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Maybe the Cloud Can Help Secure the Internet
Ironically, the majority of cyber security problems do not go away once they are discovered or disclosed
Apr. 25, 2014 10:00 AM
As recent events have confirmed once again, no single company, organization or government is up to the task of securing the Internet. The never-ending cat and mouse game of exploits chasing vulnerabilities continues. The stunning Heartbleed discovery has shaken the online security establishment to the core. Claims of security and privacy for many Web servers were patently false.
We all know a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and the unintended back door information leak that is Heartbleed has undoubtedly allowed countless secrets to escape from secure servers, albeit as random pieces of a puzzle to be reassembled by the hacker. It will undoubtedly go down in history as the most widespread compromise of online services since the advent of the Web. Why? Because we now conduct an unprecedented number of so-called "secure" communications over SSL in every facet of commerce, government and the social web.
Ironically, the majority of cyber security problems do not go away once they are discovered or disclosed. Even when corrective fixes or software updates are widely available, the original vulnerabilities live on, continuing to exist in countless systems accessible via the Internet. The risk from Heartbleed is probably increasing as the rise in the number of malicious exploits is likely to be outpacing the speed with which vulnerable resources are being protected or updated.
Another equally dramatic trend is the escalating malicious use of standard Internet services such as DNS (Domain Name System) and NTP (Network Time Protocol) as unwilling attack drones for third-party Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. In reflection or amplification DDoS attack scenarios, the legitimate infrastructure of the Internet is tricked into attacking innocent victims. These specific services are just two common examples of Internet services with vulnerable populations of millions of publicly accessible servers that can be easily co-opted as "bots-on-demand" without any security compromise needing to have taken place in advance of the attack. These innocent servers are just sitting out there, waiting to be called into action to attack at a moments notice.
"Heartbleed" and "Amplification DDoS" attacks are just two headline examples of the serious cyber-security problems presented by an unsecured Internet. Malicious traffic carrying these threats flows freely over most service provider networks. Similarly, the cloud is generally agnostic to the intent of the traffic it delivers or serves. Many hosting providers unknowingly accommodate customers who do not practice safe Internetworking, making their public cloud offerings a platform for vulnerable services. Even more worrying is that most customers end up paying their provider for the bandwidth that delivers potentially dangerous Internet content.
What can the service provider industry do to combat these alarming trends? Ideally, we need to flip the commercial equation away from payment for raw (unsecured) Internet traffic and toward subscription services for protected (secured) Internet access. The technology exists today to squash Heartbleed as it transits the service provider network. Likewise, security devices can detect and block DNS and NTP amplification attacks in the network before they coalesce into a perfect storm of unsolicited responses - before raining down on the victim subnet, causing collateral damage to communications for other customers as they become caught up in the network traffic jam that is typical of volumetric DDoS attacks.
The cloud service provider is in a unique position to dramatically improve Internet security. Cloud customers are showing increasing interest in purchasing premium secured Internet access services, free from the malicious threats such as Heartbleed, Amplification DDoS and more. The commercial benefits are becoming even more clear with each successive breach, compromise or attack that impacts unprotected customers, compromises security or damages a brand.
For customers who willingly choose a protected cloud service, the issue of net neutrality is moot. They are explicitly deciding to purchase a network security service that is supposed to remove unwanted traffic. The network security technology is available now that can apply threat detection and mitigation policies on a per-customer basis. The decision to pay for the removal of DDoS attacks and cyber threats does not need to impact the net-neutrality perspective of other cloud customers.
An additional beneficial side effect of secured cloud offerings is the virtual patching of vulnerable Internet Services, such as open DNS resolvers and "monlist" supporting NTP servers. Even if a hosted customer unintentionally deploys a vulnerable service, it is practical to offer them paid protection to prevent those services being leveraged by malicious third parties such as those who are planning to launch DDoS attacks on third parties by leveraging vulnerable cloud resources.
In conclusion, it is clear that technically the cloud can play a significant role in securing the Internet against DDoS attacks and cyber threats. Equally important is the presence of an economic engine for such change driven by customer demand for premium secured cloud services.
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