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If you’ve made it to 2023 without ever receiving a notice that your personal information was compromised in a security breach, consider yourself lucky. In a best case scenario, bad actors only got your email address and name – information that won’t cause you a huge amount of harm. Or in a worst-case scenario, maybe your profile on a dating app was breached and intimate details of your personal life were exposed publicly, with life-changing impacts. But there are also more hidden, insidious ways that your personal data can be exploited. For example, most of us use an Internet Service Provider (ISP) to connect to the Internet. Some of those ISPs are collecting information about your Internet viewing habits, your search histories, your location, etc. – all of which can impact the privacy of your personal information as you are targeted with ads based on your online habits.
You also probably haven’t made it to 2023 without hearing at least something about Internet privacy laws around the globe. In some jurisdictions, lawmakers are driven by a recognition that the right to privacy is a fundamental human right. In other locations, lawmakers are passing laws to address the harms their citizens are concerned about – data breaches and mining of data about private details of people’s lives to sell targeted advertising. At the core of most of this legislation is an effort to give users more control over their personal data. And many of these regulations require data controllers to ensure adequate protections are in place for cross-border data transfers. In recent years, we’ve seen an increasing number of regulators interpreting these regulations in a way that would leave no room for cross-border data transfers, however. These interpretations are problematic – not only are they harmful to global commerce, but they also disregard the idea that data might be more secure if cross-border data transfers are allowed. Some regulators instead assert that personal data will be safer if it stays within their borders because their law protects privacy better than that of another jurisdiction.
So with Data Privacy Day 2023 just a few days away on January 28, we think it’s important to focus on all the ways security measures and privacy-enhancing technologies help keep personal data private and why security measures are so much more critical to protecting privacy than merely implementing the requirements of data protection laws or keeping data in a jurisdiction because regulators think that jurisdiction has stronger laws than another.
The role of data security in protecting personal information
Most data protection regulations recognize the role security plays in protecting the privacy of personal information. That’s not surprising. An entity’s efforts to follow a data protection law’s requirements for how personal data should be collected and used won’t mean much if a third party can access the data for their own malicious purposes.
The laws themselves provide few specifics about what security is required. For example, the EU General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) and similar comprehensive privacy laws in other jurisdictions require data controllers (the entities that collect your data) to implement “reasonable and appropriate” security measures. But it’s almost impossible for regulators to require specific security measures because the security landscape changes so quickly. In the United States, state security breach laws don’t require notification if the data obtained is encrypted, suggesting that encryption is at least one way regulators think data should be protected.
Enforcement actions brought by regulators against companies that have experienced data breaches provide other clues for what regulators think are “best practices” for ensuring data protection. For example, on January 10 of this year, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission entered into a consent order with Drizly, an online alcohol sales and delivery platform, outlining a number of security failures that led to a data breach that exposed the personal information of about 2.5 million Drizly users and requiring Drizly to implement a comprehensive security program that includes a long list of intrusion detection and logging procedures. In particular, the FTC specifically requires Drizly to implement “...(c) data loss prevention tools; [and] (d) properly configured firewalls” among other measures.
What many regulatory post-breach enforcement actions have in common is the requirement of a comprehensive security program that includes a number of technical measures to protect data from third parties who might seek access to it. The enforcement actions tend to be data location-agnostic, however. It’s not important where the data might be stored – what is important is the right security measures are in place. We couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly.
Cloudflare’s portfolio of products and services helps our customers put protections in place to thwart would-be attackers from accessing their websites or corporate networks. By making it less likely that users’ data will be accessed by malicious actors, Cloudflare’s services can help organizations save millions of dollars, protect their brand reputations, and build trust with their users. We also spend a great deal of time working to develop privacy-enhancing technologies that directly support the ability of individual users to have a more privacy-preserving experience on the Internet.
Cloudflare is most well-known for its application layer security services – Web Application Firewall (WAF), bot management, DDoS protection, SSL/TLS, Page Shield, and more. As the FTC noted in its Drizly consent order, firewalls can be a critical line of defense for any online application. Think about what happens when you go through security at an airport – your body and your bags are scanned for something bad that might be there (e.g. weapons or explosives), but the airport security personnel are not inventorying or recording the contents of your bags. They’re simply looking for dangerous content to make sure it doesn’t make its way onto an airplane. In the same way, the WAF looks at packets as they are being routed through Cloudflare’s network to make sure the Internet equivalent of weapons and explosives are not delivered to a web application. Governments around the globe have agreed that these quick security scans at the airport are necessary to protect us all from bad actors. Internet traffic is the same.
