A couple years ago I wrote:
“I am told by many in my industry (and some vendors) that ‘if we put it in the cloud it will work better, cheaper, be safer, and always be available.’ Under most general financial services use cases (as opposed to niche functionality) that statement seems without foundation.”
Although many individuals have become more sophisticated in the ways they pitch ‘the cloud’ I still hear versions of this story on a fairly regular basis…
Today I learned about a recent Office 365 service outage that reminded me that issues concerning our use of ‘cloud’ technology and the commitments we in the Global Financial Services business make to our customers, prospects, marketers, investors, and regulators seem to remain very much unresolved.
According to Microsoft, sometime before 11:30 PM (UTC) on August 3rd 2017, the company introduced an update to the Activity Reports service in the Office 365 admin center which resulted in customers usage reports of one tenant being displayed in another tenant’s administrative portal.
Some customer o365 administrators noticed that the reported email and SharePoint usage for their tenants had spiked. When they investigated, the o365 AdminPortal (https://portal.office.com/adminportal/) displayed activity for users from one or more AzureAD domains outside their tenant. In the most general terms, this was a breach. The breach displayed names and email addresses of those users along with some amount of service traffic detail, for example, user named X (having email address userNameX@domainY.com) sent 193 and received 467 messages, as well as uploaded 9 documents to SharePoint, and read 45 documents in the previous week.
Some subset of those 0365 customers reported the breach to Microsoft.
Microsoft reported that at they disabled the Activity Reports services at 11:40 PM UTC the same day, and that they had a fix in place by 3:35 AM UTC.
Why should I care?
As Global Financial Services Enterprises we make a lot of promises (in varying degrees of formality) to protect the assets for which we are responsible and we promote our ethical business practices. For any one or our companies, our risk profile is rapidly evolving in concert with expanded use of a range of cloud services. Those risks appear in many forms. All of us involved in Global Financial Services need our security story-telling to evolve in alignment with the specific risks we are taking when we choose to operate one or another portion of our operations in ‘the cloud.’ In addition, our processes for detecting and reporting candidate “breaches” also need to evolve in alignment with our use of all things cloud.
In this specific situation it is possible that each of our companies could have violated our commitments to comply with the European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations: http://www.eugdpr.org/), had it happened in August 2018 rather than August 2017. We all have formal processes to report and assess potential breaches. Because of the highly-restricted access to Office 365 and Azure service outage details, is seems easy to believe that many of our existing breach detection and reporting processes are no longer fully functional.
Like all cloud stuff, o365 and Azure are architected, designed, coded, installed, hosted, maintained, and monitored by humans (as is their underlying infrastructure of many and varied types).
Humans make mistakes, they misunderstand, they miscommunicate, they obfuscate, they get distracted, they get tired, they get angry, they ‘need’ more money, they feel abused, they are overconfident, they believe their own faith-based assumptions, they fall in love with their own decisions & outputs, they make exceptions for their employer, they market their services using language disconnected from raw service-delivery facts, and more. That is not the whole human story, but this list attempts to poke at just some human characteristics that can negatively impact systems marketed as ‘cloud’ on which all of us perform one or another facet of our business operations.
I recommend factoring this human element into your thinking about the value proposition presented by any given ‘cloud’ opportunity. All of us will need to ensure that all of our security and compliance mandated services incorporate the spectrum of risks that come with those opportunities. If we let that risk management and compliance activity lapse for too long, it could put any or all of our brands in peril.
“Data Breach as Office 365 Admin Center Displays Usage Data from Other Tenants.”
By Tony Redmond, August 4, 2017
European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations)
An individual recently alerted me to an instance of sensitive information being displayed on an application screen in the context of limited or non-existent business value. There are a few key risk management issues here – if we ship data to a user’s screen there is a chance that:
- it will be intercepted by unauthorized parties,
- unauthorized parties will have stolen credentials and use them to access that data, and
- unauthorized parties will view it on the authorized-user’s screen.
Today I am most interested in the last use case — where traditional and non-traditional “shoulder surfing” is used to harvest sensitive data from user’s screens.
In global financial services, most of us have been through periods of data display “elimination” from legacy applications. In the last third of the 20th century United States, individual’s ‘Social Security Numbers’ (SSN) evolved into an important component of customer identification. It was a handy key to help identify one John Smith from another, and to help identify individuals whose names were more likely than others to be misspelled. Informtation Technology teams incorporated SSN as a core component of individual identity across the U.S. across many industries. Over time, individual’s SSNs became relatively liquid commodities and helped support a broad range of criminal income streams. After the turn of the century regulations and customer privacy expectations evolved to make use of SSN for identification increasingly problematic. In response to that cultural change or to other trigger events (privacy breach being the most common), IT teams invested in large scale activities to reduce dependence on SSNs where practical, and to resist SSN theft by tightening access controls to bulk data stores and by removing or masking SSNs from application user interfaces (‘screens’).
For the most part, global financial services leaders, application architects, and risk management professionals have internalized the concept of performing our business operations in a way that protects non-public data from ‘leaking’ into unauthorized channels. As our business practices evolve, we are obligated to continuously re-visit our alignment with data protection obligations. In software development, this is sometimes called architecture risk analysis (an activity that is not limited to formal architects!).
Risk management decisions about displaying non-public data on our screens need to take into account the location of those screens and the assumptions that we can reliably make about those environments. When we could depend upon the overwhelming majority of our workforce being in front of monitors located within workplace environments, the risks associated with ‘screen’ data leakage to unauthorized parties were often managed via line-of-sight constraints, building access controls, and “privacy filters” that were added to some individual’s monitors. We designed and managed our application user interfaces in the context of our assumptions about those layers of protection against unauthorized visual access.
