Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

The “Cloud”

Challenges | Web Apps | Online Storage | Software as a Service
Security Concerns | Internet of Things

The cloud offers interconnectivity between devices via remote storage.

What is the “Cloud”?

The “cloud” is the generic term given to any software service that provides interconnectivity to multiple devices wanting to access the same information everywhere.

It is a series of computers and storage services accessible anywhere by anyone with the required passwords.

Online Storage & Backup

Cloud services originally were mostly online storage and backup, but have since expanded into Software as a Service (SaaS) in its various forms. Unlike earlier Windows versions, Windows 10 is SaaS.

Recent computers have smaller solid state drives (SSDs). They run faster but store less. The assumption is that people are running more of their software remotely and keeping their data there as well.

Online Services

Productivity has moved from personal computers to many online services including shopping, auctions, surveys, banking and email.

Web apps like Google Docs and Microsoft 365 offer the ability for several users to simultaneously work on the same document. This is a powerful advantage for teams working remotely from each other rather than in the same office.

  • Cloud access means that your information can be retrieved anywhere rather than sitting on a specific computer. The same information can be available at work, at home or on the go.
  • We expect to access our files quickly based upon the relative ease experienced on our computers. If the delay is too great, the benefits of cloud computing diminish.
  • While many free services are vying for your business, expect to pay for premium security and performance as well as for more storage space.

We No Longer Have a Choice

As much as many of us would prefer to retain control of our documents and data, it has become virtually impossible to avoid it. Services and software that used to run on our computers has moved to the cloud. Help and instruction manuals are seldom available without going online.

It's almost impossible to avoid the cloud now, because of the movement of commercial and government services to the web, the multiplication of computing devices and the rapid growth in smartphones. These different trends reinforce one another. — The Guardian

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The Challenges

While convenient, the main issues facing this technology is security and speed of access.

[C]loud computing services offer the promise of convenience and cost savings, but at a price of reduced control over your own content, reliance on third-party providers, and potential privacy risks should the data “hosted in the cloud” be disclosed to law enforcement agencies without appropriate disclosure or oversight. — Michael Geist

Accessible to Anyone Anywhere

Because the security is Web-based, it becomes more vulnerable to being hacked precisely because it can be accessed from anywhere.

[C]loud hacks are tomorrow's greatest threat. There's so much data stored in the cloud. If you breach the cloud, you're basically breaching a basket full of eggs. I can tell you firsthand cloud is really where hackers are focusing right now.Tektonika (2017)

We haven't seen the worst of it yet. Because even a single cloud service provides so much more potential information to steal than the largest private networks, hackers are going to exploit cloud services.

The Cloud Insecure

The use of terminology like “Cloud” makes these services sound like they are immune from interference. Nothing can be further from the truth.

The way people talk about this “cloud” like it's a cloud. It isn't a cloud! It's a load of hardware on an island somewhere, where anyone can access it, which is clear from the endless hacks that happen. Let's call it “the hard drive island” because then, immediately, it tells people “Oh, it's not in the sky, it's not untouchable by people.” Someone is monitoring it every day. — James Corden

These services are more vulnerable than the owners would have you believe. Just look at the number of data breaches and unplanned outages.

And its about to get worse. Cybercriminals are now targeting cloud services for ransomware, realizing that is where the data has gone. This will both make the cloud more vulnerable and remove a common backup for compromised computers.

One of the other methods cyber criminals use to gain entry to networks is taking advantage of weak passwords, either buy buying them on dark web forums or simply guessing common or default passwords.

iCloud Not Secure

The level of encryption is different on cloud-based storage than on your privately-secured phone.

Your iPhone is secured by your unique password (why the FBI had difficulty breaking the encryption on the terrorist's iPhone. But iCloud isn't.

U.S. law enforcement agencies demanded access to iCloud accounts so Apple had to have access to the encryption on iCloud when a warrant is issued.

