The New Data Management Risks (Part 2)

September 06, 2015 by Mark Gerasimas

Examining the security risks inherent in local servers and cloud servers. There's no such thing as a perfect system, but when it comes to data management, ignorance is dangerous.

In Part 1, we explored the differences between a local server and a cloud server as options for data management.  Now, we will explore the security risks of each.

Cloud computing requires a careful balance between usability and security (unless you're the Secretary of State with a private, local server).  The more secure a cloud server is, the more difficult it is to navigate and use with regularity.  Mainstream cloud servers have the difficult task of finding that balance to ensure security of customer data while also making it user friendly enough to maintain current customers and draw new customers to the cloud.  The following list outlines the current security risks faced by mainstream cloud servers.

1. Data Breach.  Affecting both local and cloud servers, data breach occurs when the data stored in the server is compromised by accident or malicious intent.  Data breaches are a major threat to cloud server customers who store sensitive information such as personal information, credit card data, and industry secrets among others.  You can influence this through effective management of user permissions, password complexity, and data encryption (when capable).

2. Data Loss.  Also affecting local and cloud servers, data loss occurs when data of any size is lost via malfunction or negligence on the part of the server.  This does not include malicious attacks that target data management platforms with the intent of destroying data.  The best technique for countering this risk is the use of backup storage separate from the server, usually located at your physical location or even another cloud server.

3. Data Interception.  Unique to cloud servers, data interception occurs when an individual with malicious intent (hacker) monitors the data stream to and from a client and a server.  The hacker generally monitors for passwords, authentication information, phrases, data types, etc. and then captures that data, usually in hopes of gaining direct access to the data management platform on the cloud server.  You can best influence this through choosing a cloud server that utilizes encrypted data transmission.  Luckily, this hasn't been much of a problem since Microsoft got caught in the act in 2013.

4. Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD).  Common to both local and cloud servers, the BYOD trend has swept American business.  This movement towards employees using personal devices on commercial networks allows for greater personalization of hardware and saves on the cost of hardware.  However, the major risks are residual data left on user devices in the event of theft/loss, or jailbroken devices with limited embedded restrictions among others.  Effective BYOD structures require heavier IT oversight and are not typically suitable for individuals.

5. Denial of Service.  Also common to cloud servers and local servers (but dangerous to both), denial of service attacks occur when multiple connection attempts are made (on the order of thousands) to a server connected to the internet within a short period of time.  The intent is to deny service to the typical customers of that server.  Motivations for such attacks can range from sheer amusement to retribution.  The techniques used to defeat these attacks are numerous and involve a combination of software and hardware included in your initial server setup.

6. Malicious Software (Malware)/Viruses. Malware and viruses threaten any operating system, from individual user devices to cloud servers, like the attack that just occurred on Apple's database.  The responsibility for security of local servers rests with the owner/IT specialist.  Cloud servers demand shared responsibility between the customer and the service provider to prevent attacks.

7. Account Hijacking (Password Theft).  Like malware and viruses, account hijacking can potentially affect all devices.  The most common technique for hijacking account information is phishing, whereby a user receives a request (seemingly from a legitimate source) for information such as credit card information, bank account information, personally identifiable information, and anything that can be used for personal or financial gain.  Effective defense of phishing attacks stems from verifying any account information requests with the requesting institution. 

8. Service Interruptions.  Cloud servers operate on the premise that all data and applications are stored remotely, and the customer's computer, phone, tablet, etc. is merely a terminal from which to access them.  When internet connectivity is degraded or unavailable, there is no access to the server.  Local servers operate based on a local area network, where each terminal is connected directly to the server to include wireless connections within range.  An interruption in internet connectivity would deny remote access to the server, but the server can still provide the bulk of services required.

The Grass is Always Greener

Clearly, there are risks involved with local servers as well as cloud servers.  Using the bank analogy, the same assertion holds true.  It is much easier for a burglar to break into a family safe than a bank.  However, a well-coordinated bank robbery allows thieves to steal from any safe deposit box or account indiscriminately.  Such is the risk with local servers and cloud servers.

There are no guarantees with security in today's virtual world (just look at the recent Clinton server scandal).  The movement to cloud servers has been a growing trend for years, but it does not come without risk.  While the day is approaching where local servers will go the way of the eight-track tape, the freedom for individuals and small business owners to choose remains.  Diligent research of your prospective cloud server's security techniques will give you some peace of mind should you choose to upgrade; the remainder depends on sound risk mitigation and smart practice at the individual level.