An e-mail exchange with Kay Kinton, a spokesperson for Amazon, on the subject of Amazon and its recent run-in with the Zeus botnet controller, raised two very interesting and valid points. First, there is a fine balance that must be maintained by providers – cloud or traditional hosting – regarding the privacy of applications and data deployed by customers and monitoring/security. Second, Kay points out that it’s easier in the EC2 environment, at least, to disable botnets once they are discovered.

The second point is one that appears on the surface to be true but I’m not entirely convinced. A cloud provider has complete control over its environment (even if you don’t, making this somewhat of a double-edged sword) and thus they can act immediately to terminate the offending application. True. But in any environment in which you have physical or management network access to an offending application/system it should be easy to terminate an offending application. Perhaps more important about this point is that a cloud computing provider can prevent the launch of another offending application, but again – I’m not sure it’s any easier or more difficult in a cloud computing environment than it would be in a traditional hosting or data center environment.

Now the first point is a bit more subtle and definitely deserves some attention as it potentially pits one customer’s privacy against one (or more) other customers’ security and raises some interesting questions regarding how deeply in the sand such a line should be drawn in a cloud computing environment.

Here is Kay’s complete response clarifying several points regarding the recent incident and subsequent coverage:

blockquote There have been numerous reports of this finding as well as speculation as to what this means to EC2 security so we appreciate the opportunity to clarify for your readers. Reports have stated that this software was run after a website in EC2 was compromised. While isolating the abusive instance, we found no evidence of a compromised website.

We were able to locate a Zeus botnet controller and promptly shut it down. We take all claims of misuse of our services very seriously and investigate each one. When we find misuse, we take action quickly and shut it down. Our terms of usage are clear and we continually monitor and work to make sure the services aren’t used for illegal activity. It’s important to note that we take the privacy of our customers very seriously, and don’t inspect the contents of instances. This is part of the reason that legitimate customers of all types are comfortable running production applications on Amazon EC2. However, when abuse is detected, we are able to act swiftly to isolate the abusive behavior.

In general, users of Amazon EC2 use the same precautions to secure and protect their websites as they do with traditional hosting solutions. It is no easier for would-be abusers to compromise EC2 based websites than other publicly available websites.

Finally, many articles have asserted that services like Amazon EC2 will be useful tools for would-be abusers. Abusers who choose to run their software in an environment like Amazon EC2, make it easier for us to access and disable their software. This is a significant improvement over the Internet as a whole where abusive hosts can be inaccessible and run unabated for long periods of time. We will continue to improve our abuse detection and response. We also encourage our community to report suspected misuse of Amazon EC2 to ec2-abuse@amazon.com.

The question this raised for me was: at what point does – or should – a provider cross the privacy line in the interests of security? In a shared resource environment, where a botnet / controller / malicious software may be impacting the availability and security of other applications, which is more important to the customers: privacy or security?

The answer may be different depending on your location and by what laws you are ultimately governed, and one could argue that privacy is a subset of security (and some would argue just the opposite) but I can’t imagine anyone would argue that a customer’s privacy should be violated on the premise that the provider is simply “looking for” a violation of its terms of service. As Amazon notes, once a violation – such as using “the cloud” as a means to launch an attack or control an attack on an application – has been discovered, i.e. it is known to be running, it is completely within their rights – and ability – to terminate the offending application. But until it is detected, when the provider is simply monitoring for the existence of such a violation, the “rights” of the provider to secure the environment may clash with the “rights” of the customer to privacy. climbing-ladderBut that may clash with the rights of other customers who may be sharing the same network and thus could see their application adversely affected by the existence of malware that hasn’t yet been detected.