Dark clouds gather over online security

Google may have threatened to leave China in order to keep us all from concluding that “the cloud” can't be secured. But isn't that precisely what we should conclude based on the fact that Google chose to leave China?

Why didn't Google just fix the flaw and keep its mouth shut? If it thought it could protect its data and yours, wouldn't it have just done so?

In other words, the whole Google-in-China situation boils down to this: Google may have realized that it can't guarantee the security of its secrets — or yours.

It seems that all our data is moving to the cloud — especially for mobile computing users. Is it time to rethink cloud computing?

Threat: Insecure guardians of private data

What does Google know about you? Depending on which Google services you use, Google might know your exact location, what your e-mail says, what you buy online, what your schedule is, who you know, what your credit card numbers are, where you live, where all your friends and family live, what your interests are, what you read, what your voice mail messages say, who you talk to on the phone, the details of your health problems, your medical history and much more.

Google even offers a service called Google Email Uploader, which makes a copy of all your e-mail from Outlook or other desktop utilities and puts it into Google Apps, where it's backed-up and searchable. It also now offers a service whereby you can upload any file to Google Apps. Now even pre-cloud personal data is moving to the cloud.

Theoretically, all this personal information is safe. Although Google “knows” all of your information, no human would ever read it. Besides, do you trust Google with your information? That's a big question, but I would have to answer that by saying, “Yes, in fact, I do.”

Unfortunately, if the China event tells us that the cloud can't be secured, it doesn't matter whether we trust Google or not. We would have to trust both hackers and anyone they might sell our private data to.

Review that list of what Google “knows” about you. Now imagine what others could do with that information: insurance companies, our government, “their” government, marketers, predatory financial services companies — not to mention blackmailers, identity thieves and extortionists.

Of course, hacking is nothing new. A recent survey by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that more than half of IT executives report “high level” attacks on their companies. The difference with cloud computing is that a cloud service like Google's could offer one-stop shopping for hackers. If they hack one company, they have one company. But if that company is Google, they have everybody.

It gets worse.

Threat: Outsourced industrial espionage

There are three general theories about the Chinese government's role in the hacking of Google, which involved both the theft of Google's intellectual property and the unauthorized access of Gmail accounts of critics of the Chinese government, both inside and outside of China. One theory is that the government perpetrated the crime. Another is that the government had nothing to do with the crime. A third possibility is that the crime was committed on the government's behalf by freelance hackers looking to make money.

Of these three, the third possibility is by far the most threatening. What this could mean is that an industry has emerged in China where hackers seek out secrets that might be of value and then look to sell them to the highest bidder. Of course, that's nothing new, either. But Google characterized the attacks as “highly sophisticated and targeted,” which could mean that freelance hackers are operating as organized businesses — sort of like software companies with R&D labs that develop such advanced techniques. They also mirror the GhostNet attacks reported last year.

And if it's happening in China, it's probably happening elsewhere.

I think it's very likely that espionage — industrial and otherwise — will become a massive industry. Organized crime gangs will increasingly automate the harvesting of personal data, then later figure out where to sell it. This already happens, but I think we're facing a rapid increase in both scale and sophistication.

Hacking password-protected systems is already simple enough, and it can be automated. But freelance industrial spies, following the suspected Chinese model, could launch multipronged, surgical strikes or simultaneous attacks on very large numbers of individual accounts. As in the Chinese hack, the targets could include the largest corporations as well as individual citizens. One of the targets in the Google China hack was a 20-year-old Stanford University sophomore named Tenzin Seldon, who is active in a student organization called Students for a Free Tibet. That's right. An American girl exercising her First Amendment right to free speech in the U.S. may have been targeted by the Chinese Communist Party as a threat, and as a subject for monitoring.

The state of the art (according to reports analyzing the Chinese attacks on Google) is to first target individuals within an organization who have access to sensitive and valuable secrets. That requires intelligence-gathering before the actual hacking even begins. The next step is to send the targeted people fake e-mails with PDF, Excel or other kinds of documents attached and make them appear to be legitimate messages from colleagues. Once opened, the documents install software that invisibly executes commands that give the hacker access to the machine (and the user's network privileges). From there, the attackers could find and copy source code and other secrets. Much of the hacking was apparently designed to facilitate other hacks, of cyberdissidents or of companies doing business in China.

Unlike conventional hack attacks, the Google-China hacks involved a lot of people, planning, research, intelligence-gathering and sophisticated techniques by very motivated people who knew exactly what they were looking for.

Welcome to the new reality. It seems as if everyone is moving everything to the cloud. Meanwhile, sophisticated organizations out there are figuring out how to exploit cloud vulnerabilities to harvest valuable secrets. And if Google can't stop them, what chance do you or I have?

It's time to rethink the headlong rush into the cloud. We don't yet understand what's waiting there for us. Chinese spies may be the least of our troubles.

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