So what's the difference between iCloud and the iPhone? The iPhone, as DOJ puts it, is “warrant proof”, whereas the data stored in iCloud is warrant friendly, and was designed with this in mind. Data in the iCloud is encrypted and heavily protected by Apple, but the encryption is escrowed in a way that Apple has complete access to the content so that they can service law enforcement requests for data. — Jonathan Zdziarski

That weakness was exploited by a hacker to gain access to iCloud accounts and steal private nude photos of celebrity women (and endangered them in many other ways by providing Exif location data available via the photos).

Unwanted Influences

Increasingly there are more automated visitors (bots) that search for content, vulnerabilities and opportunities to influence outcomes. More and more business like ads are served “on the fly” by sending tracked visitor information to a multitude of potential buyers.

Most website visitors aren't human. They're bots. Today, bots make up 52% of all web traffic. And these automated accounts have had serious, real world impact — from the 2016 [US] election, to the FCC's recent, controversial net neutrality vote. — Mozilla Blog

Things Can Go Very Wrong

Many things can go wrong, even with a larger cloud service:

Yesterday, February 8th, at 12:30PM PT Instapaper suffered from an outage that has extended through this morning.
After spending multiple hours on the phone with our cloud service provider, it appears we hit a system limit for our hosted database that's preventing new articles from being saved. At this time, our only option is to export all data from our old database and import it into a new one. —Instapaper

US banks ATMs are suddenly seeing a Cyber attack that forces ATMs to spit out money for hackers. These ATMs were exposed by a nearby USB port. Seriously?

The affected ATMs are standalone internet-connected units, which should serve as yet another reminder of the security risk of IoT hardware. —TechRepublic

The Cost of Security Failures

Unfortunately, like with computer security, the user bears the cost of failure.

Companies seldom provide the same level of security for your data as they do for their own data.

Notice that company documents are seldom procured along with your passwords and credit information during the hacks perpetrated on these services. These incidents are frequently unreported until much later, if at all.

This will not change until the cost is too high for the cloud service to bear. The revelations of the 2014 Yahoo! hack resulted in a $1 billion plus drop in the price offered by Verizon for this company.

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Web Apps

What is a Web App?

Web apps run within your browser, accessing and processing information remotely.

People run Gmail, Google Docs, iCloud, banking and other online services without realizing that they're using a web app.

A web application (or web app) is application software that runs on a web server, unlike computer-based software programs that are stored locally on the Operating System (OS) of the device. — Wikipedia

The move to mobile devices has greatly sped up the use of web apps because of their run-from-anywhere capability.

Security Concerns

Because web apps run remotely, the end-user has no control over the security. This is both a good thing and a bad thing.

The Good

Consumers are moving to using their mobile devices rather than computers in e-commerce, email, banking and more. Web apps provide an excellent anywhere, any time access.

One of the biggest issues for IT departments is training employees with a security mindset that is both aware of potential security threats and employs good security habits in the maintenance and updating of their security software.

By managing security remotely (MSSP), the responsibility for security moves from the end user to a service specializing in threat protection.

The Bad

Trust Wave noted in their 2018 white paper, Best Practices for Web Application Firewall Management, that too many web apps have rapid development cycles that leave little time for the discovery and elimination of vulnerabilities. This is aggravated when open source components are used without verification:

Most applications have vulnerabilities. In a recent study, the Trustwave SpiderLabs team identified at least one vulnerability in 100% of the applications they investigated. Most had more than one.

Web browsers all have security issues that compound any on the web app itself. If someone chooses to use an obsolete browser (like Internet Explorer) or an obsolete version of any browser, then it places the data managed by the web app at risk.

The Ugly

The biggest threats often come from within the company. People begin to use poor password hygiene, making remote access to confidential company information more vulnerable to hacking, ransomware and data breaches.

Mobile devices tend to have a great deal of personal information and seldom have the security software that protects computers. The use of web apps while connected to public WiFi (especially without a VPN) endangers your privacy and security.

“Online” Operating Systems

Google's Chromebook and other emerging light operating systems are essentially front ends for web apps. The computing is done online, allowing for less powerful (i.e. cheaper) hardware to be used. The primary advantage is price.

