Not all clouds have silver linings – how information security varies between cloud providers

You may have read in the press that Google has entered into its biggest cloud-hosting deal to date. And surprisingly this deal is with one of Spain’s largest banks, BBVA.

The fact that a bank is signing up to Google Enterprise Apps for email and other collaboration services could be taken as a considerable endorsement – banks are, by nature, very security-centric: they have to ensure that they comply with strict information security and regulatory requirements. On this basis banks normally use their own servers to store and share data.

This is what makes the BBVA / Google deal so surprising. BBVA’s data will be stored on one of Google’s public servers, rather than on a private servers. BBVA will initially only use Google Apps for “internal communications” (with customer data and systems continuing to be hosted only in BBVA’s dedicated data centres), but it is assumed that over time BBVA may move more and more data to the cloud.

While I suspect that BBVA may have agreed a tailored solution and not signed up to Google’s Enterprise’s general terms and conditions, the standard Google Enterprise offering (as opposed to the free to use standard version) is rather attractive for businesses considering moving to the cloud, and in particular, using a cloud solution for data sharing and storage, such as Google Apps.

How safe is it to store data using Google Apps?
When storing data to an external server you have to make sure the data will be secure.

From an information security perspective Google Apps for Business has pretty good security credentials, so much so, that some of the US Government Departments use it. Google Apps is actually FISMA certified as being a secure way to store and share data. Google has also obtained an SSAE 16 Type II report (an independent audit) confirming that Google Docs actually adheres to the security controls it has in place and that these systems are operating effectively. The SSAE 16 report may give potential customers reassurance in relation to the effectiveness of Google’s security measures.

The other key information security concern for organisations is compliance with data protection rules and the security of personal data. Google Apps is currently hosted in the US and Europe, but Google Inc is a member of the US Safe Harbor Scheme. This is a US Federal Trade Commission scheme that allows US companies to certify compliance with a set of rules approved by the European Commission as being equivalent to the requirements of the EU Data Protection Directive.

This is important for organisations subject to EU data protection controls, as a transfer to an organisation that meets the Safe Harbor requirements allows the organisation to comply with the eighth data protection principle (which restricts transfers of data outside the EEA) without the need for putting in place model form contracts or making a finding of adequacy. This will give considerable comfort to users of Google Apps in relation to the any personal information that they store in the cloud.

However, potential customers should still be aware that Google may be obliged, under the Patriot Act, to disclose information stored in Google Apps to the US authorities.

How do other cloud services compare?
The fact that BBVA is using the Google Apps should not be taken as a green light for companies to store confidential, commercially sensitive or personal data on a similar cloud-computing solution. Google Apps is unique in terms of the FISMA and Safe Harbor accreditation and a number of cloud storage alternatives, such as Dropbox, simply don’t compare.

Dropbox – Information security risks
Dropbox and similar cloud-drive services are becoming an increasingly popular option for storing and sharing large files and for accessing documents from multiple devices. But, looking at the Dropbox terms and conditions, it appears to pose a number of potential information security risks which users may be overlooking.

Storing information
Firstly, Dropbox doesn’t have the greatest reputation as far as security is concerned.

Putting hacking to one side, there is a lack of certainty over what happens to your data once you remove it from the system. Normally, when you are storing confidential information on a third party’s system you want the comfort that at your request all of the confidential information is permanently deleted from the system. However, the Dropbox terms and conditions state that they are ‘likely’ to continue to hold the information on their back-up systems once you have deleted the data.

Releasing information
Another key concern is how readily Dropbox will share your data (confidential, personal or otherwise) with third parties. While there is a general obligation to release information when ordered to do so by a court order, Dropbox will seemingly release your files rather readily. In comparison, Google will inform you of the request and give you the opportunity to object.

Lack of independent certifications
Most importantly for potential customers within Europe, Dropbox states that it does not have Safe Harbor certification, nor is it able to provide a SAS 70 or SSAE 16 report in respect of its information security measures. This causes problems from a data protection perspective, and also means that their is no independent verification of the controls that Dropbox claims to have put in place.

The moral of the story is that you should carefully consider what data you are uploading to a data sharing  cloud – particularly if it is commercially sensitive or personal information – and, as boring as it is, read the site’s terms and conditions and carry out some due diligence on how your information will be protected.

Leigh Kirktpatrick

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