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Monday, 01 March 2021 08:25

Microsoft chief's claims on cloud security result in sharp rejoinder Featured

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Brad Smith: "Cloud migration is critical to improving security maturity across many organisations." Brad Smith: "Cloud migration is critical to improving security maturity across many organisations." Supplied

Comments made by Microsoft president Brad Smith to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which held a hearing on the SolarWinds attacks last week, claiming that there is more security in the cloud than in on-premises servers, have met a tough response from former NSA hacker Jake Williams, who characterised them as having caused more harm to security than the SolarWinds attackers did in the first place.

Williams, a well-known figure in the infosec community who runs his own private security outfit, Rendition Infosec, said in a tweet: "I've been thinking a LOT about Brad Smith's testimony this week about #SolariGate. He repeatedly implies that if organisations 'just' adopt a cloud first model, they won't experience these sorts of attacks. I called that reckless then, I'm doubling down now."

In earlier remarks the day after the hearing, Williams had said: "Smith suggesting that #SolariGate wouldn't have happened if the on-prem Orion servers were in the cloud is criminally irresponsible. That's some grade-A BS and even more so when briefing an audience that doesn't know better."

Smith made a long opening statement to the committee; among the claims he made were the following:

"We know that what lies on the surface is only part of this attack’s story, and we all should remain focused on what is not yet known. The victims that have been revealed to the public represent an important portion of the problem, but they are like the tip of the iceberg, and we do not know what lies beneath the surface.

"This is especially pertinent in this case because all of the attacks we’ve identified started 'on premise', meaning on a server physically within an organisation’s presence. And yet we only have direct visibility to the attack when it then moved to the cloud. As a result, customers that haven’t yet migrated to the cloud are more likely to be continued and undiscovered victims."

He also said: "The role of the cloud in mitigating these types of attacks also cannot be understated. The success of this attack depended primarily on the Russian actor’s ability to compromise on-premises identity systems. We continue to strongly recommend that identity should be moved to the cloud, where it can be defended with the latest technologies."

And later on: "When Microsoft’s cloud services are attacked, we can detect anomalies and indicators of compromise in ways that are not possible in an on-premises environment. This capability is critical to discovering, remediating, and recovering from an attack – but doesn’t prevent the risk of on-premises security lapses that result in escalations of privilege that ultimately enable attackers to access cloud services.

"Cloud migration is critical to improving security maturity across many organisations. At the same time, it’s not a panacea; even as technology users modernise legacy systems, they need to have strong basic security practices in place. This includes fundamentals for establishing a Zero Trust environment, assessing the security of cloud providers, and re-orienting risk management activities to complement third-party services and security automation."

The SolarWinds attacks were first revealed by the American security firm FireEye on 9 December, when it revealed that its Red Team tools had been stolen. Five days later, FireEye issued a blog post outlining the scale of the attack as known at that stage: a global campaign to compromise public and private sector bodies through corruption of software supply chains, using software that runs on Windows.

FireEye chief Kevin Mandia also gave testimony to the same committee hearing. SolarWinds participated as well but Amazon Web Services refused to participate.

Williams said Smith should have offered more nuance and caveats in his statements. "With his statements that lacked appropriate nuance and caveats, I predict that Smith has caused more harm to security than the Russians did with #SolariGate in the first place," he said. "Yes, I know that's a strong statement. Yes, I mean it."

He added: "A lot of leadership who don't know any better heard this testimony and are constructing cloud-first directives as I type this. But they're doing it without understanding the risks and trade-offs. They're doing this without the benefit of creating a strategy first."

Microsoft has made a number of statements since the attack first came to light, initially denying its products were part of the problem, but later admitting that the attackers had accessed its source code.

Williams said: "Just to offer an example, while 'you got pwned because your credentials weren't in the cloud' is laughable in our industry, some leadership are listening to this verbatim. We're losing time as an industry responding to this rather than attacks."

When another security professional, John Breth, replied saying: "What protection/safety mechanisms is he stating that cloud has over on-prem solutions? You still need data flow/access control policies, security tools that look for anomalies (potential beaconing and DNS monitoring strategy), and a whole slew of other tools/processes", Williams responded: "Your tweet contains more nuance than the entirety of his testimony."

A third security professional, John Capobianco, chimed in: "If anything, cloud security is still an evolving field with very little in the way of either native firewalls or 3rd party marketplace firewalls. For example there is no such thing as a Visibility TAP — virtual physical native or third party — that is comparable to on prem TAPs.

"The fact that your public IP is random and ephemeral and behind cloud load balancers and virtual routing and all that’s behind APIs makes it harder to secure than an old school on-prem DMZ."

And a fourth security practitioner, Fawad Khan, had this to add: "Cloud is more secure or inherently secure is perhaps the biggest misnomer of the decade."

iTWire has contacted Microsoft for comment.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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