Centre for Internet & Society

Suresh Ramasubramanian is the ICS Quality Representative - IBM SmartCloud at IBM. We from the Centre for Internet and Society conducted an interview on cybersecurity and issues in the Cloud.

  1. You have done a lot of work around cybersecurity and issues in the Cloud. Could you please tell us of your experience in these areas and the challenges facing them?
    a. I have been involved in antispam activism from the late 1990s and have worked in ISP / messaging provider antispam teams since 2001. Since 2005, I expanded my focus to include general cyber security and privacy, having written white papers on spam and botnets for the OECD, ITU and UNDP/APDIP. More recently, have become a M3AAWG special advisor for capacity building and outreach in India.

    In fact capacity building and outreach has been the focus of my career for a long time now. I have been putting relevant stakeholders from ISPs, government and civil society in India in touch with their counterparts around the world, and, at a small level, enabling an international exchange of ideas and information around antispam and security.

    This was a challenge over a decade back when I was a newbie to antispam and it still is. People in India and other emerging economies, with some notable exceptions, are not part of the international communities that have grown in the area of cyber security and privacy.

    There is a prevalent lack of knowledge in this area, which combined with gaps in local law and its enforcement. There is a tendency on the part of online criminals to target emerging and fast growing economies as a rich source of potential victims for various forms of online crime, and sometimes as a safe haven against prosecution.
  2. In a recent public statement Google said "Cloud users have no legitimate expectation of privacy. Do you agree with this statement?
    a. Let us put it this way. All email received by a cloud or other Internet service provider for its customers is automatically processed and data mined in one form or the other. At one level, this can be done for spam filtering and other security measures that are essential to maintain the security and stability of the service, and to protect users from being targeted by spam, malware and potential account compromises.

    The actual intent of automated data mining and processing should be transparently provided to customers of a service, with a clearly defined privacy policy, and the deployment of such processing, and the “end use” to which data mined from this processing is put, are key to agreeing or disagreeing with such a statement.

    It goes without saying that such processing must stay within the letter, scope and spirit of a company’s privacy policy, and must actually be structured to be respectful of user privacy.

    Especially where mined data is used to provide user advertising or for any other commercial purpose (such as being aggregated and resold), strict adherence to a well written privacy policy and periodic review of this policy and its implementation to examine its compliance to laws in all countries that the company operates in are essential.

    There is way too much noise in the media for me to usefully add any more to this issue and so I will restrict myself to the purely general comments above.
  3. What ways can be privacy of an individual be compromised on the cloud? What can be done to prevent such instances of compromise?
    a. All the recent headlines about companies mining their own users’ data, and yet more headlines about different countries deploying nationwide or even international lawful intercept and wiretap programs, aside, the single largest threat to individual privacy on the cloud is, and has been for years before the word “cloud” came into general use, the constant targeting of online users by online criminals with a variety of threats including scams, phish campaigns and data / account credential stealing malware.

    Poor device security is another threat – one that becomes even more of a serious problem when the long talked about “internet of things” seems set to become reality, with cars, baby monitors, even Bluetooth enabled toilets, and more dangerously, critical national infrastructure such as power plants and water utilities becoming accessible over the Internet but still running software that is basically insecure and architected with assumptions that date back to an era when there was no conception or need to connect these to the Internet.

    Someone in Bluetooth range with the appropriate android application being able to automatically flush your toilet and even download a list of the dates and times when you last used it is personally embarrassing. Having your bank account broken into because your computer got infected with a virus is even more damaging. Someone able to access a dam’s control panel over the internet and remotely trigger the dam’s gates to open can cause far more catastrophic damage.

    The line between security and privacy, between normal business practice and unacceptable, even illegal behaviour, is sometimes quite thin and in a grey area that may be leveraged to the hilt for commercial and/or national security interests. However, scams, malware, exploits of insecure systems and similar threats are well on the wrong side of the “criminal” spectrum, and are a clear and present danger that cause far more than an embarrassing or personally damaging loss of privacy.
  4. How is the jurisdiction of the data on the cloud determined?
    This is a surprisingly thorny question. Normally, a company is based in a particular country and has an end user agreement / terms of service that makes its customers / users accept that country’s jurisdiction.

