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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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When the cloud leaks

16 December 2016

Yahoo has admitted that up to a billion of its cloud-based free email accounts may have been compromised by crackers.

Wow... that's a lot. Almost a seventh of the world's population?

Well no, not really. I suspect that YahooMail has been a popular place for folk to create throw-away accounts and that only a percentage of that billion or so accounts were or are actually active.

Never the less, this is a huge fail for cloud security and should act as a warning for those who think that the answer to security is just to trust Yahoo, Google, Amazon or whoever.

Protecting your or your organisation's data from unwanted access, theft or deletion may not be as simple as just using a cloud-based solution. In fact, you could be creating an even greater risk.

I'm seeing increasing evidence that companies (and even our local council) believe that the answer to security is to effectively outsource it through the use of cloud-based services as an alternative to hosting on their own hardware. Now whilst that may be true in some cases, I think they need to apply a little more thought to the issue.

The South Waikato District Council here are about to launch an IT revamp to ensure that its computer systems keep pace with demand.

In a presentation to council, IT staff seemed pretty keen on outsourcing via the cloud, offering the perspective that if it's good enough for the NSA to recommend Amazon's cloud services then it's good enough for a small district council to use the same.

Sadly, I fear that these people are over-simplifying the situation and ignoring the fact that the cloud carries with it risks over which they have zero control and are therefore not able to mitigate or even manage.

As we've seen with Yahoo, there are no guarantees that any security breaches of a cloud-based solution will be caught in a reasonable time and, even if they are detected, there appears to be no imperative for the operator to advise its clients in a timely fashion.

The first clue that South Waikato residents might get after such a breach might be a significant increase in the level of spam they receive -- after the email and physical addresses of ratepayers are sold and resold on the black market for such data.

But there's worse... much worse.

As we've seen in recent years, NZ is a country very prone to "disasters" of the natural kind.

First the Christchurch earthquakes devastated one area, now the Kaikoura quakes have knocked even our capital city for six.

So what happens if we have a major quake or national disaster that takes out NZ's internet connections with the rest of the world -- especially our connections to the overseas cloud-based service that you or your organisation has opted to use?

In the case of a local council, can they afford to lose access to their data at the very time such data is most crucial to effective Civil Defence activities etc?

How do you pay wages? How do you get access to important (perhaps critical) data that is housed overseas and thus beyond the reach of your keyboard and monitor?

Obviously the answer is to have a fallback system, a local backup system, some kind of redundancy which ensures that all your data is also kept locally for use in the event that such a calamity is experienced. But if you do this, haven't you just created exactly the same security problem you've tried to eliminate by opting for a cloud-based solution?

No, simply saying "we'll go to the cloud" is not a universal panacea for the issues that vex any and all IT systems.

In fact, it's probably a very naive solution to what is often a rather complex problem.

So I will be watching the South Waikato District Council's decision-making process with great interest and hoping that they are not so stupid as to believe everything that's written on the packet. Let's hope they get some external "expert" advice on such things as security.

Or they could just use Yahoo. At least then they'd know that security won't be an issue -- for clearly, Yahoo provide none.

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