Security experts advise self defense in the cloud

The cloud's an increasingly risky place, and people are trusting their personal information to systems they have no control over, security researchers warn

Security researchers are warning that Web-based applications are increasing the risk of identity theft or losing personal data more than ever before.

The best defense against data theft, malware, and viruses in the cloud is self defense, researchers at the Hack In The Box (HITB) security conference said. But getting people to change how they use the Internet, such as what personal data they make public, won't be easy.

[ Also at HITB, security researchers showed how hackers spy on BlackBerry and other smartphones. | Learn how to secure your systems with Roger Grimes' Security Adviser blog and Security Central newsletter, both from InfoWorld. ]

People put a lot of personal information on the Web, and that can be used for an attacker's financial gain. From social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to the mini-blogging service Twitter and other blog sites like Wordpress, people are putting photos, resumes, personal diaries and other information in the cloud. Some people don't even bother to read the fine print in agreements that allow them onto a site, even though some agreements clearly state that anything posted becomes the property of the site itself.

The loss of personal data by Sidekick smartphone users over the weekend, including contacts, calendar entries, photographs, and other personal information, serves as another example of the potential pitfalls of trusting the Cloud. Danger, the Microsoft subsidiary that stores Sidekick data, said a service disruption almost certainly means user data has been lost for good.

Access to personal data on the cloud from just about anywhere on a variety of devices, from smartphones and laptops to home PCs, shows another major vulnerability because other people may be able to find that data, too.

"As an attacker, you should be licking your lips," said Haroon Meer, a researcher at Sensepost, a South African security company that has focused on Web applications for the past six years. "If all data is accessible from anywhere, then the perimeter disappears. It makes hacking like hacking in the movies."

A person who wants to steal personal information is usually looking for financial gain, Meer said, and every bit of data they can find leads them one step closer to your online bank, credit card, or brokerage accounts.

First, they might find your name. Next, they discover your job and a small profile of you online that offers further background information such as what school you graduated from and where you were born. They keep digging until they have a detailed account of you, complete with your date of birth and mother's maiden name for those pesky security questions, and perhaps some family photos for good measure. With enough data they could make false identification cards and take out loans under your name.

Identity theft could also be an inside job. Employees at big companies that host e-mail services have physical access to e-mail accounts. "How do you know nobody's reading it? Do you keep confirmation e-mails and passwords there? You shouldn't," said Meer. "In the cloud, people are trusting their information to systems they have no control over."

Browser makers can play a role in making the cloud safer for people, but their effectiveness is limited by user habits. A browser, for example, may scan a download for viruses, but it still gives the user the choice of whether or not to download. Most security functions on a browser are a choice.

Lucas Adamski, security underlord (that's really what his business card says) at Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox browser, offered several bits of cyber self defense advice for users, starting with the admonition that people rely on firewalls and anti-virus programs too much.

"You can't buy security in a box," he said. "The way to be as secure as possible is about user behavior."

There is a lot of good built-in security already installed in browsers, he said. If you get a warning not to go to a site, don't go to it. When you do visit a site, make sure it's the right one. Are the images and logos right? Is the URL correct? Check before you proceed with filling in your username and password, he counseled.

Software updates are vital. "Make sure you have the most up-to-date version of whatever software you use," he said. Updates almost always patch security holes. Key software programs such as Adobe Systems' Flash Player and Reader are particularly important to keep updated because they're used on so many computers and are prime targets for hackers.

He also suggested creating a virtual machine on your computer using VMWare as a security measure.

"It's really hard to get people to change their browsing habits," he said. People want to surf the Web fast, visit their favorite sites and download whatever they want without thinking too much about security. "Educate them, move them along, but don't expect them to become security experts."

Internet browser makers take great care in building as much security as possible into their products and putting them through rigorous testing.

The security team for Google's Chrome browser, for example, will take the first crack at any major update to the software, hacking away to find vulnerabilities or ways to improve security, said Chris Evans, an information security engineer at Google.

After the Chrome security team takes a whack at the software and it is reworked to fix the holes they found, other security teams at Google will have a go at the product to see what trouble they can cause. Finally, the software is released in beta form, and private security researchers and others can hack away. Any problems are fixed before the final release goes out and then the Chrome team stands ready to make new patches for any other security issues that crop up.

Despite all the testing, browser makers are only one part of the security solution because they have no control over Web software or user browsing behavior.

The cloud is the Wild West: hackers and malware makers abound, phishers seek passwords and users do whatever they want to, recklessly surfing and downloading potentially dangerous content as judged by security researchers.

Companies developing Cloud applications and services will need to do more for Web security. Amazon.com with its Web Services and Google as it moves forward with initiatives, such as Google Docs, that attempt to draw people to Web applications and away from computer applications will need to work more closely with security researchers, Meer said.

And Google's work on the security in the Chrome browser highlights the reason why: Computer applications such as Chrome face intense scrutiny by security researchers throughout the Web, while Web applications do not.

"Reverse engineering keeps [big software companies] honest," said Meer. "If they hide something in the software code, sooner or later someone finds it. With Cloud services, you just don't know because we simply cannot verify it."

Cloud applications are built by one company, and nobody is looking at the code or how safe it is, said Meer. Applications for computers are different. They can be ripped apart by security experts then put back together stronger so there are no security holes, he said.

"Trust but verify," said Meer. "Just because a guy does no evil today, we cannot trust that they will do no evil tomorrow because we simply cannot verify it."

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