MonthSeptember 2020

Data Security In The Cloud: Part 2 [Published in iPswitch]

Vulnerabilities in cloud-sharing services stem from the usage of multiple cloud services because of which users need to keep adapting and adjusting their exceptions.

In part 1, I discussed some major vulnerabilities using cloud-sharing services caused. This included routine cloud usage leading to users opening emails from unknown addresses; complying with form-emails with no personalized messages or subject lines; clicking on unverifiable hyperlinks in emails, and violating cyber safety training drills that cautions against all the aforementioned actions. Security flaws in cloud-sharing services are, not in the user, but the developmental focus of various cloud services.

Different Authentication Considerations for Cloud Services

Some cloud services like Google Drive are focused on integrating their cloud offerings with their alphabet-soup of services. Others, such as Dropbox, are focused on creating a stand-alone cross-platform portal. Still others, such as Apple, are focused on increasing subscription revenues from their device user population.

In consequence, not only does each provider prioritize a different aspect of the sharing process, but this larger goal also comes before the user–who is nothing more than a potential revenue target.

Changing this means more than implementing more robust authentication protocols and encryption standards. These are necessary, but they do little to reduce vulnerabilities that are rooted in the user adaption process. If anything, they make users have to adapt to even more varying implementations. Improving resilience in cloud platforms cannot be done on a piece-meal basis; it requires a unified effort by cloud service providers.

Integrating Different Cloud Services

Here, industry groups such as the Cloud Security Alliance can help by bringing together various cloud providers, and taking a holistic look into how users adapt to different cloud-use environments and estimate risk on them.

A big part of this endeavor will involve getting to the root of users’ Cyber Risk Beliefs (CRB): their mental assumptions about the risks of their online actions. We know from my research that many of these risk beliefs are inaccurate. For instance, many users mistakenly construe the HTTPS symbol to mean a website is authentic, or that a PDF document is more secure because they cannot edit it, than a Word document.

We need to understand how CRB manifest themselves in cloud environments. This involves answers to questions such as whether users believe that certain cloud services are more secure than others? And whether they think that such services render the sharing of documents or the sharing of certain types of documents through them safer?

Answers to such questions will reveal how users mentally orient to different cloud services, what they store on them, and how they react to files shared through them. For instance, if users believe a specific portal makes documents safe, they might be more willing to open files that purportedly come from such portals in a spear-phishing email. Beliefs such as these might also influence how users enable various apps on to cloud portals, what they store online, and how careful they are about their stored data. Because CRB influences the adaptive use of different cloud services, understanding them can help design a safer cloud user experience.

Improving user security on cloud platforms also requires the development of novel technical constraints. Since many social engineering attacks conceal malware in hyperlinks, cloud portals need to collaborate and develop a virtualized space in which all shared links are generated and deployed. This way, spoofing of hyperlinks or leading users to watering hole sites is far more difficult because the domains from which the links are generated would be more uniform and recognizable to users.

User Interfaces of Cloud Services

Yet another focus needs to be on improving user interface (UI) design. For now, the UI of file-sharing programs prioritizes convenience rather than safety. This is a bias that permeates the technology design community, and its most marked manifestation is in mobile apps where it is hard for users to assess the veracity of cloud-sharing emails and embedded hyperlinks.

To change this, UI should foster more personalization of the shared files. Users shouldn’t be permitted to share links without messages or subject lines and should be prompted to include a signature in the message. The design must also deemphasize the actions that users have to take and emphasize review, especially on mobile devices. This can be achieved by highlighting the user’s personalized message, by displaying the complete URL rather than shortening it, and by making the use of passwords for opening shared documents necessary.

UI design could also focus on integrating file-sharing portals with email services, so that links aren’t being generated from the portal directly, but are created from within email accounts that people are familiar with. This way, emails aren’t being sent from unknown virtual in-boxes, and personalization becomes easier.

