Never put important data on anyone else’s hardware. Ever.

Friday, January 22, 2021 

In early January, 2021, two internet services provided unintentional and unequivocal demonstrations of the intrinsic trade-offs between running one’s own hardware and trusting “The Cloud.”  Parler and Gab, two “social network” services competing for the white supremacist demographic both came under fire in the wake of a violent insurrection against the US government when the plotters used their platforms (among other less explicitly extremist-friendly services) to organize the attack.

Parler had elected to take the expeditious route of deploying their service on AWS and discovered just how literally the cloud is metaphorically like atmospheric clouds—public and ephemeral—when first their entire data set was extracted and then their services were unilaterally terminated by AWS knocking them completely offline (except, of course, for the exfiltrated data, which is still online and being combed by law enforcement for evidence of sedition.)

Gab owns their own servers and while they had trouble with their domain registrar, such problems are relatively easy to resolve: Gab remains online.  Gab did face the challenge of rapid scaling as the entire right-wing extremist market searched for a safe haven away from the fragile Parler and from the timid and begrudging regulation of hate speech and calls for immediate violence by mainstream social networks in the fallout over their contributions to the insurrection and other acts of right-wing terrorism.

In general customers who engage cloud service providers rather than self-hosting do so to speed deployment, take advantage of easy scalability (up or down), and offload management of common denominator infrastructure to a large-scale provider, all superficially compelling arguments.  However convenient this may seem, it is rarely a good decision and fails to rationally consider some of the intrinsic shortcomings, as Parler discovered in rather dramatic fashion, including loss of legal ownership of the data on those services, complete abdication of control of that data and service, and an intrinsic and inescapable misalignment of business interests between supplier and customer.

Anyone considering engaging a cloud service provider for a service that results in proprietary data being stored on third party hardware or on the provision of a business critical service by a third party should ensure contractual obligations with well defined penalties explicitly match the implicit expectations of privacy, stewardship, suitability of service, and continuity and that failures are actionable sufficient to make whole the client in the event of material breach.

Below is a list of questions I would have for any cloud provider of any critical service.  In general, if a provider is willing to even consider answering the results will be shockingly unsatisfactory.  Every company that uses a cloud service, whether it is hosting on AWS or email provisioning by Google or Microsoft is a Parler waiting to happen: all of your data exposed and then your business terminated.  Cloud services are acceptable only for insecure data and for services that are a convenience, not a core requirement.

Like clouds in the sky, The Cloud is public and ephemeral.

A: A first consideration is data protection and privacy:

What liability does The Company, and employees of The Company individually, have should they sell or lose control of The Customer’s data?   What compensation will The Customer receive if control of The Customer’s data is lost?  Please clarify The Company’s criminal and civil liabilities and contractual obligations under the following scenarios:

1) A third party exfiltrates The Customer’s data entrusted to The Company’s care in an unauthorized manner.

2) An employee of The Company willfully misuses The Customer’s data entrusted to The Company in any way.

3) The Company disposes of equipment in a manner which makes The Customer’s data entrusted to The Company accessible to third parties.

4) The company receives a National Security Letter (NSL) requesting information pertaining to The Customer or to others who have data about The Customer on The Company’s service.

5) The company receives a warrant requesting information pertaining to The Customer or  to others who have data regarding The Customer on The Company’s service.

6) The company receives a subpoena requesting information pertaining to The Customer or to others who have data regarding The Customer on The Company’s service that is opened or has been in stored on their hardware for more than 180 days.

7) The company receives a civil discovery request for information pertaining to The Customer or to others who have data regarding The Customer on The Company’s service.

8) The company sells or provides access to The Customer’s data or meta information about The Customer or The Customer’s use of The Company’s system to a third party.

9) The Company changes their terms of service at some future date in a way that is inconsistent with the terms agreed to at the time of The Customer’s engagement of the services of The Company.

10) The Company fails to inform The Customer of a breach of control of The Customer’s data.

11) The Company fails to inform The Customer in a timely manner of a change in policy regarding third party access to The Customer’s data.

12) The Company erroneously exposes The Customer’s data to third party access due to negligence or incompetence.

B: A second consideration is a serial dependency on the reliability of The Company’s service to The Customer’s activity:

By relying on The Company’s service, The Customer typically will rely on the performance and availability of The Company’s products.  If The Company product fails or fails to provide service as expected, The Customer may incur losses, including direct financial losses, loss of reputation, loss of convenience, or other harms.  What warranty does The Company make in the performance of their services?  What recourse does The Customer have for recovery of losses should The Company fail to perform?

Please provide details on what compensation The Company will provide in the following scenarios:

1) The Company can no longer perform the agreed and expected services due to reasons beyond The Company’s control.

2) The Company’s service fails to meet expectations in way that causes a material loss to The Customer.

3) The Company suffers an extended outage or compromise of service that exceeds a reasonable or agreed maximum accepted duration.

C: A third consideration is the alignment of interests between The Customer and The Company which may not be complete and may diverge in the future:

Engagement of the services of The Company requires an investment of time and resources on the part of The Customer in excess of any fees The Company may charge to adopt The Company’s products and services.  What compensation will be provided should The Company’s products fail to meet  performance and utility expectations?  What compensation will be provided should expenditure of resources be required to compensate for The Company’s failure to meet service expectations?

Please provide details on what compensation The Company will provide in the following scenarios:

1) The Company elects to no longer perform the agreed and expected services due to business decisions made by The Company.

2) Ownership or control of The Company changes to an entity that is not aligned with the values of The Customer and which The Customer can not support, directly or indirectly.

3) Control of The Company passes to a third party e.g. through an acquisition or change of control of the board and which results in use of The Customer’s data in a way that is unacceptable to The Customer.

4) The Company or employees of The Company are found to have engaged in behavior, speech, or conduct which is unacceptable to The Customer.

5) The Company’s products or services are found to be unacceptable to The Customer for any reason not limited to security flaws, missing features, access failures, lack of performance, etc and The Company is not able to or is unwilling to meet The Customer’s requirements in a timely manner.

If your company depends on third party provisioning of IT services, you’re just one viral tweet¹ away from being out of business.  Build an IT department that knows how to use a command line and run your critical services on your own hardware.



1) “Toot” now. Any company that relied on Twitter should review this post, but given the rumors around unpaid hosting bills, the chances of recovering any losses from Twitter are dim. At least those businesses that built models around Reddit APIs share your pain.

Posted at 16:01:48 GMT-0700

Category: FreeBSDLinuxSecurity