We embrace the critical importance of encryption in transit. In fact, we see encryption as so important that in 2014, Cloudflare introduced Universal SSL to support SSL (and now TLS) connections to every Cloudflare customer. And at the same time, we recognize that blindly passing along encrypted packets would undercut some of the very security that we’re trying to provide. Data privacy and security are a balance. If we let encrypted malicious code get to an end destination, then the malicious code may be used to access information that should otherwise have been protected. If data isn’t encrypted in transit, it’s at risk for interception. But by supporting encryption in transit and ensuring malicious code doesn’t get to its intended destination, we can protect private personal information even more effectively.
Let’s take another example – In June 2022, Atlassian released a Security Advisory relating to a remote code execution (RCE) vulnerability affecting Confluence Server and Confluence Data Center products. Cloudflare responded immediately to roll out a new WAF rule for all of our customers. For customers without this WAF protection, all the trade secret and personal information on their instances of Confluence were potentially vulnerable to data breach. These types of security measures are critical to protecting personal data. And it wouldn’t have mattered if the personal data were stored on a server in Australia, Germany, the U.S., or India – the RCE vulnerability would have exposed data wherever it was stored. Instead, the data was protected because a global network was able to roll out a WAF rule immediately to protect all of its customers globally.
Global network to thwart global attacks
The power of a large, global network is often overlooked when we think about using security measures to protect the privacy of personal data. Regulators who would seek to wall off their countries from the rest of the world as a method of protecting data privacy often miss how such a move can impact the security measures that are even more critical to keeping private data protected from bad actors.
Global knowledge is necessary to stop attacks that could come from anywhere in the world. Just as an international network of counterterrorism units helps to prevent physical threats, the same approach is needed to prevent cyberthreats. The most powerful security tools are built upon identified patterns of anomalous traffic, coming from all over the world. Cloudflare’s global network puts us in a unique position to understand the evolution of global threats and anomalous behaviors. To empower our customers with preventative and responsive cybersecurity, we transform global learnings into protections, while still maintaining the privacy of good-faith Internet users.
For example, Cloudflare’s tools to block threats at the DNS or HTTP level, including DDoS protection for websites and Gateway for enterprises, allow users to further secure their entities beyond customized traffic rules by screening for patterns of traffic known to contain phishing or malware content. We use our global network to improve our identification of vulnerabilities and malicious content and to roll out rules in real time that protect everyone. This ability to identify and instantly protect our customers from security vulnerabilities that they may not have yet had time to address reduces the possibility that their data will be compromised or that they will otherwise be subjected to nefarious activity.
Similarly, Cloudflare’s Bot Management product only increases in accuracy with continued use on the global network: it detects and blocks traffic coming from likely bots before feeding back learnings to the models backing the product. And most importantly, we minimize the amount of information used to detect these threats by fingerprinting traffic patterns and forgoing reliance on PII. Our Bot Management products are successful because of the sheer number of customers and amount of traffic on our network. With approximately 20 percent of all websites protected by Cloudflare, we are uniquely positioned to gather the signals that traffic is from a bad bot and interpret them into actionable intelligence. This diversity of signal and scale of data on a global platform is critical to help us continue to evolve our bot detection tools. If the Internet were fragmented – preventing data from one jurisdiction being used in another – more and more signals would be missed. We wouldn’t be able to apply learnings from bot trends in Asia to bot mitigation efforts in Europe, for example.
A global network is equally important for resilience and effective security protection, a reality that the war in Ukraine has brought into sharp relief. In order to keep their data safe, the Ukrainian government was required to change their laws to remove data localization requirements. As Ukraine’s infrastructure came under attack during Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian government migrated their data to the cloud, allowing it to be preserved and easily moved to safety in other parts of Europe. Likewise, Cloudflare’s global network played an important role in helping maintain Internet access inside Ukraine. Sites in Ukraine at times came under heavy DDoS attack, even as infrastructure was being destroyed by physical attacks. With bandwidth limited, it was important that the traffic that was getting through inside Ukraine was useful traffic, not attack traffic. Instead of allowing attack traffic inside Ukraine, Cloudflare’s global network identified it and rejected it in the countries where the attacks originated. Without the ability to inspect and reject traffic outside of Ukraine, the attack traffic would have further congested networks inside Ukraine, limiting network capacity for critical wartime communications.
Although the situation in Ukraine reflects the country’s wartime posture, Cloudflare’s global network provides the same security benefits for all of our customers. We use our entire network to deliver DDoS mitigation, with a network capacity of over 172 Tbps, making it possible for our customers to stay online even in the face of the largest attacks. That enormous capacity to protect customers from attack is the result of the global nature of Cloudflare’s network, aided by the ability to restrict attack traffic to the countries where it originated. And a network that stays online is less likely to have to address the network intrusions and data loss that are frequently connected to successful DDoS attacks.