The Cloud Is A Victim Of Its Own Success

Finally, our extant user training on email security is at odds with end-user cloud sharing behavior. Using the cloud today entails violating training-based knowledge, which over time, changes user perceptions of the validity of training. We must update training to emphasize safety in the sharing and receiving of cloud files. This means foster newer norms and best practices, such as using passwords and personalized messages while sharing. It also includes teaching users how to gauge whether a shared hyperlink is a spoof and the approaches to deploying such links in virtualized environments, to contain any potential damage.

The cloud is becoming a victim of its own success. With many more players entering the market, the user experience is getting more fragmented and enhancing vulnerabilities because of the different ways in which they implement each platform. Today, there are hundreds of providers offering different cloud services, with many more coming online.

The industry is slated to grow even more, because we have barely tapped the overall potential market–with anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of the all organizations in the US, Europe, and Asia, yet to adopt it. Thus, the user issues are only likely to increase as more providers and users enter the space.

Correcting this is now more important than ever. Because a single major breach can erode user trust in the entire cloud experience–forever changing the cloud usage landscape.

*A version of this post appeared here:

**Photo source

Data Security in the Cloud: Part 1 [Published in iPswitch]

The adoption of public cloud computing makes user data less secure. And it’s not for the reasons most in IT realize.

In the first part of this series, I explain why; solutions follow in part 2.

Most users experience the cloud as online software and operating environments (e.g., Google’s App Engine, Chrome OS, Documents); and as online backup, storage, and file sharing systems (e.g., Dropbox, iCloud).

Adopting such services makes sense. Its providers have deeper resources, better technical talent, and more capabilities for predicting and reacting to adverse events. This lowers the probability of data loss and outages, be they because of accidental or malicious causes. Using cloud-based services reduces the in-house processing power requirements and also meets the varying data access needs that users have today. This reduces the costs of maintaining hardware, software, and support staff.

Most Companies Have Adopted the Public Cloud

Recognizing these advantages, some 91 percent of organizations worldwide have already adopted public cloud computing solutions and around 80 percent of enterprise workloads are expected to shift to cloud platforms by year’s end.

But cloud computing solutions also bring new technical challenges that can expose the enterprise to cyber-attacks. Many of these are well known in cyber security circles and have proven fixes. This includes mechanisms for auditing security vulnerabilities both at the provider end and on client machines, for assuring the availability and integrity of hosted services through encryption, and for granting and revoking access.

Outside of these, however, there are several vulnerabilities that arise from using cloud-services. These are user and usage driven issues that are ignored by most in IT who prefer to write-it off with the “people will always be a problem” adage rather than tackle them. In consequence, most of these threats are seldom researched, but they make the data hosted on the cloud even more susceptible to being hacked.

For one, using cloud-based file sharing routinizes the receipt of hyperlinks in emails. Keep in mind, hundreds of providers make-up this market space. Most organizations use at least five different cloud services and most users subscribe to an ecosystem of their own liking. These translate to numerous cloud-service generated hyperlinks that users frequently send and receive via emails and apps on different devices.

But once users get accustomed to complying with such emails, it routinizes opening hyperlinks, making them much more likely to click on malicious hyperlinks in spear phishing that mimic them.

Convenience is not Always Secure

Making things worse is the design of cloud-sharing services. In their bid to make it convenient, services such as Google Drive, Google Photos, and Dropbox, send out pre-crafted email notices of shared files.

The email notice usually contains only a few pieces of variable information: the name of the sender, the hyperlink, and some information about the file being shared through the link. The rest of the space is occupied by branding information (such as the name of the cloud provider and their logo). Thus, users have just a few pieces of information for judging the authenticity of what’s being shared.

But in many cloud services, while the email appears to come from the sender and has their name, it doesn’t come from their in-box. Instead, it comes from a different in-box, one that changes with the provider. For instance, Google Drive notifications come from a “” inbox, Dropbox comes from a ”,” while Google Photos comes from a “,” where the alpha-numeric characters (randomly chosen for this example) change each time. No user can remember these in-boxes, so there is no way for users to know if these emails are indeed authentic. Furthermore, cyber security awareness training caution users about opening emails from strange and unknown in-boxes. Thus, every time users open a cloud-shared hyperlink, they have violated safety principles they were taught-–which erodes their belief in the validity of the other aspects of their security training, opening them up to even more online attacks.

