Tag Archives: cloud

Lock Down Your Login

As October’s Cybersecurity Awareness Month continues, I thought I would refer once again to the federal Stop.Think.Connect information campaign and focus briefly on one particular topic currently being emphasized there.

Be careful and turn your speakers down before clicking on this link, as the page automatically plays a cutesy animated YouTube video, but the Lock Down Your Login page is a good introduction to what is known as Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA).   This site calls it “strong authentication.”

Once you as a user have been authorized to use a particular technology system, such as a banking website or your work computing network, authentication is the process of verifying your identity to that system so it can provide you the access needed.

Commonly, this is done by prompting a user to provide a login name and password, which in computing terms is considered “single-factor” authentication.

Multi-Factor Authentication is a mechanism through which a user is granted access only after more than one form of authentication is presented.  MFA may sometimes be referred to in the media or on websites as two-step authentication or two-factor authentication (2FA) , but technically 2FA is a subset of MFA.

One very common example of two-factor authentication is the use of a debit card (factor one-something you HAVE) and a PIN (factor two-something you KNOW) to withdraw money from an ATM.

Another example of MFA you may already experienced is the use of your thumb or finger print to unlock your cell phone.  In this case, the first factor (something you HAVE) is the phone, the second factor (something you KNOW) is the password you have previously saved on the phone, and a third factor (something you ARE) is the ability of the phone to read your thumbprint (also called biometrics).  If any of these factors are not available, you cannot access the information on the phone.

Most information security experts now recommend the use of MFA in all cases of authentication, particularly as more and more of our login information is being stored on servers all over the world and more and more of those servers are compromised.

For instance, commerce websites such as Amazon.com asks that you create a username and password (single-factor) to be able to use their service.  A compromise of that information on their servers by hackers or even company insiders could allow malicious users to pretend to be you and make purchases on your account without your knowledge.

The problem multiplies if you happen to employ the same password for different accounts on different systems.  Once one is compromised, all your accounts secured with a single-factor using the same password are potentially compromised.

If, however, if you have set up MFA with your Amazon account,  which allows you to receive a one-time random code via text message, automated phone call or third-party app (such as Google Authenticator or Microsoft Authenticator),  the malicious user cannot get into your account without using that code which only you have on your phone.  Even if they have somehow obtained both your username and password, they cannot login to the MFA protected account.

Other websites or networks now also use phone-based MFA, but there are also methods that are not phone-based, such as the use of security token generators or smart cards.

A few people think the extra step of obtaining and using a random code is too onerous to do every time you log into a particular account.  But this simple extra step increases the security of that account so significantly that most major online companies are preparing or already offering some sort of MFA for use with their accounts.  If that extra step prevents the use of your personal credentials even after a security breach, it is obviously worth it.

As someone who pays close attention to information security and the scary trending online threats and growing malicious practices, I choose to use MFA for my personal accounts whenever it is available, and use both phone text-based codes and app-based code generators.

The use of MFA is also growing quickly in the work place as institutions and business work to protect their internal technology resources, and is currently being tested here at Bellevue College for possible use with Office 365.

If you are worried about this, remember that a couple of decades ago our typewriters didn’t require a login at all, but after computers became ubiquitous, we learned how to function with usernames and passwords. Now it seems natural.

MFA will be the same kind of cultural revolution.   I think it is safe to predict that one day we will be using MFA for all of our accounts as another line of defense against malicious users, and won’t think twice about it.

Safe Computing!

Think Purposefully, Act Knowledgably

A recent tweet by Microsoft (MS) referenced a long-standing free file-hosting website the company supports called DOCS.COM.  File-hosting websites are provided by online vendors (such as MS and Google) as a place where individuals may post personal electronic files and documents, often for the purpose of making them available to the general public.

The post on Twitter linked to a page on Microsoft’s website which included this information:


What is Docs.com?
Docs.com is an online showroom where you can collect and publish Word documents, Excel workbooks, PowerPoint and Office Mix presentations, OneNote notebooks, PDF files, and Sways. With Docs.com, it’s easy for you to share with others what interests you, and your content looks great on any device. 

Can I use my Office 365 account with Docs.com?
Yes. You can use your work or school account to use Docs.com, or you can choose to use a personal Microsoft account — an email address and password that you use to sign in to services like Sway, Outlook.com, Skype, OneDrive, and Xbox Live. If you prefer, you can also sign in to Docs.com with a Facebook account.


As indicated in the article, it appears as though MS has recently extended the permissions to log into and use this website intended for the storage of personal  files to the credentials used by those schools using Office 365 (O365).  Because we are an O365 customer, this means it is possible to use your Bellevue College (BC) login to post documents to DOCS.COM.

This is not necessarily an issue for students who wish to use DOCS.COM for personal documents to supplement the online storage and electronic document sharing capabilities provided by the college through Microsoft’s OneDrive.

However, DOCS.COM is NOT, and I want to repeat this, NOT an authorized location for the storage of any electronic college documents by BC employees, despite the fact that you can access it with college credentials.  The use of the website has not been deemed compliant with FERPA and other campus information security requirements.

It is becoming an increasingly challenging issue in higher education that college employees with access to data and information protected by law (such as FERPA and HIPAA) are copying some of that information to personal file-hosting websites (such as DropBox, Box, DOCS.COM, etc.) without regard as to whether that cloud storage resource meets the information security requirements for the data.  Sadly, many people don’t even take the security of the data into consideration at all; they simply copy it anywhere that makes it more convenient to work with.