Privacy Concerns

However, there are also privacy concerns.

Android is running on a significant portion of mobile devices. Google, the world's largest search provider, also controls the majority of the browser market, Gmail, YouTube, Google Docs and more.

Web Apps Getting Better

Web apps are getting much better, making it easier to transit from computer-based services to universal web-based services accessible anywhere.

Because of the increasing importance of mobile computing, services like Twitter have begun to use mobile rather than conventional wide-screen layouts as the default for all users.

Progressive Web Apps

Progressive web apps are new trends that bring a native app-like experience to web applications.

Web apps are destined to be an increasingly important part of consumer and business computing experiences as we move to Software as a Service.

New Services Make Development Easier

The emergence of services like Microsoft's Azure and Apple's Swift have made it easier for small developers to provide web services and web apps.

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Online Storage & Backup

Universal Storage in the Cloud

With high speed access from anywhere and the move to multiple portable devices (smart phones, tablets, laptops, etc.) with the need to securely access the same information everywhere, you need to have a central remote storage facility for these files.

Remote Backup & Recovery

Online backup services provide recovery in cases of computer disasters such as catastrophic damage, theft, etc.

However, bandwidth limits can make larger backups inconvenient, lengthly or costly, especially in countries like Canada.

Compared to other nations, Canadians suffer terrible upload speeds, with Canada ranking 53rd in upload speeds worldwide, according to CBC. Upload is critical to making use of public cloud solutions, especially storage. — Tektonika

People use the cloud for both storage (or file sharing) as well as offsite backups.

Considerations

There are some considerations to choosing a service such as where it is located and the encryption used to protect it, particularly in the wake of what Edward Snowden revealed about spying by the NSA and other governments. Privacy is more important than most people realize.

Even if data isn't stored in a US cloud service, if it's been emailed or transferred online in some way, it may be collected by the US government as it's estimated that 90% of Canadian internet traffic is routed via the US. — TechSoup Canada

Online backup services depend upon a reliable and speedy connection (and may become expensive if you're facing crippling data caps imposed by your ISP).

Many of the big companies offer cloud storage solutions, but these are generally accessed through a common account (e.g. Microsoft or Google account).

Storage Services

As we become more mobile, people are looking to store their documents so that so that it is accessible anywhere and from any device. This allows you to begin work on one device and finish it on another.

Additionally, online storage can free up space on their devices.

These services usually offer limited free storage but you can purchase storage for an additional monthly or annual fee.

Recommended Cloud Storage Services

The following are my recommended cloud storage services:

Other Cloud Storage Services

Many of these services are tied to an operating system. There may be issues with privacy.

Reviews

Backup Services

Online backup services provide an alternative to local storage media and protect you from circumstances where the recovery media has been damaged or lost.

Recommended Cloud Backup Services

The following are my recommended cloud backup services:

  • Acronis.
  • iDrive is strongly recommended by reviewers like PC Magazine, Wired and TechCrunch.
  • CrashPlan offers subscription plans for individuals and businesses.

Other Cloud Backup Services

While not my recommended cloud backup solutions, these may work better for you.

  • Box is one of the oldest cloud services.
  • Carbonite (formerly Mozy).

Reviews

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Software as a Service

Remote Computing

While the cloud is not an operating system yet, this is the direction we're heading.

For example, Windows 10 is Software as a Service (SaaS) — software running on the Internet.

If you move the processing power to powerful remote computers along with the data then the work is done remotely rather than on the portable device. The resulting portable devices (called “thin clients”) can get smaller and more energy efficient and provide for much longer battery life. Chromebook uses this technology.

There are several terms used to describe the various aspects of cloud-based services. Of course there are a series of abbreviations for these:

  • SaaS refers to software that is run on remote servers. This includes online-based email, gaming and office suites as well as operating systems like Windows 10.
  • PaaS can include a virtual operating system or web server environment.
  • IaaS can refer to virtual environments including virtual server models showing a web designer how their site will look on various operating systems and browsers.

