The Troposphere

Oct 29 2009   8:20PM GMT

Dark side of the cloud — the potential for abuse is limited only by our imagination

CarlBrooks Carl Brooks Profile: CarlBrooks

We all appear to have swallowed the cheerful news about cloud computing hook, line and sinker, thanks in part to a confluence of economic woes and a sudden maturation of the technology- by happy chance, cloud computing seemed like the answer to a lack of cash. Economies of scale and self-service meant we could gorge ourselves on CPU cycles and bandwidth and quit whenever the price went too high- we didn’t have to over-provision, worry about fixed costs; it was brilliant.

So that story’s told. But what about the other side? If legitimate businesses can sip or chug from cloud’s sea of resources as they wish, so can the crooked ones. Spammers, scammers, extortionists, terrorists, bot herders, warez traders and internet privateers that fight unseen wars over international IT channels for profit and patriotism, and so forth- all of them use servers and software just like regular upstanding folks.

Now, with self-service and automated compute clouds, they can have all they want for pennies a shot. Even better, there’s no work involved in snaffling up a PC or a web server for malicious intent- why bother pwning boxes when you can rent? All you need is a credit card that doesn’t have your home address on it – i.e., someone else’s — and away you go. Of course, this is already happening; as recent events at Rackspace and Amazon will attest, not to leave out the awful LxLabs tragedy. The industry is aware of the potential problems, but how ready are they?

Rackspace’s Tom Sands wrote a feel-good blog about it back in April; theoretical expert IT zombie holocaust survivor Hoff has also detailed a few potential Zerg rush techniques.

What scares me, however, is that the bad guys are better than the good guys at technology. Much, much better–they have to be. The black market is a very pure example of a well-regulated free market economy- purer by far than any in the ‘white market’. A well regulated free market economy, as we all know, is the most potent driver of innovation there is. The regulation comes from above in the form of punitive and reactionary measures taken by industry and government. The innovation comes from being forced to re-invent ways to obtain malicious goals.

That means that attackers are seeing and using the true potential of cloud computing long, long before the rest of the world will. Bad guys have already taken advantage of public cloud resources in fairly rudimentary ways, like hop-scotching around the world to fire up spam servers as they get detected, and engaging in cheap DDoS attacks.

Now, with cloud cartography a reality, the possibilities are staggering. As attackers realize the real fundamental change that cloud computing brings to IT — the ability to think in hundreds and thousands of nodes whenever and wherever, rather than a few piled up in a heap, we will see astonishing feats.

There are millions of credit card numbers floating around out there- how long before someone bothers to nab a few tens of thousands, open up EC2 accounts and start up every single available instance on Amazon all at once? I mean every last scrap of CPU they have, at once.

How about a 10,000 instance, 10,000 hour rolling blackout of Google that moves from Azure to GoGrid to AWS to Rackspace or from Mexico to Brazil to Canada to Japan?

Never mind the idea that someone could compromise actual cloud infrastructures; Its not like operators use simple, well known authentication and web-based management consoles to administer these astonishingly potent resources, right? Right?

Now, fast forward a few years- Brazil, Russia, China, Korea and India all have services comparable to Amazon. Now what, kids?

UPDATE: Why, look here! Step by step instructions on cracking PGP passphrases with Amazon EC2! skip to the end: job time reduced from 5 years to oh, several days. Wait!! Amazon is not keen on unexpected 100′s of nodes firing up all at once.

Oh, wait, somebody found a way to fix that. Carry on.

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