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Business lessons learned in iCloud hack

The recent Apple iCloud hack that caused a veteran tech journalist a lot of misery has several lessons for businesses whose employees are also taking advantage of the convenience of cloud services.

Last Friday, hackers raised Cain after getting into Wired writer Mat Honan's Gmail, iCloud, Amazon.com and Twitter accounts. Access to Honan's iCloud account let the miscreants wipe all data from Honan's iPhone, iPad and MacBook Pro. Hijacking his Twitter account let them broadcast racist and homophobic messages under his handle.

"In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed," Honan said in a Wired article.

As Honan tells it, the blame lies with weaknesses in the security procedures of Apple and Amazon.com. In a statement to The New York Times, Apple acknowledged making mistakes. "We found that our own internal policies were not followed completely. We are reviewing all of our processes for resetting account passwords to ensure our customers' data is protected," the company said.

The flaws in the vendors' security procedures that led to the hack raise the first lesson for businesses: Look closely at the cloud providers' security practices and ask for changes if necessary.

[Bill Brenner in Salted Hash: Mat Honan's cautionary tale, and instructions on how to protect yourself]

"Anybody that reads this story, they need to go through and think about the potential holes in the services that they're using, and they need to let those vendors know that the holes are there," Dan Olds, an analyst for the Gabriel Consulting Group, said Tuesday. "If the holes remain, then they need to take their business elsewhere."

In Honan's case, the hackers took advantage of weaknesses in the verification process used by Apple and Amazon.com when people want to make changes to their accounts. Because the vendors didn't go far enough to make sure the person making the changes was Honan, the hackers were able to change passwords to lock out Honan and then start the mayhem.

The second lesson for business is in how Honan's nightmare grew worse once hackers had penetrated Apple's defenses. From there, they were able to enter his Gmail and Twitter accounts, as well as the Twitter account of his former employer Gizmodo.

Apple and other vendors encourage people to use a single sign-on for accessing multiple services. While the approach is convenient, it also makes breaking into multiple accounts easier for hackers. "Make sure you have unique user names and passwords for every single account," Olds said. "That's what keeps the damage from spreading."

Finally, Honan's experience should reemphasize the need for businesses to educate employees on cloud security and on the dos and don'ts when using personal services for any type of business activity. "It's incumbent on the IT department to get this information out to users," Olds said.

While often well-intentioned, employees use consumer data sharing and storage services such as Dropbox or iCloud to work on company documents from home to get work done out of the office. They will also use personal email accounts for business. "Enterprises need to think about such possibilities," Eric Maiwald, analyst for Gartner, said in an email.

Read more about cloud security in CSOonline's Cloud Security section.


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