iCloud: security risk?

Apple's iCloud service, which was recently forced upon former-users of mac.com (including myself), has not proven to be a shiny seamless service. Many tech journos complain that iCloud doesn't represent the user-experience associated with Cupertino's decades-long tradition as a quality-brand.

Since being migrated, my calendars have sprouted duplicates, along with other mysterious phenomena. Apple gives all iCloud users 5GB free storage, which is nice as I've been a user of their cloud-based service mac.com since 2001.

But I don't store my media-content in the cloud--sure, it'd be great to have all my photos in Photostream, but an ever-growing blob of data in the sky will likely burst the surly bonds of any arbitrary data-limit and "upgrade" me to a higher tier. I prefer manual control over my own data. Is that too much to ask?

But security is no luxury add-on for any cloud service. Mat Honan, writer for Wired Magazine, found out the hard way--his horrific tale of social engineering/hacking is detailed in his Wired article.

It started with some unknown teenager(s) liking Honan's three-letter Twitter account. That was all: they wanted that Twitter-handle. It was cool. To get it, they ended up doing a lot, a LOT of seriously evil activity (again, please read his full account--if it saves one single CWHK reader from suffering the same fate, I'd be grateful). Anonymous strangers savaged his digital existence.

How bad was it? Honan sums it up: "In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook."

Imagine that happening to you, your Twitter account, and your devices.

True, Honan made some errors in his personal security and backup-planning which he regrets and details in his informative and often heart-rending article. But like us, he's human. What tripped him up (along with his own less-than-best practices) were security-measures built into Apple and Amazon's online services which, combined with clever social engineering on the part of the bad guys, including compromising his Gmail account.

Honan details the process precisely--using phrases I hope I'll never have to write. I cover security and advise people on how to handle their personal security perimeters. After reading Honan's article, I've gone in and changed a few things. It's that critical.

Honan contends that in a cloud-centric environment, passwords no longer provide adequate security. "Cloud-based systems need fundamentally different security measures," he wrote.

The man has a point. And while he mostly blames himself for failing to back up critical data, he reserves bitter ire for Apple's evolution into iCloud. "I bought into the Apple account system originally to buy songs at 99 cents a pop, and over the years that same ID has evolved into a single point of entry that controls my phones, tablets, computers and data-driven life," wrote Honan. "With this AppleID, someone can make thousands of dollars of purchases in an instant, or do damage at a cost that you can't put a price on."

As we have sown, so have we reaped. The iTunes store that gleefully sold us catchy pop-tunes has morphed into a multi-armed octopus with a permanent target painted on it. A single point-of-entry is also a single point-of-failure. The two-factor authentication mandated for banks by the HKMA is available on Gmail, but Honan didn't use it (do you?).

We can only hope that the folks at Apple--now the world's largest technology company--are putting security-systems in place to help prevent what happened to Honan to the rest of its users. In the wake of this incident, both Apple and Amazon have hardened their security procedures and no longer allow password-changes over the phone (this was part of the social-engineering hack that allowed strangers to remote-wipe Honan's phone, tablet, and laptop). Apple details its iCloud security here.

Security Asia has another account of the Honan incident and more tips to help you improve your own security-profile.

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