Zero Trust security for corporate networks
Some of the biggest data breaches in recent years have happened as a result of something pretty simple – an attacker uses a phishing email or social engineering to get an employee of a company to visit a site that infects the employee’s computer with malware or enter their credentials on a fake site that lets the bad actor capture the credentials and then use those to impersonate the employee and log into a company’s systems. Depending on the type of information compromised, these kinds of data breaches can have a huge impact on individuals’ privacy. For this reason, Cloudflare has invested in a number of technologies designed to protect corporate networks, and the personal data on those networks.
As we noted during our recent CIO week, the FBI’s latest Internet Crime Report shows that business email compromise and email account compromise, a subset of malicious phishing campaigns, are the most costly – with U.S. businesses losing nearly $2.4 billion. Cloudflare has invested in a number of Zero Trust solutions to help fight this very problem:
- Link Isolation means that when an employee clicks a link in an email, it will automatically be opened using Cloudflare’s Remote Browser Isolation technology that isolates potentially risky links, downloads, or other zero-day attacks from impacting that user’s computer and the wider corporate network.
- With our Data Loss Prevention tools, businesses can identify and stop exfiltration of data.
- Our Area 1 solution identifies phishing attempts, emails containing malicious code, and emails containing ransomware payloads and prevents them from landing in the inbox of unsuspecting employees.
These Zero Trust tools, combined with the use of hardware keys for multi-factor authentication, were key in Cloudflare’s ability to prevent a breach by an SMS phishing attack that targeted more than 130 companies in July and August 2022. Many of these companies reported the disclosure of customer personal information as a result of employees falling victim to this SMS phishing effort.
And remember the Atlassian Confluence RCE vulnerability we mentioned earlier? Cloudflare remained protected not only due to our rapid update of our WAF rules, but also because we use our own Cloudflare Access solution (part of our Zero Trust suite) to ensure that only individuals with Cloudflare credentials are able to access our internal systems. Cloudflare Access verified every request made to a Confluence application to ensure it was coming from an authenticated user.
All of these Zero Trust solutions require sophisticated machine learning to detect patterns of malicious activity, and none of them require data to be stored in a specific location to keep the data safe. Thwarting these kinds of security threats aren’t only important for protecting organizations’ internal networks from intrusion – they are critical for keeping large scale data sets private for the benefit of millions of individuals.
Cloudflare's security services enable our customers to screen for cybersecurity risks on Cloudflare's network before those risks can reach the customer's internal network. This helps protect our customers and our customers’ data from a range of cyber threats. By doing so, Cloudflare's services are essentially fulfilling a privacy-enhancing function in themselves. From the beginning, we have built our systems to ensure that data is kept private, even from us, and we have made public policy and contractual commitments about keeping that data private and secure. But beyond securing our network for the benefit of our customers, we’ve invested heavily in new technologies that aim to secure communications from bad actors; the prying eyes of ISPs or other man-in-the-middle machines that might find your Internet communications of interest for advertising purpose; or government entities that might want to crack down on individuals exercising their freedom of speech.
For example, Cloudflare operates part of Apple’s iCloud Private Relay system, which ensures that no single party handling user data has complete information on both who the user is and what they are trying to access. Instead, a user’s original IP address is visible to the access network (e.g. the coffee shop you’re sitting in, or your home ISP) and the first relay (operated by Apple), but the server or website name is encrypted and not visible to either. The first relay hands encrypted data to a second relay (e.g. Cloudflare), but is unable to see “inside” the traffic to Cloudflare. And the Cloudflare-operated relays know only that it is receiving traffic from a Private Relay user, but not specifically who or their client IP address. Cloudflare relays then forward traffic on to the destination server.
And of course any post on how security measures enable greater data privacy would be remiss if it failed to mention Cloudflare’s privacy-first 184.108.40.206 public resolver. By using 220.127.116.11, individuals can search the Internet without their ISPs seeing where they are going. Unlike most DNS resolvers, 18.104.22.168 does not sell user data to advertisers.
Together, these many technologies and security measures ensure the privacy of personal data from many types of threats to privacy – behavioral advertising, man-in-the-middle attacks, malicious code, and more. On this data privacy day 2023, we urge regulators to recognize that the emphasis currently being placed on data localization has perhaps gone too far – and has foreclosed the many benefits cross-border data transfers can have for data security and, therefore, data privacy.