These collectively are all part of the cloud. Each service can be subscribed to in different ways to custom design your experience.

From CD to SaaS

The concept of SaaS is that you don't pay a large up-front cost for a software product. Instead you pay monthly for the software for as long as you continue to use it, sort of like how you pay your ISP for Internet access.

Part of the arrangement of most SaaS is that you get continuous updates. Rather than paying another one-time fee for upgrades, these are part of the agreement with the software provider.

Because the software is hosted on a remote server, you don't have to worry about installing patches and upgrades — it is all done for you automatically.

Subscription Services

Traditionally, companies sold you a perpetual license for a piece of software for an up-front cost. While support for a product or its ability to run on newer equipment was not guaranteed, you paid for the product once and could continue to use it without paying any additional fees.

With subscription services you either have to continue to pay the subscription fee or lose access to your ability to work with your documents.

Unlike magazine subscriptions, innovation is not guaranteed because the company no longer has to justify the cost of upgrades.

Increasingly, mature software vendors who have run out of innovation runway turn to rent seeking, increasingly we are told that the subscriptions will soon be everywhere and there is a real problem with that. — Rise Of The Rent Seeker: A Critical Analysis Of The Subscription Economy

Rental Licensing Not SaaS

Not every cloud service is truly SaaS. Many vendors are simply turning their customers into subscribers. One example is Adobe's Creative Cloud.

Adobe Creative Cloud is largely software rental licensing. True, you can share images across it with its built-in Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) storage, but that's about it when it comes to its “cloud.” There is no Photoshop in the cloud that you can run on any of your devices. Instead you still need to download and use a fat client to use it. This is not a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) play although you might think so from its name. — Cloudy Weather

Is It Worth It?

Traditionally, you would purchase an Adobe product like Photoshop for about US$900 or a Creative Suite for about US$1600. Upgrade optionally could be purchased at a discounted, but still significant fee. Such upgrades are seldom consistently purchased by most users.

Adobe Creative Cloud now charges subscribers a monthly fee of approximately $50 per month ($600/year). You now pay for a Creative Suite licence every 2.66 years even if you, like many, didn't previously upgrade with every new version.

What's frustrating about this is how shifting to these new forms of payment are great for the developer and fine for new users, but suck, a lot, for old users. — Alex Cranz

An occasional one-time upgrade fee when it is justified by increased productivity or the relaxation of budget constraints is easier to swallow than being forever locked into a monthly fee.

Advantages

You don't have to make major purchases at regular intervals yet have the latest product offerings (assuming the company continues to innovate). Your paid subscription also provides access to documents that are stored on Adobe's cloud servers from anywhere.

Creative Cloud is very cost-effective for companies that want to license the product for a short-term project. A six-month subscription for 50 users ($15,000) is more cost-effective than purchasing 50 Creative Suite licences outright ($80,000).

Disadvantages

Adobe Creative Cloud is an attractive option only if you tended to regularly upgrade with every new version and use the majority of the products you're paying for on a continuous basis or are interested only in a short-term subscription.

The subscription model is bad for customers when its clear that the reasons for adopting the model are mainly of benefit to the vendor, because renting software for ever quite clearly costs you more money than buying it. — The Infosec Scribe

There is a monthly financial commitment forever regardless of how much or how little you use the products. Updates may or may not address your requirements or fix issues you're experiencing.

Unlike with a one-time purchase, a subscription's terms of service (or pricing) can change at any time.

Adobe Alternatives

These practices have caused users to look elsewhere to meet their design software requirements, particularly if they don't want to pay a monthly subscription forever.

  • Photoshop and Illustrator users may find the award-winning Affinity Photo and Affinity Designer (macOS, iPad and Windows) more affordable at CA$69.99 (no subscription) each.
  • Sketch is a Mac product for designing user interfaces, websites, and icons that comes with a fixed price rather than a monthly subscription.
  • Windows Acrobat users will find that Nitro Pro or Able2Extract Pro are excellent alternatives for creating professional quality PDF documents that anyone can view, with any PDF reader, on virtually any device. Vulnerabilities are rare and both cost much less than Adobe products.

