I’m hanging out in the Red Carpet Club at the Orlando airport, waiting to head home from the Cloud Security Alliance Congress. Yesterday Chris Hoff and I presented a three part series – first our joint presentation on disruptive innovation and cloud computing (WINnovation), then his awesome presentation on cloud computing infrastructure security issues (and more: Cloudinomicon), and finally Quantum Datum, my session on information-centric security for cloud computing.

It was one of the most complex presentations I’ve ever put together in terms of content and delivery, and the feedback was pretty positive, with a few things I need to fix. Weirdly enough I was asked for more of the esoteric content, and less of the practical, which is sorta backwards. I enjoy the esoteric, but try not to do too much of it because we analyst types already have a reputation for forgetting about the real world.

While I don’t intend to blog the entire presentation, and the slides don’t make sense without the talk, I’m going to break out some of the interesting bits as separate posts. As you can imagine from the title, the ‘theme’ was quantum mechanics, which provides some great metaphors for certain information-centric security issues.

One of the most fascinating bits about quantum mechanics is the concept of quantum entanglement, sometimes called “spooky action at a distance”. Assuming you trust a history major to talk quantum physics, quantum entanglement is a phenomena that emerges due to the wave-like nature of subatomic particles. Things like electrons don’t behave like marbles, but more like a cross between a marble and a wave. They exhibit characteristics of both particles and waves. One of those is that you can split certain particles into smaller particles, each of which is representative of a different part of the parent wave function. For example, after the split you end up with one piece with an ‘up’ spin, and another with a ‘down’ spin, but never two ups or two downs.

You can then separate these particles over a distance, and measuring the state of one instantly collapses the wave function and determines the state of the other. Thus you can instantly affect state across arbitrary distances – but it doesn’t violate the speed of light because technically no information is transferred.

This is an interesting metaphor for data loss. If I have a given datum (the singular of ‘data’), the security state of any copy of that datum is affected by the state of all other copies of that datum.

Well, sort of. Unlike with quantum entanglement, this is a one-way function. The security state of any datum can only decrease the security of all the rest, never increase it.

This is why data loss is such an intractable problem. The more copies of a given datum (which could be a single number, or a 2-hour-long movie), the greater the probability of a security failure (assuming distribution) and the weaker overall relative security becomes. If one copy leaks, considering the interconnectivity of the Internet, that single copy is now potentially available and thus the security of all the other copies is reduced.

This is really a stupidly complex way of saying that your overall security of a given datum is no greater than the weakest security of any copy.

Now think in practical terms. It doesn’t matter how secure your database server is if someone can run a query, extract the data, dump it into an Excel spreadsheet, and email it.

I believe the scientific term for this is ‘bummer’.