The core (in)security problem of cloud computing


If you’re reading this blog, you might be wondering what this PrivateCore thing is all about.  I want to give you some perspective on the company, the problems we intend to solve, and why I believe it will leave a dent in the security universe.

What was the big problem that I saw that motivated me to co-found PrivateCore?  I’ve been in this industry for over 20 years, most of the time building information security products.  At my core, I am a security technologist trying to deliver value in the real world.

As I looked around the industry a few years back, I saw virtualization taking over the data-center and how virtualization-enabled infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS, AKA cloud computing) was taking off. While the cloud’s agility, scale, and pay per use model offer enterprises great value, it was clear to me that cloud (in)security will be a top concern for the enterprise.

Virtualized Does Not Mean Magically Secure

Virtualization allows for the decoupling of virtual machines from the underlying hardware, making it possible to move computation around without requiring changes to the source code or the binaries of existing applications. Virtualization gave birth to cloud computing, but it did not made it secure.

The ability to consume computation as a service does not remove the enterprise need for security, and enterprises expect the same security controls in the cloud as they have in their own private data-centers. Indeed, most security controls such as network security, access controls, patch management, and application configuration, can be deployed as software solutions by the enterprise. However, there is one group of controls with which the enterprise struggles: physical security controls.

The Physical Access Gap

With physical access you don’t need to hack your way into the network, you can simply walk away with the data. Back in the enterprise data-center, physical security controls protect against physical extraction of data. With physical controls in the hands of the cloud providers, enterprises find a whole new set of people roaming unnoticed around “their” share of the cloud provider data-center, starting with the cloud provider employees, sub-contractors, and sometimes even government agencies armed with subpoenas looking to get access to data.

The concept that started dominating my brain was: how can enterprises secure their data in the absence of traditional physical security measures that the enterprise directly controls?

To eliminate the obvious, let me quickly explain why traditional data-at-rest encryption and data-in-transit encryption can not mitigate the “physical backdoor” problem. The flaw with these technologies in the cloud is that even when data is encrypted on disk and on the network, the data must be decrypted for processing. This leaves the data, as well as encryption keys, out in the clear to be grabbed via physical access.

To put it in simple and familiar terms, we use network encryption such as https, or vpn so we could use public networks, knowing that if an adversary can sniff (i.e. read) the network traffic, she will only see encrypted data rather than our plain text conversation. Similarly, an adversary with physical access to our server in the cloud, can “sniff” the memory, and access the information we process by exploiting his physical presence. It is this unfortunate truth that today requires us to trust that our cloud provider and their affiliates will resist the temptation to peek into our data in use.

PrivateCore: Building The Foundation for Secure Computing

I started PrivateCore with the purpose of solving this problem. To create the technology that will once and for all provide a secure computation environment, an environment in which cloud providers will not have the option of peeking into enterprise data flowing through their compute infrastructure. A technology enterprises can leverage and use on their own terms, to secure public computation just as they secure todays public networks and public storage.

So, that is the brief version the origin of PrivateCore and how we’re challenging the assumption that having physical access to hardware means you can gain unauthorized access to data.  In future blog postings, I and the rest of the PrivateCore team plan to periodically blog about industry happenings, what we are up to, and ways we see to improve enterprise data security.  Please join the conversation and share your opinion and viewpoint!

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