Web Services Are Vulnerable Without End-To-End Encryption

End-To-End Encryption

The growth of cloud services has been one of the most disruptive phenomena of the Internet era.  However, even the most popular cloud services (including Yahoo, Gmail, Microsoft Outlook 365, and Dropbox) are vulnerable to attack because their servers operate on unencrypted data.

The move to cloud-based services offers enormous benefits compared with managing these services in-house.  The cloud is scalable, cost-effective, easy to manage, and accessible to a wide range of devices anywhere.

But because cloud services represent a centralized repository of information, they are tempting targets for attackers.  If an attacker is successful in breaching a single user’s computer or phone, that user’s information will be compromised.  But if an attack targeting a server is successful, information forall users on that server can be leaked.  For example, Yahoo recently disclosed that over a billion user accounts were compromised.

Accordingly, the security industry has invested heavily in technologies and processes to protect cloud servers.  Many of these – such as firewalls, threat detection and analysis, and administrative processes – amount to “building taller walls” around the server.  But despite great effort and investment, attackers continue to prevail.

Assume the server is breached

What if the problem is turned around?  Instead of figuring out how to protect the server, what if the focus is on protecting the data whether or not the server has been compromised?  This can be achieved with end-to-end encryption, which means user data is decrypted only on computers or phones; never on the server.  Therefore, if the server is breached an attacker will only be able to access encrypted data, which is unintelligible.  Unfortunately, end-to-end encryption is rarely used.

Many cloud providers tout their use of encryption for security, but the term “encryption” can mean many things.  Most services use something called ­encryption-in-transit.  To show how this works, we’ll consider a generic cloud-based email service.

As shown in the diagram above, encryption in transit uses encryption to secure a message when it is being transmitted from a phone or computer to a server, often using technologies like SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) or TLS (Transport Layer Security).  This prevents an attacker from watching Internet traffic and gleaning the contents of communication.  The decrypted message is available at both the device and the server.  This makes the server vulnerable to attack, because a successful breach of the server gives the attacker access to all the decrypted messages.

In attempt to address this problem, some cloud services also use encryption-at-rest, as shown below:

Encryption-at-rest means that data is encrypted in the storage media on cloud servers when not being used.  Encryption-at-rest could prevent an attacker from accessing information on physical disks that were stolen from a data center — although such physical attacks are exceedingly rare.  Encryption at rest still cannot prevent an attack on the server from leaking valuable user data because the server can still “see” the decrypted information.  If the server can access the raw data, so can an attacker.

End-to-end encryption can solve the problem by adding the missing link – encryption-in-use –  as shown below:

With end-to-end encryption, the server never has access to decrypted data.  The message is encrypted in the device of the sender, and it’s not decrypted until it reaches the device of the recipient.  Thus, a server attack will not compromise any user information.  An attacker may attempt to breach a single user’s device, but such an attack affects only that user – not everyone on the system.

What about Gmail, Outlook 365, and Dropbox?

Unfortunately, most major cloud Service Providers do not use end-to-end encryption – including Gmail, Outlook, Dropbox, Yahoo, and many others.  This is because these services rely on servers to process emails and files.  The servers absolutely must have access to user data.

In conclusion, a different approach to cloud security is needed – one that simply assumes that attackers will breach servers, so everything stored on the server must be encrypted, and decryption only occurs in users’ devices.  It’s important that the server never has access to the unencrypted data or the encryption keys to this data. If the server can ever see the unencrypted data, then attackers could see it too. In the end, only a well-designed end-to-end encryption system that assumes the server will be breached can afford stronger protection in the cloud.

By Randy Battat

Bi Tools
BI Tools For Data Scientists Many data scientists prefer to use open-source framework to code scripts; after all, it’s something they already trust to work. Business intelligence tools like Qlik Sense, Power BI, or Tableau, ...
Yuliya Melnik
Heroku or AWS Cloud infrastructures are gradually starting to penetrate into an increasing number of areas and various businesses. And this is not surprising because such a ploy allows you to improve internal processes, protect ...
Crozdesk Business Software
B2B SaaS Comparison Platforms B2B SaaS Comparison Platforms are designed for buyers looking for additional information on a particular vendor and service. These sites help ease the complexities for buyers by providing a detailed breakdown ...
Oxylabs
A conversation with Aleksandras Šulženko – Product owner at Oxylabs.io In a global economy where change happens by the second, one of the best ways to keep up with industry information, including your competitors, is ...
Kelly Dyer
Achieving Data Security Compliance As individuals, we go through life sharing information about ourselves in every aspect of our daily existence. From credit checks for securing a loan, through to entire personal and family medical ...

SECURITY TRAINING

  • Isc2

    ISC2

    (ISC)² provides IT training, certifications, and exams that run online, on your premises, or in classrooms. Self-study resources are available. You can also train groups of 10 or more of your employees. If you want a job in cybersecurity, this is the route to take.

  • App Academy

    App Academy

    Immersive software engineering programs. No experience required. Pay $0 until you're hired. Join an online info session to learn more

  • Cybrary

    Cybrary

    CYBRARY Open source Cyber Security learning. Free for everyone, forever. The world's largest cyber security community. Cybrary provides free IT training and paid IT certificates. Courses for beginners, intermediates, and advanced users are available.

  • Plural Site

    Pluralsite

    Pluralsight provides online courses on popular programming languages and developer tools. Other courses cover fields such as IT security best practices, server infrastructure, and virtualization.