CIOs, CSOs should address cloud sovereignty uncertainty with facts: Gartner

IT and security leaders should arm themselves with details about the location of their corporate data and use a growing comfort with cloud computing to address policy concerns about data sovereignty, a recent Gartner analysis has recommended.

The research firm's The Snowden Effect: Data Location Matters report warned that knee-jerk reactions to questions about the physical location of corporate data were becoming increasingly difficult as a growing tide of organisations began to embrace offshore cloud services.

While tools such as encryption were in use to protect offshore data by 38 percent of 221 executives surveyed by Gartner, many organisations never got that far. With IT leaders often “entangled” in discussions on the issue with stakeholders and advisors from legal, customer, regulatory, management and other organisations, an overall fear of committing data to overseas cloud services had been reinforced by ambiguous guidance on the issue.

“Authorities' guidance leaves room for interpretation, concerned stakeholders tend to discount emerging business value, and legal advisors don't want the liability,” Gartner research vice president Carsten Casper, the author of the report, wrote.

The number of discussions with clients about data sovereignty had soared in the year since Edward Snowden revealed details of the US government's data surveillance programs, Casper said, noting that the decision about how much to limit data to certain geographies would ultimately come down to business leaders who must balance the various types of risk and opportunity that offshore cloud models offer.

Gartner currently receives thousands of questions annually from companies weighing the import of geographical data location. Yet by 2020, Casper forecast, 80 percent of all organisations will have replaced strict controls over the physical location of data with “a combination of legal location, political location and logical location”.

Improving awareness of the real risks around location is critical in revisiting geographical links, the report warns: for example, Casper warns, “some organisations believe their data is more secure if it is stored locally. If data theft is imminent, then they could pull the plug and keep the bits and bytes at home. They don't realise that, in most cases, theft happened already [and] it's too late to pull the plug, and doing so would actually thwart forensic efforts.”

While there are arguments to be made for more relaxed policies around data location, IT executives must be careful not to dismiss such concerns completely, the report warned, since physical location is still important for high-availability applications even where it is not so important in ensuring confidentiality.

Even though many discussions around location have focused on the physical location of data in terms of its accessibility, Casper also warns that it's important to remember that legal location for the data “matters more than ever. What matters is that physical location and legal location don't have to be the same....provider and customer could be legal entities registered in different countries, and the contractual relationship between them could constitute a cross-border data flow.”

Discussions about the legal environment must be couched in a real assessment of relevant legislation. Executives must be careful to challenge blanket statements like 'it's illegal to store such data outside the country', Casper warns, and back every assertion with factual information that can clearly delineate rights and responsibilities around the cloud environment.

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