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Federal Cloud Adoption Raises Scary Security Concerns

I figured the government was on top of cloud security.

Awareness of the issue couldn't be much higher, what with all the news of data breaches and software vulnerabilities. Everyone is going to the cloud -- including Uncle Sam -- and security is always of paramount concern.

As a Ponemeon Institute report revealed in a study about the "cloud multiplier effect," moving to the cloud brings increased security concerns.

Cloud adoption isn't a new phenomenon anymore and with maturity of the technology comes decreased concern about security, according to the RightScale "2014 State of the Cloud Survey."

"Security remains the most-often cited challenge among Cloud Beginners (31 percent) but decreases to the fifth most cited (13 percent) among Cloud Focused organizations," the RightScale report said. "As organizations become more experienced in cloud security options and best practices, the less of a concern cloud security becomes."

Well, the government should be getting experienced. President Obama's "cloud first" initiative was announced in 2010.

Sure, the program had some rough spots. A year later, CIO.gov reported "each agency has individually gone through multiple steps that take anywhere from 6-18 months and countless man hours to properly assess and authorize the security of a system before it grants authority to move forward on a transition to the cloud."

To address that red tape, the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) was enacted to provide "a standardized approach to security assessment, authorization, and continuous monitoring for cloud products and services."

That led to 18 cloud services providers receiving compliance status and a bunch more in the process of being accredited. So now we have government-tailored cloud services available or coming from major players such as Microsoft, Amazon Web Services Inc. (AWS) and Google Inc., along with a host of lesser-known providers.

So, like I said, I figured the government was all set.

Then I read about a report issued last month with the alarming title of "EPA Is Not Fully Aware of the Extent of Its Use of Cloud Computing Technologies."

Report on EPA cloud usage.
[Click on image for larger view.] Report on EPA Cloud Usage: "The EPA did not know when its offices were using cloud computing."
(source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Inspector General)

"Our audit work disclosed management oversight concerns regarding the EPA's use of cloud computing technologies," reported the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Inspector General. "These concerns highlight the need for the EPA to strengthen its catalog of cloud vendors and processes to manage vendor relationships to ensure compliance with federal security requirements."

It then listed some bullet-point takeaways, including:
  • The EPA didn't know when its offices were using cloud computing.

Which opened up a whole BYOD/shadow IT can of worms. Sure, the government addressed that issue. It addresses every issue. But if the EPA doesn't know when its offices are using cloud computing, how can the federal government know what each of its more than 2 million employees are doing with the cloud from their individual devices?

An article last year in Homeland Security Today found "Federal BYOD Policies Lagging."

"Tens of thousands of government employees show up for work every day with a personal mobile device that they regularly use for official work," the article said. "Yet few, if any, of those employees have knowledge of their agency's policy governing how and when personal mobile devices can be used, or what information they are allowed to access when using those devices."

And that's not to mention the shadow IT problem, as reported in an article by Government Computing News titled "Is Shadow IT Spinning out of Control in Government?"

An excerpt:

"People need to get their work done, and they'll do anything to get it done," said Oscar Fuster, director of federal sales at Acronis, a data protection company. "When tools that can help them appear in the marketplace, and in their own homes, they chafe when administrators do not let them use them. The result often is an unmanaged shadow infrastructure of products and services such as mobile devices and cloud-based file sharing that might be helpful for the worker, but effectively bypasses the enterprise's secure perimeter."

What's even more worrisome is that federal exposures can be deadly serious. Regular enterprise data breaches can cost a lot of money to organizations and individuals, but government vulnerabilities can get people killed. Think about covert agents' identities being revealed in Snowden-like exposès or Tuesday's revelation by Time that New Post-Snowden Leaks Reveal Secret Details of U.S. Terrorist Watch List."

"The published documents describe government efforts using the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE), a database used by federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies to identify and track known or suspected terrorist suspects," the article states.

And how about more organized threats? Yesterday, just a day after the Time article, The Washington Post published this: "DHS contractor suffers major computer breach, officials say. The victimized company said the intrusion "has all the markings of a state-sponsored attack." That means we're being targeted by foreign countries that want to do us harm. And it's been going on for a while.

VentureBeat last year reported that "Chinese government hackers are coming for your cloud," and last month The Guardian reported via AP that "Chinese hackers 'broke into U.S. federal personnel agency's databases.'"

And those are just a few of the attacks that the public knows about. If Russian hackers can steal more than 1 billion Internet passwords, as reported Tuesday by The New York Times, who knows what Russian government-backed hackers have been doing?

Scarier still, judging by the aforementioned three attacks revealed in the past three days alone, the pace of attacks seems to be picking up -- just as government cloud adoption is picking up. "Federal Cloud Spending Blows Past Predictions," Forbes reported last month. "Today, U.S. federal government cloud spending is on the rise as government agencies beat their own predictions for fiscal 2014," the article said.

I know the feds are addressing the cloud security issue, but government resources will probably be trending down and government red tape can make things so complicated I fear for the effectiveness of security precautions.

AWS alone, in noting that its government cloud service "has been designed and managed in alignment with regulations, standards and best-practices," lists 12 such programs, with names like "SOC 1/SSAE 16/ISAE 3402 (formerly SAS70)" and "FIPS 140-2."

If the government can bungle a much-publicized Web site rollout of this administration's signature health care program, how can all the individual entities moving to the cloud correctly implement their systems, even if the cloud service is properly vetted?

Yes, the allure of cost savings, efficiency and innovation provided by cloud solutions is great, but at what risk?

Posted by David Ramel on 08/07/2014 at 10:26 AM


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