    However, a cloud based provider that does business around the world may, in practice, have to comply to some extent at least, with that country’s local laws – at any rate, in respect to its users who are citizens of that country. And any cloud product sold to a local business or individual by a salesman from the vendor’s branch in the country would possibly fall under a contract executed in the country and therefore, subject to local law.

    The level of compliance for data retention and disclosure in response to legal processes will possibly vary from country to country – ranging from flat refusals to cooperate (especially where any law enforcement request for data are for something that is quite legal in the country the cloud provider is based in) to actual compliance.

    In practice this may also depend on what is at stake for the cloud vendor in complying or refusing to comply with local laws – regardless of what the terms of use policies or contract assert about jurisdiction. The number of users the cloud vendor has in the country, the extent of its local presence in the country, how vulnerable its resident employees and executives are to legal sanctions or punishment.

    In the past, it has been observed that a practical balance [which may be based on business economics as much as it is based on a privacy assessment] may be struck by certain cloud vendors with a global presence, based on the critical mass of users it stands to gain or lose by complying with local law, and the risks it faces if it complies, or conversely, does not comply with local laws – so the decision may be to fight lawsuits or prosecutions on charges of breaking local data privacy laws or not complying with local law enforcement requests for handover of user data in court, or worst case, pulling out of the country altogether.
  5. Currently, big cloud owners are US corps, yet US courts do not extend the same privacy rights to non US citizens. Is it possible for countries to use the cloud and still protect citizen data from being accessed by foreign governments? Do you think a "National Cloud" is a practical solution?
    a. The “cloud” in this context is just “the internet”, and keeping local data local and within local jurisdiction is possible in theory at any rate. Peering can be used to keep local traffic local instead of having it do a roundtrip through a foreign country and back [where it might or might not be subject to another country’s intercept activities, no comment on that].

    A national cloud demands local infrastructure including bandwidth, datacenters etc. that meet the international standards of most global cloud providers. It then requires cloud based sites that provide an equivalent level of service, functionality and quality to that provided by an international cloud vendor. And then after that, it has to have usable privacy policies and the country needs to have a privacy law and a sizeable amount of practical regulation to bolster the law, a well-defined path for reporting and redress of data breaches. There are a whole lot of other technical and process issues before having a national cloud becomes a reality, and even more before such a reality makes a palpable positive difference to user privacy.
  6. What audit mechanisms of security and standards exist for Cloud Service Providers and Cloud Data Providers?
    a. Plenty – some specific to the country and the industry sector / kind of data the cloud handles. The Cloud Security Alliance has been working for quite a while on CloudAudit, a framework developed as part of a cross industry effort to unify and automate Assertion, Assessment and Assurance of their infrastructure and service.

    Different standards bodies and government agencies have all come out with their own sets of standards and best practices in this area (this article has a reasonable list - http://www.esecurityplanet.com/network-security/cloud-security-standards-what-youshould-know.html). Some standards you absolutely have to comply with for legal reasons.

    Compliance reasons aside, a judicious mix of standards, and considerable amounts of adaptation in your process to make those standards work for you and play well together.

    The standards all exist – what varies considerably, and is a major cause of data privacy breaches, are incomplete or ham handed implementations of existing standards, any attempt at “checkbox compliance” to simply implement a set of steps that lead to a required certification, and a lack of continuing initiative to keep the data privacy and securitymomentum going once these standards have been “achieved”, till it is time for the next audit at any rate.
  7. What do you see as the big challenges for privacy in the cloud in the coming years?
    a. Not very much more than the exact same challenges for privacy in the cloud over the past decade or more. The only difference is that any threat that existed before has always amplified itself because the complexity of systems and the level of technology and computing power available to implement security, and to attempt to breach security, is exponentially higher than ever before – and set to increase as we go further down the line.
  8. Do you think encryption the answer to the private and public institutions snooping?
    a. Encryption of data at rest and in transit is a key recommendation of any data privacy standard and cloud / enterprise security policy. Companies and users are strongly encouraged to deploy and use strong cryptography for personal protection. But to call it “the answer” is sort of like the tale of the blind men and the elephant.