It is of utmost importance that each of us think purposefully and act knowledgably  when it comes to the information or data we work with on a daily basis.  Always protecting electronic information is of the highest priority.

The only authorized cloud repository of protected electronic Bellevue College data at the time of this writing is a college-provided OneDrive space or SharePoint Online file storage space (being rolled out soon!), unless a specific exception has been authorized through a Data Sharing Agreement (I’ll discuss these more at a later time).

Despite these services being sanctioned repositories, it is still critical that individual users of these authorized resources are cognizant of how they are sharing or providing access for others to the electronic files and data stored in them.

If you are not certain whether you can share electronic college information with someone, or whether you can store it somewhere, check with your supervisor.  If they are not certain, you or they can contact the Technology Service Desk for assistance, or let me know.

Safe Computing!

Security Information about Office 365

Many campus users have questions as college e-mail accounts are now stored in the cloud version of Exchange ( called Exchange Online) as part of our Office 365 deployment.

In addition to mitigating some of the costs incurred by the college to provide and support e-mail on campus, Exchange Online provides easier access to e-mail from off-campus, and provides additional layers of security and redundancy that have previously been cost-prohibitive for the college.

If you have any concerns about the privacy and/or security of Office 365, or would like more information, check out the Microsoft Office 365 Trust Center, or contact me with specific questions.

Password Security

I haven’t had much time recently to write here a lot, but there is an interesting story related to a data breach in the public sector that I thought would merit a few moments today (here is a link to a Wall Street Journal article about it ).

The basis for the story is that a number of DropBox (a popular cloud file storage site) account passwords have been published by some hackers.  However, the security for the DropBox site itself has NOT been compromised in any way…

So what happened?

It seems that the hackers were able to get into another unidentified website’s user database, which stored account names and password credentials for that site, then went down that list of credentials at the DropBox site.  They were subsequently able to access a number of DropBox accounts.   This ability to use a password stolen from one site to access another site occurred because the users used the same login name and password for their DropBox account that they used on the website that was compromised!

Knowing it would be difficult to get through the high levels of security that DropBox has in place, the hackers simply went to the less secure site and reused against DropBox the information they acquired there.  It wouldn’t surprise me if they actually did this a number of places.  They could have tried accessing Google or Microsoft or Yahoo or any other site they wanted.  The security issue is actually the REUSE by users of the same user names and passwords on different websites.

This illustrates one of the primary purposes behind most malicious attacks: the acquiring of credentials.  If a person with bad intent has actual login access to any given website, it doesn’t matter how much security that site has against direct attacks or hacking.  The bad guys are already in.

Bottom line:  never give away your login name and password, and don’t reuse passwords across multiple websites.  That is the ideal.

However, because it is difficult for all of us to keep track of lots and lots of passwords and to always use a different one for every purpose, at least be aware of what you are trying to protect and think about how to use more secure passwords at sites you wish to better protect.

For instance, you absolutely shouldn’t use the same password for very public places like Facebook or Twitter that you use for very private places like your bank or credit union site.

This applies to campus, as well.  The password you use when handling sensitive or protected college information shouldn’t be the same password you are using to sign up for a Groupon newsletter or to access personalized content on CNN.

 

Free Stuff!!

Information Security part:

It is not uncommon for malicious parties to send out e-mail or other communications with the text “Free Stuff!!” as part of the subject line or emblazoned in bold letters across the top of the ad.  Often this lure of the possibility of getting something free is irresistible to we human beings.

This means we, as consumers of technology, need to be cautious whenever we see offers that seem too good to be true.  In one of my favorite childhood science fiction books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein, I learned to look carefully at free offers through the lens of the acronym TANSTAAFL.

“There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” means simply that there is often a hidden cost behind “free” offers, and that an intelligent person will be certain to look for that cost before jumping onto any “free” bandwagon.

Non-Information Security part (sort-of):

I’ve mentioned before that I would periodically include in this blog things outside the realm of information security if I found it interesting and worth sharing.  This is one of those times.

Microsoft yesterday announced that they are increasing in July the amount of storage space allocated to users of their OneDrive cloud file storage.  OneDrive allows users to access saved files through the internet from anywhere, using any computer or device (such as a smart phone or pad).

The amount of storage space available in the “free” (advertiser supported) version of OneDrive is increasing from 7 GB (gigabytes) to 15 GB.

Microsoft also offers paid OneDrive subscriptions, the first as a stand alone product for which they are charging $1.99 for 100 GB [previously $7.49] or $3.99 for 200 GB [previously $11.49] per month.

The second subscription version is associated with the various (and variously priced) versions of their online Office 365 product.  They have not changed the price of the monthly or annual Office 365 subscriptions, but are changing the amount of OneDrive space available to subscribers to 1 TB (terabytes; equivalent to about 1,000 GB).  This is a HUGE amount of personal storage space!

This offer, including it’s “free” version, may well be worth checking out if you are interested in personal cloud storage of your files.

Privacy Disclaimer

It is important to always keep in mind that in storing your personal files “in the cloud” –whether it is OneDrive or other free or paid offerings, like BOXDropBoxGoogle Drive, Amazon Cloud,  Apple’s iCloud, or any other company–those files are resting on servers controlled by whichever company is providing the service.

This means they are subject to disclosure either to certain company technical employees or through legal requests, to courts or law-enforcement officials.  Just as with files stored on college systems, they are not totally protected from disclosure in certain situations.

However, if you make an informed decision, weighing the benefit of using such personal file storage services against their hidden costs (such as lack of perfect privacy), they can be pretty useful, especially if you access files from multiple locations on multiple devices.