Hyperlinks Shared Through Cloud Services

A similar issue plagues the hyperlinks shared through cloud-services. Most contain special symbols and characters, and there is no simple way for users to assess their veracity. Given how these are generated and shared, users cannot plug the hyperlink into a search engine or into a browser without deploying them. Nor can users forward privately shared links to a sandboxed device or to another person with expertise. All users can do is rely on the information in the email, which requires deploying the hyperlink.

Outside of the sent-mail and hyperlinks, the only other varying indicator in a cloud-sharing email is the extension of the shared document (such as whether it is a .DOCX or a .MOV file), which is usually accompanied by an icon showing the type of file attached (e.g., a PDF icon). These were never designed to serve as yardstick for gauging the veracity of shared files.

As my research on user cognition shows, people form several false assumptions about online risk. For instance, many people believe that PDF documents are secure because they cannot edit them, which, of course, has nothing to do with the security of the file-type. These mistaken assumptions, what I call Cyber Risk Beliefs, are not only trigged by icons and files extensions, but they also dictate how users react to them. So, seeing a PDF extension or icon–which can easily be spoofed–and believing it is secure, further increases the likelihood that users will open cloud sharing hyperlinks that may actually be spear phishing.

Finally, the display of all these pieces of information is further circumscribed on smartphone and tablets. Depending on the app and device, brand logos and other graphical information are sometimes not displayed, sender information is auto-populated from the device’s contact book, and the UI action buttons, as in “Open” Download” and “View” are made prominent. These are deliberately designed to move the user along to a decision–which almost always is to comply with the request rather than to pause or exercise conscious care.

Such design issues plague many communication apps accessed on mobile devices–something I highlighted in my 2019 Verizon DBIR write-up. But they are even more problematic in cloud-based file sharing because unlike email, which by default receivers expect to be personalized (as in have a subject line, some salutation, and always, a message), the established norms for cloud-sharing of files are exactly the opposite: users seldom expect personalization, almost never include a message, and don’t even know how to inject a subject-line. This not only makes it easier to create spoofed cloud sharing emails but users have a particularly hard time discerning them on mobile devices.

Wrapping Up Cloud Security

All these issues are usage driven and stem from the success of the cloud. This means they are unlikely to go away and the widespread adoption of the cloud–a market Gartner expects will exceed $220 billion by 2020–will only increase their scale.  Given the volume of data that is increasingly stored on the cloud, the availability of so many user level vulnerabilities are fodder for social engineers looking for easy ways to hack the data.

And this is already afoot: Dropbox, Google Drive, and Adobe accounts are now among the most common lures used in spear phishing emails. In 2019, one in four breaches in organizations involved cloud-based assets, and a whopping 77% of these breaches happened because of a phishing email or web application service, that is, the attacks spoofed cloud-service emails and contained hyperlinks that led users to watering holes.

Keep in mind that these vulnerabilities exist in almost all cloud services, which means breaches because of them can occur in any of them. But, because of how users form beliefs about online risk, a breach in one would likely undermine their trust in all cloud platforms. So, resolving these issues is necessary not just for better protecting data but also for ensuring the continued adoption of the cloud.

How we do this, I discuss in the part 2.

*A version of this post appeared here:

Why do we still teach our children ABC? [Published in Medium]

“Why do you teach me ABC?” My precocious preschooler pointed to the virtual QWERTY keyboard on the tablet: “Why not ASD?”

As someone who studies the diffusion of innovations — how people learn and adopt new ideas and techniques — I wondered why indeed?

And not just the ABC sequence. Many preschoolers already know words like Xbox, Yahoo and Zoom than xylophone, yacht, and zebra we have them rote. Wouldn’t teaching children the words that hold more meaning to them help keep pace with their experiences?