Related Reading

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Security Concerns

Like other services that are accessed online there are significant security concerns. Over time these can be minimized by taking care to use adequate security precautions and in selecting security-conscious vendors.

[In spite of potential] alternatives that might address Canadian concerns, including encrypting all data and retaining the encryption key in Canada (thereby making it difficult to access the actual data outside the country), the [Canadian] government insisted on Canadian-based storage. The reason? According to internal U.S. documents discussing the issue, Canadian officials pointed to privacy concerns stemming from the USA Patriot Act.

 

The privacy concerns raise a bigger question for millions of Canadians that use U.S. cloud services as well as organizations such as Canadian universities that are contemplating switching their email or document management services to U.S.-based alternatives. Simply put, if U.S. cloud services are not good enough for the Canadian government, why should they be good enough for individual Canadians? —Michael Geist
We also need to trust who has access to our data, and under what circumstances.

 

One commenter wrote: After Snowden, the idea of doing your computing in the cloud is preposterous.

 

He isn't making a technical argument: a typical corporate data centre isn't any better defended than a cloud-computing one. He is making a legal argument.

 

Under American law — and similar laws in other countries — the government can force your cloud provider to give up your data without your knowledge and consent. If your data is in your own data centre, you at least get to see a copy of the court order. — Bruce Schneier

Log-in Required

You need to use a user name and password to log into these services. In most cases your user name is your email so only your password is truly private.

If your data is being stored “in the cloud” — where anyone can access it — they only need to break your password. Make your passwords long and strong.

You Don't Control the Software

More significantly, you no longer completely control what happens to your personal information and data or how it is used.

Running a piece of software on your computer means that you can see what it does using various utilities and via your firewall program. Parts may be hidden, but you can see what is happening if you have the right technology. Many folks that have such capabilities write about their experience.

Once you move that control to a remote server you no longer see the process. The result of that product is delivered to you, but you don't know what is shared or retained for advertising or other profiling.

Security Concerns May Be Overblown

DZone's 2014 Cloud Platform Research Report investigated 40 cloud-based solutions:

While 75% expected security challenges, only 30% actually experienced them. This is the biggest gap in challenge expectations using a cloud platform.

But Perhaps Not

So far many of those experiencing security failures have been reluctant to release the details of those security breaches. The loss of customer data by major retail chains is seldom reported.

Until we are told exactly what caused the failures that resulted in unauthorized access to customer credit card and password data we cannot state categorically that the cloud is safe.

You have the right to know if the vendor is incompetent because it affects your privacy.

Roadblocks to Security

Too many sites insist on password restrictions, usually because they are saving the data unencrypted on their servers. Many are lax in monitoring their network for suspect activity or lack the expertise to notice irregularities.

  • A massive Equifax data breach was reported in September 2017 that has affected as many as 143 million consumers in the U.S., U.K. and Canada between May and July.
  • Sony was hacked after warnings that their security was too lax.
  • In a June 2015 security notice LastPass reported an attempted breach but indicated that no encrypted user vault data was taken.
  • A 2015 attempt to hack Kaspersky's site using nation-state malware was detected and stopped.

Successful data breaches make us all less safe. Vigilance is required to avoid increasingly sophisticated attacks and the economics are seldom favourable. It is less expensive to risk lawsuits from users than to pay up front security costs.

Even if a class-action lawsuit is brought against the company, the settlements seldom provide anything significant for anyone but the lawyers.

Misplaced Priorities

The tools needed to strengthen security are often withheld in the service of government spying.

Rather than patching known zero-day vulnerabilities, the NSA and other agencies used these to spy on other nations and their own citizens.

  • They have infiltrated U.S. technology firms without outside oversight.
  • The back-door access they demand from encryption software has been used by criminals to hack celebrity private photos and more.
  • They insist that encryption protects criminals, yet our e-commerce system cannot work without the security of encryption.

