Dropbox Password Breach Highlights Cloud Security Weaknesses

NEWS ANALYSIS: While cloud service providers try to ensure their offerings are reasonably secure, they usually fail in this basic requirement because their greatest weakness is their failure to anticipate how users will defeat their security.

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The now well publicized Dropbox security breach was the result of two things that Dropbox could have foreseen, and could have prevented. The first was failing to anticipate user misconduct, and the second was failing to take steps that would allow the site to remain secure even if the users weren€™t. This was exacerbated by Dropbox employee practices that should never have been allowed and by lax management oversight.

In other words, Dropbox created the perfect storm when it comes to security. For me, the whole thing took on a form of déjà vu. A few days prior to the disclosure of the Dropbox breach, I€™d been chairing a panel at the NetEvents Americas Press and Analyst Summit in Miami. The topic of that panel was specifically about the security challenges to mobile users of cloud applications and services. A significant part of the discussion was about just the sort of weakness that Dropbox revealed.

The list of problems with Dropbox was hardly surprising since the same list applies to other providers of public cloud services. First, the security depends solely on a name and password to gain access to a person€™s files. Second, Dropbox apparently had no oversight into employee practices, including the use of live customer data in development. Third, it€™s fairly clear that Dropbox had not provided adequate training in basic security practices such as password reuse.

Because of these shortcomings, the Dropbox breach was not a matter of if it would happen, but rather when it would happen. In this case, the only thing that we know has happened was that a number of Dropbox users got some spam for gambling sites. As far as we know, only the customer email addresses in the Dropbox employee€™s breached storage area were compromised.

Dropbox has now promised to clean up its act. The company will begin requiring two-factor authentication, a way to spot suspicious activity and a means for users to examine the activity on their accounts for suspicious activity. And the company is asking for password changes on some accounts. If you€™re a Dropbox user you should at the very minimum change your password to one that€™s both very strong and unique, and don€™t wait for the company to tell you to do it.

Unfortunately, the Dropbox breach has implications that stretch far beyond Dropbox. Most public cloud services have similar weaknesses because they, too, rely only on a user name and password to protect the data. If that information becomes known then the contents of a user€™s cloud storage area are open for the taking.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...