Of course, the QWERTY sequence is itself a product of modern technology. The layout was engineered by placing commonly typed characters farther apart to reduce the chance of font-keys in early manual typewriters from jamming when stuck together. Although completely unnecessary on today’s electronic keyboards, it has resisted all attempts over the past 50 years at improving its design. Teaching the sequence would, therefore, also be practical because it is the accepted norm, appearing in every input device from ATMs to airplane flight controllers.

Many people, however, believe that the ABC sequence has remained somewhat fixed, while in actuality it has changed over time. Our 26 alphabets began sometime around the 15th century BCE in the Sinai as 22-characters, evolved with the Greeks into 25, and on through the Romans into Latin and the present set of 26. Z, which used to appear after F in Old Latin, was replaced with G, and transposed to its present placement. Here, too, technology and human development played a role. With migration and the expansion of people’s vocabulary, new inflections in speech arose, necessitation newer alphabets such as W. With the invention of writing tools and printing technologies came cursive scripts, lowercase letters, and the development of standardized font families. Thus, the ABC sequence is nothing more than a norm that people have overtime agreed upon — no different from QWERTY.

But there is an even stronger argument for teaching the newer sequence. Keyboards are tools for expression, no different from what pens are to writing or language is to literacy. And the sooner you are proficient with the tools, the better you can get at using it. Just as cultures with written languages, because of their ability to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy, evolved to overtake cultures with spoken language, being adept as using the tools of expression sooner could lead to a higher quality of knowledge transmission. Thus, adapting to QWERTY sequence sooner would confer an evolutionary advantage for our children and likely even for all of us.

But that’s not all. Today, computing technology has also altered the way we write. Not only do we not use quills and fountain-pens, we rarely write by hand. And this has happened rather fast, even faster than the centuries it took for the evolution of alphabets and font families. Raised in the 1970s, I was taught to write in cursive, a skill which is seldom taught in US schools anymore. Instead, children in 3rd and 4th grade today “write” on computers where not just the writing style but also the process of writing is different.

Because you can only rewrite a document that many times, writing by hand, even on manual typewriters, required thinking before committing words on paper. Modern computers make writing innumerable drafts possible, which makes thinking as we write, without paying attention to style, spelling, or grammar in the initial drafts, possible. This has led to a change in how we write. As the renowned social psychologist Daryl Bem advocates in his oft-cited guide “…write the first draft as quickly as possible without agonizing over stylistic niceties.

Newer word-processing apps have altered this process even further. While the ever-popular Microsoft Word allows for a sequential documentation of thoughts, newer apps like Textilus and Scrivener encourage non-sequential writing, allowing authors to tackle different sections, simultaneously, in draft form. Adding to this are advances in voice-to-text programs and machine-learning tools that can capture spoken words and suggest intelligent responses. Many of these, accessible at literally the flick of a wrist on many smartwatches and phones, have changed not just how we write but also our role as writers.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Finally, our idea of literacy itself is expanding. It’s more than just about knowing to write; it’s about being able to express information creatively. Children need to not only be adept at computing but also at finding information online, crafting persuasive content, and, while all of doing this, protecting their information trails. This requires two additional skills: digital literacy and cyber hygiene. The former equips them with information assessment skills, so they can find the right information and protect against disinformation. The latter instils digital safety skills, so they can’t be manipulated online and their information isn’t compromised. Both are essential for thriving in the virtual world where most of them spend their waking hours, even more so now since the pandemic.

Children are already familiar with an alphabet soup of online service before they step into a classroom. These skills are, thus, best introduced in their formative learning, not in middle school and college where they are presently taught. This will ensure that the next generation is equipped to transmit information with even greater accuracy and creativity all the more sooner — an advantage that will accrue to them and to our society as a whole. The first step towards this involves mastering the QWERTY keyboard.

  • A version of this post appeared here:
  • **Photo source