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New ISO Standard for Cloud Computing

Mark Webber
05/11/2014
The summer of 2014 saw another ISO Standard published by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). ISO27018:2014 is a voluntary standard governing the processing of personal data in the public The summer of 2014 saw another ISO Standard published by the International Standards Organisation (ISO). ISO27018:2014 is a voluntary standard governing the processing of personal data in the public cloud.

With the catchy title of "Information technology – Security techniques - Code of the practice for protection of personally identifiable information (PII) in public clouds acting as PII processors" ("ISO27018"), it is perhaps not surprising that this long awaited standard is yet to slip off the tongue of every cloud enthusiast.  European readers may have assumed references to PII meant this standard was framed firmly on the US – wrong!

What is ISO27018?

ISO27018 sets out a framework of "commonly accepted control objectives, controls and guidelines" which can be followed by any data processors processing personal data on behalf of another party in the public cloud.

ISO27018 has been crafted by ISO to have broad application from large to small and from public entity to government of non-profit.

What is it trying to achieve?

Negotiations in cloud deals which involve the processing of personal data tend to be heavily influenced by the customer's perceptions of heightened data risk and sometimes very real challenges to data privacy compliance. This is hurdle for many cloud adopters as they relinquish control over data and rely on the actions of another (and sometimes those under its control) to maintain adequate safeguards. In Europe, until we see the new Regulation perhaps, a data processor has no statutory obligations when processing personal data on behalf of another. ISO27018 goes some way to impose a level of responsibility for the personal information it processes.

ISO27018's introductory pages call out its objectives:

  1. It's a tool to help the public cloud provider to comply with applicable obligations: for example there are requirements that the public cloud provider only processes personal information in accordance with the customer's instructions and that they should assist the customer in cases of data subject access requests;

  2. It's an enabler of transparency allowing the provider to demonstrate why their cloud services are well governed: imposing good governance obligations on the public cloud provider around its information security organisation (eg the segregation of duties) and objectives around human resource security prior to (and during employment) and encouraging programmatic awareness and training. Plus it echoes the asset management and access controls elements of other ISO standards (see below);

  3. It will assist the customer and vendor in documenting contractual obligations: by addressing typical contractually imposed accountability requirements; data breach notification, imposing adequate confidentially obligations on individuals touching on data and flowing down technical and organisation measures to sub-processors as well as requiring the documentation of data location. This said, a well advised customer may wish to delve deeper as this is not a full replacement for potential data controller to processor controls; and

  4. It offers the public cloud customer a mechanism to exercise audit and compliance rights: with ISO27018's potential application across disparate cloud environments, it remains to be seen whether a third party could certify compliance against some of the broader data control objectives contained in ISO27018. However, a regular review and reporting and/or conformity reviews may provide a means for vendor or third party verification (potentially of more use where shared and/or virtualised server environments practically frustrate direct data, systems and data governance practice audit by the customer).


ISO27018 goes some way towards delivering these safeguards. It is also a useful tool for a customer to evaluate the cloud services and data handling practices of a potential supplier. But it's not simple and it's not a substitute for imposing compliance and control via contract.

A responsible framework for public cloud processors

Privacy laws around the world prescribe nuanced, and sometimes no, obligations upon those who determine the manner in which personal information is used. Though ISO27018 is not specifically aimed at the challenges posed by European data protection laws, or any other jurisdiction for that matter, it is flexible enough to accommodate many of the inevitable variances. It cannot fit all current and may not fit to future rules. However, in building this flexibility, it loses some of its potential bite to generality.

Typically entities adopting ISO27001 (Information security management) are seeking to protect their own assets data but it is increasingly a benchmark standard for data management and handling among cloud vendors. ISO27018 builds upon the ISO27002 (Information technology – Security technique – Code of practice for information security controls) reflecting its controls, but adapting these for public cloud by mapping back to ISO27002 obligations where they remain relevant and supplementing these controls where necessary by prescribing additional controls for public cloud service provision (as set out separately in Annex A to ISO27018). As you may therefor expect, ISO27018 explicitly anticipates that a personal information controller would be subject to wider obligations than those specified and aimed at processors.

Adopting ISO27018

Acknowledging that the standard cannot be all-encompassing, and that the flavours of cloud are wide and varied, ISO27018 calls for an assessment to be made across applicable personal information "protection requirements".  ISO27018 calls for the organisation to:

  1. Assess the legal, statutory, regulatory and contractual obligations of it and its partners (noting particularly that some of these may mandate particular controls (for example preserving the need for written contractual obligations in relation to data security under the Directive (95/46/EC) 7th Principle));

  2. To complete a risk assessment across its business strategy and information risk profile; and

  3. To factor in corporate policies (which may, at times, go further than the law for reasons of principle, global conformity or because of third party influences).


What ISO27018 should help with

ISO27018 offers a reference point for controllers who wish to adopt cloud solutions run by third party providers. It is a cloud computing information security control framework which may form part of a wider contractual commitment to protect and secure personal information.

As we briefly explained in an earlier post in our tech blog, the European Union has also spelled out its desire to promote uniform standard setting in cloud computing. ISO27018 could satisfy the need for broadly applicable, auditable data management framework for public cloud provision. But it's not EU specific and lacks some of the rigour an EU based customer may seek.

What ISO27018 won't help with

ISO27018 is not an exhaustive framework. There are a few obvious flaws:

  1. It's been designed for use in conjunction with the information security controls and objectives set out in ISO27002 and ISO27001 which provide general information security frameworks. This is a high threshold for small or emerging providers (many of which do not meet all these controls or certify to these standards today). So more accessible for large enterprise providers but something to weigh up - the more controls there are the more ways there are to slip up;

  2. It may be used as a benchmark for security and, coupled with contractual commitments to meet and maintain selected elements of ISO27018, it won't be relevant to all cloud solutions and compliance situations (though some will use it as if it were);

  3. It perpetuates the use of the PII moniker which, already holding specific US legal connotation (i.e. narrower application) is now used is a wider defined context under ISO27018 (in fact PII under ISO27018 is closer to the definition of personal data under EU Directive 95/46/EC). This could confuse the stakeholders in multi-national deals and the corresponding use of PII in the full title to ISO27014 potentially misleads around the standard's potentially applicability and use cases;

  4. ISO27018 is of no use in situations where the cloud provider is (or assumes the role) of data controller and it assumes all data in the cloud is personal data (so watch this space for ISO27017 (coming soon) which will apply to any data (personal or otherwise)); and

  5. For EU based data controllers, other than constructing certain security controls, ISO27018 is not a mechanism or alternative route to legitimise international data transfers outside of the European Economic Area. Additional controls will have to be implemented to ensure such data enjoys adequate protection.


What now?

ISO27018 is a voluntary standard and not law and it won't entirely replace the need for specific contractual obligations around processing, accessing and transferring personal data. In a way its ultimate success can be gauged by the extent of eventual adoption. It will be used to differentiate, but it will not always answer all the questions a well-informed cloud adaptor should be asking.

It may be used in whole or in part and may be asserted and used alongside or as a part of contractual obligations, information handling best practice or simply a benchmark which a business will work towards. Inevitability there will be those who treat the Standard as if it is the law without thought about what they are seeking to protect against and what potential wrongs they are seeking to right.  If so, they will not reap the value of this kind of framework.

 

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