​Dropbox seeks to balance the security and usability equation

For many consumers, Dropbox is perhaps their most obvious connection with the cloud after email. We spoke with Patrick Heim, Dropbox’s head of trust and security at last week’s AISA National Conference.

With all the recent security breaches, highlighted by Edward Snowden’s revelations, Heim says there’s a significant focus on encryption.

“There’s a real tightening by many service providers in their use of SSL. And then even, as Dropbox does, really examining SSL and hardening it down. We’ve done everything we can to make sure you can’t get into network traffic at all. That changes the dynamics of the network,” says Heim.

With increased levels of encryption, the ability for network managers to carry out deep packet inspection becomes more difficult meaning that metadata becomes increasingly important. This perhaps explains the government’s insistence on a metadata retention scheme.

However, it also highlights the importance of end-point protection. With network traffic well protected, data at rest on end-points that becomes becomes more valuable.

Dropbox, with over 400 million users has become a significant part of the end-point. Although it started as a consumer technology, it quickly grew with over 70% of the customer base coming from outside the United States. Dropbox for Business, which was launched about two years ago boasts over 130,000 companies as customers.

“Part of that transformation has been getting people to trust us,” says Heim. “On the consumer side of things people just use it. Consumers don’t necessarily have the highest bar when it comes to the trustworthiness of a solution. When you move into enterprises, the reputation of the company, the technical controls, certifications and validations – everything like this becomes much more important”.

Heim tells us the security and access controls offered to business customers are not simply for the sake of security but differentiate the business and consumer products with security marketed as a feature. The ability to integrate Dropbox’s security with the business’ security through APIs is a key differentiator.

However, the level of security offered to consumers and businesses is the same. Both products use common code and are designed to mitigate the risks of common threats.

Read more: Senate rejects US ruling on metadata, Snowden investigation

A look back over recent years reveals Dropbox hasn’t been immune from breaches. So, how does a company entrusted to look after vast volumes of customer data rebuild market confidence after a breach?

“I think you need to ask yourself how did the company handle that incident. And are they in a better place or not? Were they transparent in how they dealt with their customers? Did the company demonstrate that they cared about the customers first versus themselves? At the end of the day the technology is phenomenally complicated,” he says.

Heim tells us the scale of Dropbox’s use means potential bugs are identified because of the scale of use. He also notes the company engages in regular bug bounty programs.

“We want to know if there are bugs,” he says.

Many companies are now changing their security arrangements with user data. Data is encrypted so that service providers are unable to decrypt data even when asked by law enforcement agencies. However, Dropbox has not taken that approach and can decrypt user data stored on their servers as they hold the key.

“We are looking at this but there’s complexity. The complexity is that we add value to data whether that’s searchability, previews, annotations and whatnot. SO if we’re ever in a position that you provide us with data that is pre-encrypted or that we can’t get access to the data itself the value we can add to that data is limited. We become a dumb data storage and retrieval mechanism. Our intent, from a business perspective, is to add much more value to business information than just be a simple storage mechanism”.

Heim tells us that Dropbox is looking for ways to further secure customer data without compromising usability or diminishing the usefulness of the service.


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