Now the U.S. and other nations are being attacked by nation-states using those same vulnerabilities (and others). Trust in U.S. technology overseas has taken a huge hit.

Corporations are too busy gathering everything they can about you to worry about securing that content (except perhaps to keep it away from competitors).

Equifax is Corrupt

Equifax was hacked sometime between May and July 2017. Executives sold off $3 million dollars worth of Equifax shares before the news was released to consumers in September.

Equifax's response? An insecure site asking consumers to provide even more sensitive data. Combined with insider trading, the company lacks credibility.

We Need to Demand Accountability

Until we educate ourselves about security and demand better security and privacy, we are unlikely to see any action taken.

 

The Internet of Things

The “cloud” is only the beginning. The Internet of Things (IoT) is creating an environment where everything is connected.

When many objects act in unison, they are known as having “ambient intelligence.” — Techopedia

Privacy Concerns

These small devices are not only communicating information but have access to information independent of what their owners and operators can see.

Smart phones can be tracked in real-time. Smart meters tell a great deal about your energy use (even when you're out). Imagine if everything about you is known in realtime.

The regulatory and legal system can't keep up with the changes in technology.

Even our kids' toys store information on an unsecured cloud server. Listen to the Mozilla IRL podcast or read the transcript to learn how little privacy we have left.

Car manufacturers will be able to monitor your every move with emotion-detecting AI and sell that data to insurers, advertisers and anyone else.

IoT is going to steal all your stuff. Well, not steal your stuff exactly, but quietly and invisibly shift ownership of some of your prized possessions to somebody else. — DZone

A study of 314 IoT devices in April 2016 found that:

  • 59% didn't adequately explain to customers how their personal data was collected, used and disclosed
  • 68% failed to properly explain how information was stored
  • 72% failed to explain how customers could delete their information off the device
  • 38% failed to include easily located contact details should customers have privacy concerns
  • 68% collected location data
  • 64% asked for date of birth details
  • 41% collected photo, video or audio files.

The only thing we can do is lobby to ensure that those that are in control of this information are held accountable in a public forum.

Who's Watching the Watchers?

If we've learned anything from the NSA spying scandal, it is that we cannot trust secret courts with secret rulings for oversight.

Security Concerns

Security is a concern with IoT devices. Manufacturers often have NO experience with connected devices or the need to secure them.

“Smart” homes are dependent upon WiFi for their connections to the Internet. Too often the WiFi connection is hardwired for obsolete or marginal security protocols.

This environment includes fridges, remote control devices, baby monitors, thermostats and more. Imagine coming home to a frozen house because someone remotely turned off the heat.

LG has updated its software after security researchers spotted a flaw that allowed them to gain control of devices like refrigerators, ovens, dishwashers, and even access the live feed from a robot vacuum cleaner. — ZDNet.

Many organizations such as hospitals are ill-prepared to deal with obsolete connected devices still in operation such as hard-wired yet Internet-connected Windows XP devices.

DDoS by Compromised IoT Devices

An October 2016 a botnet made up of 100,000 compromised gadgets took down Netflix, Twitter and many others.

Level3 Outage Map (US) - 21 October 2016

IoT Could Threaten Our Survival

We're building a world-size robot, and we don't even realize it.

 

This world-size robot is actually more than the Internet of Things.

 

It'll also get much more dangerous.

 

The world-size robot we're building can only be managed responsibly if we start making real choices about the interconnected world we live in.
Bruce Schneier

IoT's Potential Evolutionary Leap

If we can resolve the privacy, security and trust issues that both AI and the IoT present, we might make an evolutionary leap of historic proportions. — Stephen Balkam

Technical Discussions

Intel's “A Guide to the Internet of Things” Infographic shows where we've come and where we're going with IoT.

Intel's “Guide to IoT” infographic

The following are technical resources aimed at big businesses but will give you a clearer picture of who the players in the IoT game are.

Related Resources

Related resources on this site:

or check the resources index.


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russharvey.bc.ca/resources/cloud.html
Updated: July 20, 2021