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  • Writer's pictureMatt Ferguson

Managed storage as a defense against ransomware

It’s getting harder to trust cloud storage providers


In the wake of revelations that Western Digital’s internal IT resources were compromised by a malicious third-party hacker group, serious questions about the security and reliability of cloud storage services have again been raised. This isn’t the first time a cloud storage provider has been compromised, either; in 2015, health insurance provider Anthem experienced a massive data breach which exposed the personally-identifying information (PII) of around 80 million of its customers. In 2020, Anthem struck a deal with a group of State Attorneys General to pay a $39.5 million settlement relating to the hack. Anthem denied any wrongdoing. We’ve discussed data breaches in this blog before, but the frequency and severity with which they now occur has encouraged us to impress upon our clients the importance of managed storage services.

Whether you pay for end-user cloud storage services like iCloud or Google Drive, your sensitive information is still in the cloud. Healthcare information, browser search histories, call logs, telemetry from smart devices and other medical devices, financial information, and more are all stored somewhere. Is that data encrypted? Are the companies who initially gathered your data even still in business? If they were acquired by another company, did the parent company inform you what they planned to do with your data? Has your data been sold to third parties without your knowledge or consent?

These massive data troves, often poorly secured and subject to nebulous or nonexistent regulation, are valuable to both “legitimate” outfits like advertisers as well as nefarious entities, like black-hat hacking groups. Some of this data can’t easily be managed; when you consent to use a product or service, you’re entrusting your information to a corporate entity, or entities, who probably don’t have your best interests in mind. Even Microsoft sells your data. To a degree, you’re at the mercy of these tech giants’ End User License Agreements; these days, it’s all but impossible to go “off the grid” as far as data gathering is concerned. However, while the wheels of legislation may turn slowly, you can limit the amount of data you release to third-parties, by controlling much of the data that is personally significant to you (like family photos, videos, music, documents, and so on).

This is where managed storage comes in. In spite of enticing promotional offers and rock-bottom pricing, it bears repeating that the cloud is just someone else’s computer. By using any cloud storage service, no matter the money and corporate pedigree behind it, you’re assuming that the provider has done their due diligence in securing your data. Surely, we can trust the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft to understand fundamental concepts of data security, right? Well, can we? It’s important to understand that services like iCloud and Google Drive are inexpensive for a reason.

This isn’t to say that you’re getting a less secure product if you pay less money, rather that the services themselves are constantly in flux; Google might offer you 50GB of cloud storage for $1 per month, with a feature you like or use frequently (like integration with your Windows file system). From one month to the next, Google might decide that this feature you like is too costly or complex for them to continue supporting. A while later, that feature is gone. You’re still paying the same (or more) for the service, but the product has changed. Are you still getting what you paid for?

To reiterate: you are at the mercy of the companies who manage these cloud storage platforms. This would be less of a concern if no one ever stored any sensitive data on these services, but people do just that–constantly. People also back up this sensitive data to one service and keep it nowhere else, placing total faith in the reliability and privacy of the cloud storage service they’ve chosen.

This is a dangerous gamble, to say the least. No matter the scale or the cost, all cloud providers eventually suffer a failure. The failure may be catastrophic. You might lose everything. You probably won’t–historically, the largest cloud storage providers have been pretty good about keeping user data intact. But is this a bet you want to make, day in and day out, with irreplaceable data? Beyond just availability, do you trust your cloud provider to secure that data? Lost data is usually less devastating than stolen data, depending on what kind of data is being stored on a cloud storage service.

To that end, Geek Housecalls/Geeks for Business is introducing our managed data service. While we have worked closely with preeminent cloud storage provider, Backblaze, for helping clients streamline their data backup solutions, we realize they are, for better or worse, another cloud storage service.

We mean no disparagement toward Backblaze (because they’re great at what they do), but cloud storage just isn’t a bulletproof solution to store and secure the rapidly growing amounts of data that the average person generates. As such, we’d like to shine a light on the importance of onsite data storage: our managed data product involves an onsite hardware appliance (known as a Network Attached Storage server) and automation routines written by us, to ensure that your data is backed up on your schedule, securely.

Envision a central storage device that pulls in data from each client device on your network (laptops, desktops, phones, smart devices such as security cameras). Now, envision a device that does this without user intervention or configuration. This is our “value-add”; we design and implement both the hardware and software, utilizing industry best practices and hardware from Synology. For business clients with more involved data storage requirements, we also work with TrueNAS Enterprise for custom storage server solutions.

Network Attached Storage (NAS) has been around for decades, and serves an important purpose when we approach the thorny subjects of data security and data availability. This has held especially true for business use cases, but a logical data storage solution is increasingly critical in home environments, as well. NAS devices, such as those from Synology, are also highly extensible; your storage server can be extended with plugins for popular services like Apple AirPlay and Plex Media, in addition to allowing you to host local instances of password management software like BitWarden.

Modern hardware has become fast and efficient enough to unlock a lot of possibilities here, all without needing to pay a cloud storage provider a monthly subscription fee. Most importantly, you retain control of your data, which is something no cloud provider can honestly claim.

And finally, we don’t want to make it seem like the big cloud storage providers are bad or can’t be trusted–just that they shouldn’t be your first or only choice for data management. If your storage needs are greater than 50 or 100GB, costs can add up quickly. And it doesn’t really ever make sense to pay a princely sum to host “bulk data” (movies, TV shows, games, music) in the cloud, to begin with. Bulk data storage is much more economical when done on premises (your home or business) and gives you faster and more secure access to that data, as well.

We regard solutions like Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, and Apple iCloud as good backups for your backups. That is, you should have multiple copies of important files, and those files can be stored in the cloud. We do strongly recommend encrypting important files, just in case your cloud provider is compromised, however. In the realm of data storage, the adage is “two is one and one is none” with respect to how many copies of your data you really need. Our recommendation is that our customers should have an onsite data backup, an offsite backup that only connects to the Internet to synchronize data with the onsite copy, as well as at least one cloud backup (iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, OneDrive, etc.)

Additionally, cloud services like Google Drive can easily be integrated with onsite backup solutions. If you’d like to have all of your tax documents, for instance, be backed up to the cloud as soon as they’re backed up to your local NAS, that’s easily accomplished thanks to the extensibility of modern storage servers.

One substantial benefit to having secure, managed backups is that, in the event of a ransomware or other malware attack, you have the ability to roll your systems back to known-good configurations, bypassing the need for expensive, complex malware remediation. Ransomware can’t thrive in an environment where secure data backups exist. This is something that Microsoft claims to offer with its OneDrive product, but such a claim is optimistic at best. Data snapshots, versioning, and offline backups go far beyond the scope of what OneDrive or any other consumer-grade cloud backup solution can hope to offer.

Data management is only going to become more complex, and we think it’s time that everyone took control of their data destiny. Give Geek Housecalls and Geeks for Business a call (or email) today to set up a consultation for your storage and security needs.

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