    There are multiple ways to circumvent encryption – social engineering to trick people into revealing data (which can be mitigated to some extent, or detected if it is tried on a large cross section of your userbase – it is something that security teams do have to watch for), or just plain coercion, which is much tougher to defend against.

    As a very popular XKCD cartoon that has been shared around social media and has been cited in multiple security papers says -

    “A crypto nerd’s imagination”

    “His laptop’s encrypted. Let us build a million dollar cluster to crack it”
    “No good! It is 4096 bit RSA”
    “Blast, our evil plan is foiled”

    “What would actually happen”
    “His laptop’s encrypted. Drug him and hit him with this $5 wrench till he tells us the password”
    “Got it”
  9. Spam is now consistently used to get people to divulge their personal data or otherwise compromise a persons financial information and perpetuate illegal activity. Can spam be regulated? If so, how?
    a. Spam has been regulated in several countries around the world. The USA has had laws against spam since 2003. So has Australia. Several other countries have laws that specifically target spam or use other statutes in their books to deal with crime (fraud, the sale of counterfeit goods, theft..) that happens to be carried out through the medium of spam.

    The problems here are the usual problems that plague international enforcement of any law at all. Spammers (and worse online criminals including those that actively employ malware) tend to pick jurisdictions to operate in where there are no existing laws on their activities, and generally take the precaution not to target residents of the country that they live in. Others send spam but attempt to, in several cases successfully, skate around loopholes in their country’s antispam laws.

    Still others fully exploit the anonymity that the Internet provides, with privately registered domain names, anonymizing proxy servers (when they are not using botnets of compromised machines), as well as a string of shell companies and complex international routing of revenue from their spam campaigns, to quickly take money offshore to a more permissible jurisdiction.

    Their other advantage is that law enforcement and regulatory bodies are generally short staffed and heavily tasked, so that even a spammer who operates in the open may continue his activities for a very long time before someone manages to prosecute him.

    Some antispam laws allow recipients of spam to sue the spammer in small claims courts – which, like regulatory action, has also previously led to judgements being handed out against spammers and their being fined or possibly imprisoned in case their spam has criminal aspects to it, attracting local computer crime laws rather than being mere violations of civil antispam laws.
  10. There has been a lot of talk about the use of malware like FinFisher and its ability to compromise national security and individual security. Do you think regulation is needed for this type of malware - and if so what type - export  controls? privacy regulation? Use control?
    a. Malware used by nation states as a part of their surveillance activities is a problem. It is further a problem if such malware is used by nation states that are not even nominally democratic and that have long standing records of human rights violations.

    Regulating or embargoing their sale is not going to help in such cases. One problem is that export controls on such software are not going to be particularly easy and countries that are on software export blacklists routinely manage to find newer and more creative ways to attempt to get around these and try to purchase embargoed software and computing equipment of all kinds.

    Another problem is that such software is not produced just by legitimate vendors of lawful intercept gear. Criminals who write malware that is capable of, say, stealing personal data such as bank account credentials are perfectly capable of writing such software, and there is a thriving underground economy in the sale of malware and of “take” from malware such as personal data, credit cards and bank accounts where any rogue nation state can easily acquire products with an equivalent functionality.

    This is going to apply even if legitimate vendors of such products are subject to strict regulations governing their sale and national laws exist regulating the use of such products. So while there is no reason not to regulate / provide judicial and regulatory oversight of their sale and intended use, it should not be seen as any kind of a solution to this problem.

    User education in privacy and access to secure computing resources is probably going to be the bedrock of any initiative that looks to protect user privacy – a final backstop to any technical / legal or other measure that is taken to protect them.
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