Some organizations are embarked on “mobilizing” their operations — responding to advice that individuals and teams perform better when they are unleashed from traditional workplace constraints (like a physical desk, office, or other employer-managed workspace) as well as traditional workday constraints (like a contiguous 8, 10, or 12-hour day). Working from anywhere and everywhere, and doing so at any time is pitched as an employee benefit as well as a business operations improvement play. These changes have many consequences. One important impact is the increasing frequency of unauthorized non-public data ‘leakage’ as workforce ‘screens’ are exposed in less controlled environments — environments where there are higher concentrations of non-workforce individuals as well as higher concentrations of high-power cameras. Inadvertently, enterprises evolving toward “anything, anywhere, anytime” operations must assume risks resulting from exposing sensitive information to bystanders through the screens used by their workforce, or they must take measures to effectively deal with those risks.
The ever more reliable assumption that our customers, partners, marketers, and vendors feel increasingly comfortable computing in public places such as coffee shops, lobbies, airports and other types of transportation hubs, drives up the threat of exposing sensitive information to unauthorized parties.
This is not your parent’s shoulder surfing…
With only modest computing power, sensitive information can be extracted from images delivered by high-power cameras. Inexpensive and increasingly ubiquitous multi-core machines, GPUs, and cloud computing makes computing cycles more accessible and affordable for criminals and seasoned hobbyists to extract sensitive information via off-the-shelf visual analysis tools
This information exposure increases the risks of identity theft and theft of other business secrets that may result in financial losses, espionage, as well as other forms of cyber crime.
The dangers are real…
A couple years ago Michael Mitchell and An-I Andy Wang (Florida State University), and Peter Reiher (University of California, Los Angeles) wrote in “Protecting the Input and Display of Sensitive Data:”
The threat of exposing sensitive information on screen to bystanders is real. In a recent study of IT professionals, 85% of those surveyed admitted seeing unauthorized sensitive on-screen data, and 82% admitted that their own sensitive on-screen data could be viewed by unauthorized personnel at times. These results are consistent with other surveys indicating that 76% of the respondents were concerned about people observing their screens, while 80% admitted that they have attempted to shoulder surf the screen of a stranger . The shoulder-surfing threat is worsening, as mobile devices are replacing desktop computers. More devices are mobile (over 73% of annual technical device purchases) and the world’s mobile worker population will reach 1.3 billion by 2015. More than 80% of U.S. employees continues working after leaving the office, and 67% regularly access sensitive data at unsafe locations. Forty-four percent of organizations do not have any policy addressing these threats. Advances in screen technology further increase the risk of exposure, with many new tablets claiming near 180- degree screen viewing angles.
What should we do first?
The most powerful approach to resisting data leakage via user’s screens is to stop sending that data to those at-risk application user interfaces.
Most of us learned that during our SSN cleanup efforts. In global financial services there were only the most limited use cases where an SSN was needed on a user’s screen. Eliminating SSNs from the data flowing out to those user’s endpoints was a meaningful risk reduction. Over time, the breaches that did not happen only because of SSN-elimination activities could represent material financial savings and advantage in a number of other forms (brand, good-will, etc.).
As we review non-public data used throughout our businesses, and begin the process of sending only that required for the immediate use case to user’s screens, it seems rational that we will find lots of candidates for simple elimination.
For some cases where sensitive data may be required on ‘unsafe’ screens Mitchell, Wang, and Reiher propose an interesting option (cashtags), but one beyond the scope of my discussion today.
“Cashtags: Protecting the Input and Display of Sensitive Data.”
By Michael Mitchell and An-I Andy Wang (Florida State University), and Peter Reiher (University of California, Los Angeles)
The Cloud Security Alliance published “The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016” last year. I just saw it cited in a security conference presentation and realized that I had not shared this reference. For those involved in decision-making about risk management of their applications, data, and operations, this resource has some value. If you have not yet experienced a challenge to host your business in “the cloud”** it is likely you will in the future.
In my opinion, the Cloud Security Alliance is wildly optimistic about the business and compliance costs and the real risks associated with using shared, fluid, “cloud” services to host many types of global financial services business applications & non-public data. That said, financial services is a diverse collection of business activities, some of which may be well served by credible “cloud” service providers (for example, but not limited to, some types of sales, marketing, and human resource activities). In that context, the Cloud Security Alliance still publishes some content that can help decision-makers understand more about what they are getting into.
“The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016” outlines what “experts identified as the 12 critical issues to cloud security (ranked in order of severity per survey results)”:
- Data Breaches
- Weak Identity, Credential and Access Management
- Insecure APIs
- System and Application Vulnerabilities
- Account Hijacking
- Malicious Insider
- Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)
- Data Loss
- Insufficient Due Diligence
- Abuse and Nefarious Use of Cloud Services
- Denial of Service
- Shared Technology Issues
For each of these categories, the paper includes some sample business impacts, supporting anecdotes and examples, candidate controls that may help address given risks, and links to related resources.
If your role requires evaluating risks and opportunities associated with “cloud” anything, consider using this resource to help flesh out some key risk issues.
**Remember, as abstraction is peeled away “the cloud” is an ecosystem constructed of other people’s “computers” supported by other people’s employees…
Cloud Security Alliance:
“The Treacherous 12 – Cloud Computing Top Threats in 2016”