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zaterdag, 13 december 2014 00:00

Security and Transparency: How Google Handles Data by Eran Feigenbaum Featured

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A company like Google has a lot of challenges to tackle when it comes to security. Not only due to the scale of their services but also the complex structure of their applications makes it hard to implement a good security strategy. Nevertheless they seem to do a pretty good job in securing their platforms. So it is interesting to know how they do this. Eran Feigenbaum, Director of Security at Google Apps, gave a keynote presentation on this topic and what follows is a summarized article. 

First and for most, as a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) at a company, one should ask himself: "What am I going to protect? What are my valuable assets?" The answer to these questions depends heavily on the kind of business that you're dealing in. Some examples could be:

  • intellectual property
  • financial data
  • resources
  • customer data

In the case of Google the main valuable asset is the latter: customer data. Google collects a huge amount of customer data generated by the usage of their services. As this is the main source of revenue, it is pretty clear that their security strategy is focused on protecting this valuable asset.

Technology, Scale, Agility

When you look at the security strategy that Google tries to enforce, you can see the focus is kept on three main pillars: technology, scale and agility. If you need certain technology concepts, you will need to have the knowhow to develop the technology. Whenever you do something at Google, being security or deploying software, you always need to keep in mind the scale on which you're operating. And when it comes to security, agility has to be a main concern of your strategy. This could range from responding fast on security incidents or applying patches for zero-day exploits. You have to be prepared, your team has to be drilled.

Security was too often a matter of ticking of a checkbox. This is a wrong way of doing security when you look at the consequences of this approach. It is quite often the case that the security division of a company finds an issue right before the application was scheduled to go live. The right action to take is to block the application from going live and resolve the issue, in practice this seems to be a rather optimistic form of thinking. What really happens: "Launch the application, and we will take care of the issues in an update". History has shown unfortunately these issues still remain a source of security related problems.

Google has the unique position where they control the entire stack that they use. From design of the CPU chip, motherboard, up to the servers and server-racks. An advantage of this approach is the fact that you can build machines from the grown up, without having the useless components installed. Less components, less security issues. For example the Google servers do not have video output, as it is not needed. Go back to the fundamentals, to the security basics.

Gmail is a great example, take for example the e-mail account of Eran. He is a Google Director, so it is safe to say his e-mails can't be leaked or compromised. Gmail chops the e-mail up in a lot of small pieces and distributes these pieces over the whole environment, it even mixes it with regular user data. The filename gets a random value and the content of the pieces get obfuscated or encrypted, depending on the application. To deal with loss, every chunk of e-mail has 6 live copies. 3 copies are distributed in the same datacenter and 3 others over different datacenters. This means that if one server or even datacenter fails, there are still enough ways to recover the e-mail.

Nowadays, one of the biggest issues that cloud providers struggle with is the fact that customers are looking for a silver bullet. This is for them a way to put trust in the cloud provider, which at the end of the dat, it's all about. Unfortunately, this is not possible. There's not a method X that if you deploy X, all systems are 100% secure. We need to approach this in an other way, we need to work towards security "built in depth". Several security measures working together to make it almost impossible for attackers to breach the application.

Three main threats

At Google, they identify three main threats. Lost of hardware, physical intruders (nearly impossible) and network security. The lost of hardware is being mitigated by the use of a unique inventory system. Every harddisk has a unique serial number, which is monitored in the inventory system. Everytime an operator needs to do something with the disk it gets logged in the system. If there is a harddrive missing, the datacenter is being shutdown and no data moves in or out the datacenter. A Vice President needs to come on site to open the data center again.

Physical intruders are not really a problem at Google. It is nearly impossible to breach the datacenters physically. Laser-guided alarm systems, motion detectors , nets to catch cars trying to breach the wall, etc.

Devices on the Google network cannot talk to other devices, unless they get explicit permission to talk with each other. This means that connecting a device to the Google network won't result in any communication happening, unless the other device is given permission to talk to your device.

"Someone needs the key to the store"

Often the question is raised "who can read which of my data at Google?". This is a valid question and one Google should deal with and be transparant about it. They did this with a Role Based Access Control system. Every employee gets a role assigned which is accompanied with a set of permissions he needs in order for him to be able to do his job. These sets of permissions are fine-grained and assigned using the least amount of privilege principle. In addition, every call the employee performs, is getting logged. The employee himself will get an e-mail once a month containing all his logged actions, this is a psychological reminder so that the employee knows all his actions are logged and known to the system.

In conclusion, we see that Google has spent a great deal of work and resources in their security strategy and management, as is expected from one of the biggest cloud provider out there.

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