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Controversial opinion alert: Privacy and the public cloud – not just possible, but easy

My files belong to me – and it's getting easier to protect them

By Trevor Pott, 1 Mar 2017

Like it or not, collaboration and file-sharing services like Dropbox have become embedded in corporate IT.

What started as personal technology has increasingly become the alternative to everything from moving files using USB to sharing docs via email or an internal wiki.

But we live in an age of hackers and hacking, spies and plods, and regulatory compliance – meaning what's currently yours might end up property of another actor.

What to do?

A number of applications have popped up offering file encryption for client and cloud. Applications in this category often work with Dropbox, Microsoft's Onedrive and Google Drive. They include, but aren't limited to: Cryptomator, Boxcryptor, Viivo and Sookasa.

Sookasa is a more enterprise-focused and arguably one of the more popular offerings for business. Sookasa works with a number of file transfer mechanisms beyond the Dropbox-alikes, including Slack, Zendesk and Salesforce among the public cloud applications for which it provides a layer of encryption. Sookasa’s offerings allow organizations to audit usage of cloud services within an organization, scan files within services under management and encrypt files added to those services.

Another option is Canadian Dropbox alternative The service is designed so that Sync (the company) couldn't crack open your Sync account and root around inside, even if they wanted to. It has used zero knowledge encryption as the basis for its cloud storage platform.

Key management

Key management of public key infrastructure (PKI) is an option for privacy, but key management servers (KMSes) are notoriously miserable to set up and maintain. This has led to the growing popularity of key management as a service (KMaaS).

Some of the frustrations with KMSes is deserved, and some isn't. The undeserved portion comes largely from Microsoft. Microsoft has an enterprise licensing management system they call KMS, and the early versions of it were pretty buggy. A lot of sysadmins have bad memories.

The deserved frustration comes from PGP. You'll note that PGP encryption of email isn't exactly popular. This isn't because it's difficult to encrypt an email, it's because key management – keeping everyone's keys sorted, verifying keys are still current, belong to the right individual or application, etc – is difficult to organize. It's impossible to do without involving both trust and adherence to some form of standards at some point, limiting the real-world uses of large-scale key management.

In one sense, the entire SSL certificate authority mechanism is key management. SSL certificates are tied to a certification authority that vouches for their authenticity to varying degrees. Applications such as web browsers and components within operating systems have lists of certification authorities they trust.

This system can and does fail. A lot.

Key management on a global scale is hard, but it's easier within the scope of a single organization. If you stand up a KMS whose purpose is to store, track and make available encryption keys for your own internal-use applications, it is easier to secure access such that you can trust the KMS and its keys. Linux administrators are probably familiar with a basic example in the form of KeyBox, which manages SSH keys.

Open Source has few true KMSes. Hashicorp Vault and Barbican (Openstack security API) are probably the two best-known options. Major cloud providers offer their own KMS, for example Amazon KMS or Azure Key vault.

Proprietary KMSes include IBM's Key Lifecycle Manager (formerly Tivoli Key Lifecycle Manager), Thales keyAuthority and Vormetric's Data Security Manager. Vormetric in particular has caught my eye as an example of the sort of interesting things that can be done to secure data both on-premises and off.

Transparent encryption

Beyond making KMS software easy to use, the key to securing data in the cloud is making encryption transparent, both to the end user and the administrator. End-user focused encryption technologies like Sookasa see little resistance in day-to-day use because the users don't notice them.

Systems administrators aren't all that different. By jacking into a central KMS and running invisibly on top of the file system using an OS agent, Vormetric's aptly named Transparent Encryption is a great example of encryption that works transparently to the application administrator or developer. This is how encryption for workloads needs to be done both on-premises and in the cloud if it is to see any real adoption.

Regardless of what we're trying to secure, securing data in the cloud is all about ease of use. Key management has to not suck. More importantly, encryption configurations have to be invisible and something end users don't need to think about. Solutions that use role-based administration and centralized policies are the ones to look for. Official support for the individual applications (installed or SaaS-based) is, of course, also required.

It's early days yet for hybrid cloud data protection setups, but already multiple companies are making good headway on the ease-of-use side of things. Maybe the public cloud needn't be so scary after all. ®

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