How to Secure Dropbox (and others) – Part 1

Personal security and privacy on the Internet are often seen as lost dreams – something we sacrificed in back in the 90s without a clue. In this blog, I cannot give this back to you, but my hope is to help you take back at least some parts of your personal online security / privacy piece by piece.

Background

One of the most interesting transformations in how people use the Internet is personal data convergence. In this model, a user may have a phone, a laptop, a tablet and a desktop system. Or another particular type of user would “roost” at different computers that were convenient. Personal data convergence is where that user has some mechanism or function to access and update a personal datastore from each one of these devices – fairly transparently. This is a big deal because (when done correctly) this process renders the platform or device transparent – enabling people to more effectively do what they do.

For example – at one time everybody had a home telephone, and each one had the same basic capabilities, and the primary value of having a telephone had very little to do with the actual telephone, and everything about the function and service – how it enabled the user. This personal data convergence means that each user can have their cloud of resources follow anywhere they go, and this has resulted in a proliferation of services that offer something like this. Examples include:

  • Dropbox – a basic client / server / cloud service that provides some gigabytes of data that can be synchronized between Windows, iOS, Android, Linux, OSX and others. Premium service offers more space. Free format allows any file type. Storage is at 2GB to 5GB, depending on their promotions.
  • Box – Similar to Dropbox with fewer client types supported, but more space (with the free service), which is at 10GB at this time.
  • GDrive – The Google spin on a user-centric filestore. This was originally an extension of their online office suite, and only supports specific file types.
  • Chrome – This is not a general filestore, but a specialized synchronization where all of the personal features of Chrome are stored in the Google Cloud. This includes favorites, cached usernames / passwords, cookies, history and configuration.
  • iCloud – The Apple spin of online backup / synchronization. It synchronizes and backs up the entire Apple universe of devices, but like most things Apple, there is more left unsaid than should be. We can guess that it is better than average, but no better than it has to be. But it will work well with Apple devices and it will look good the whole time.

The Issue

Each one of these has their value add / differentiator to appeal to some specific use case, but each one of these also has a significant structural security issue. In each of these services, data is essentially unsecured within the service provider. Seriously – although several (if not all) of these service providers will make strong statements about the level of encryption they use on their SSL/TLS connections and how data is encrypted on servers with some form of disk encryption, however if the keys are held by the same service provider – it means nearly nothing. In any case, this class of service is not going away – and will only increase in size and capability – but from a basic privacy and security perspective, it is one (big) step up from public storage on the Internet.

For example, right now, today – passwords for nearly every WiFi router (that is paired with a Android device – worldwide) is stored in Google servers. As part of the account backup process, Google has been backing up WiFi settings for the last several Android versions – which means hundreds of millions of WiFi passwords worldwide. Recall that Google Streetview got into some trouble over harvesting WiFi passwords, but now they build it into the Android ecosystem – and they get the passwords with no muss or fuss.

From a personal viewpoint – I see this consolidation of my online footprint, particularly private elements like usernames, passwords, and network access as something to be very uncomfortable with.

Security Theater in the Cloud

The following articles provide an entertaining juxtaposition between real security and security theater. Both are technically correct, but have very different messages.

With that perspective, now take a look at this post from Google regarding G-Drive encryption.

Yeah. As a security guy, i have to ask the question – Google and Apple have smart guys working there, lots of them. So if this is supposed to be real security, clue me in who the threat is? Based on the fact that in both cases they control the encryption and they control the keys, so it is not protected from these vendors, insider threats, anybody who could compromise their keystores, or National Security Letters. My cynical nature whispers to me and says it is security theater.

Is there a “fix” ?

For these service providers, there is no “fix” since the unsecured nature of their services is a key part of their business model. With this level of access to your personal data and files, they can build an incredibly detailed demographic profile of you as a consumer, you as a citizen, you as a security threat, and you as a future employee for any firm willing to get / buy the data. I don’t think it comes as any surprise that even if you pay for a service, a very subtle and implicit part of the cost is giving up any claim to privacy and security for the data stored in the service. This is very much a case of broken by design (and intent).  So any talk of a privacy / security “fix” is purely subjective and and not likely to be supported by the service providers. Depending on the service provider, they may consider it a violation of their terms of service. Caveat Emptor.

We have Options

If retaining your privacy and securing your personal data matter, we basically have three options.

1) Air Gap : Don’t put private / personal data in these services. It may sound excessive – but air-gapping your personal data from the Internet is the most robust privacy control you can use.

2) File Level Encryption: Use encrypted containers on the cloud sync service. Examples include Trucrypt and Keepass.

3) Private Cloud synchronization: Drop these services for something where you – the user, controls the encryption keys. Examples include BitTorrent Sync and SharePlan.

In any case, this is only part 1, and in part 2 I will expand on the options to better secure these synchronization services.

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