to hear from you about how your organizations are weighing the risks and benefits of cloud computing.

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