Cloud computing compliance: Exploring data security in the cloud

If you're looking to outsource sensitive data with a cloud service provider, you'll want to ask the right questions regarding cloud computing compliance and security issues. Learn more about the questions to ask providers about cloud computing data security.

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While migrating services to the cloud may provide many benefits, it does not absolve an enterprise of certain responsibilities.... The enterprise is still required to remain compliant.
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 Amid an ever-increasing bevy of regulations that enterprises need to worry about -- from SOX and PCI DSS to HIPAA/HITECH and the FTC's Red Flags Rules -- and a growing number of cloud service providers to choose from, enterprises have a lot of options and a lot of questions to consider concerning cloud computing compliance.

While migrating services to the cloud may provide many benefits, it does not absolve an enterprise of certain responsibilities. Most notably, the enterprise is still required to remain compliant with the assorted regulations and laws that it would fall under had it retained that service inside the company.

In some cases, as with PCI DSS, there is definite potential to reduce a company's compliance scope by outsourcing certain services. Most notably, by wholesale outsourcing the credit card processing to a third-party provider, an organization's PCI scope will be significantly smaller (though not go away completely). With the FTC's Red Flags Rules, however, that is not the case, as the FTC has mandated that any outsourcing must entail equivalent or better security than the enterprise would have implemented internally.

As you start to investigate moving services to the cloud, it's important to ask several cloud computing compliance questions:

  1. Does this data that will be moving to the cloud fall under any compliance-related regulations or requirements? This includes data such as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), Personal Health Information (PHI), or corporate finance-related information.
  2. If the answer to question one is yes, which regulations does it fall under and what controls are necessary?
  3. Can the cloud provider actually offer the identified or equivalent controls that your organization's data requires?
  4. Does the cloud provider have the necessary policies, processes and procedures to properly maintain those controls?
  5. Does the provider have appropriate disaster recovery and business continuity processes to meet your organization's business needs?
  6. What happens if the cloud provider goes bankrupt? Can the enterprise's data be sold to a creditor or at auction as a provider's asset?
  7. Should I decide to change providers, is there an easy way to export my data in a useable format?
  8. Is the provider willing to alter its default terms of service in order to guarantee or provide service level agreements (SLAs) around questions 3-7?

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 That last question is particularly important, as many cloud providers refuse to use anything other then their default contract language. As a result, they have effectively eliminated themselves from being potential providers of compliance data-related services. Several of the compliance regulations, most notably HIPAA/HITECH and the FTC Red Flags Rules, specifically mandate that an enterprise must have contracts with its service providers mandating appropriate controls, processes and procedures in accordance with each regulation's guidelines.

Similarly, if the providers can't meet the requirements of questions 3-7, they should also be eliminated from contention for your company's business. Lack of ability to meet requirements is a problem especially when it comes to PCI DSS and HIPAA/HITECH. Thus, you will quickly find that your options for cloud service providers are limited -- at least in the short term -- though rumor has it that several of the larger cloud providers are working on retooling their systems to meet these compliance needs. There are a handful of cloud providers on the healthcare side that have built applications specifically to meet the needs of the healthcare industry, but I have not yet seen any security evaluations of these applications to determine their effectiveness.

In the meantime, I recommend passing the above questions to providers that you're evaluating, much like you would pass them a request for information (RFI )for any other outsourcing project, and then choose the provider that can best meet your needs.

Alternately, if none can, investigate ways of removing or obfuscating the relevant data (such as hashing or encrypting information prior to moving it to the cloud), so your organization can still get the business benefits of the cloud.

About the author:
David Mortman is a contributing analyst with Securosis LLC. Formerly the Chief Information Security Officer for Siebel Systems, Inc., David and his team were responsible for Siebel's worldwide IT security infrastructure, both internal and external. He also worked closely with Siebel's product groups and the company's physical security team and led up Siebel's product security and privacy efforts. A CISSP, Mr. Mortman sits on a variety of advisory boards including Qualys and Applied Identity and Reflective, amongst others. He holds a BS in Chemistry from the University of Chicago.

This was first published in February 2010

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