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Executive interview: Microsoft’s national cloud head on the right to privacy

The last time Microsoft fought a court battle with the US government it was defending an anti-trust case. Now it has gone onto the attack

Microsoft is suing its biggest customer, the US government, over a warrant from US law enforcement to gain access to customer data held in a Microsoft datacentre in Dublin.

Doug Hauger, general manager for national cloud programmes at Microsoft, is responsible both for overall trust in the Microsoft cloud and the company’s national cloud programme. That makes his team responsible for wherever in the world Microsoft builds geo-specific cloud services.

With the ongoing legal case, the abolition of the US safe harbour agreement for data sharing with Europe, and the EU’s new general data protection regulation, Hauger has clearly got plenty on his plate.

He says: “One of the things people are concerned about is data residency. Here in the UK, someone like the National Health Service keeps data on individuals in the UK.”

For its European datacentres, Hauger says Microsoft makes a commitment to keep data within the EU. A warrant by a foreign government to access this data clearly goes against the company’s principles.

In December 2013, this is exactly what happened when Microsoft was initially ordered by the US Department of Justice to comply with a warrant to give US law enforcers the right to seize and search an unnamed suspected drug trafficker’s emails, which were held in the company’s Dublin datacentre.

Asked about the case, Hauger says: “When we look at pillars of the trusted cloud, one of the pillars is privacy and control. We believe customers’ data is their data, and they have a right to privacy around that data and a right to control that data.”

Microsoft’s second pillar of trust is transparency. Hauger says: “Customers want us to be transparent on how we keep their data secure. We are very clear that if we receive a request from a law enforcement agency for your data, we will redirect that request to you and, where we are allowed to, we will reveal to you that we have been asked to provide access to your data.”

Read more about Microsoft’s cloud strategy

He says the reason Microsoft is suing the US government is: We believe they have overreached in their ability to gain data that is outside the US.”

Given Edward Snowden’s revelations about the extent of NSA surveillance, the government tapping issue is one that companies like Microsoft and other large US cloud providers cannot ignore. Hauger says: “We want to make sure customers’ data is secure. One of the ways we do this is to encrypt data in transit between our cloud services, which means that it is essentially not available to people even if they have access to the cloud infrastructure.”

The challenge is how the industry and government can work together to balance the privacy of personal data with public safety. Hauger says that Microsoft provides a broad continuum of choices for customers in how they wish to use the cloud. Unlike other cloud providers, Microsoft, Hauger says, is uniquely positioned to offer seamless integration between on-premise datacentres and its cloud. “You can put some data on-premise; but you may want to to take advantage of the innovation in the cloud.”

Attack surface

The Microsoft Azure status site reveals the extent of outages at Microsoft, and in recent months there have been a few high-profile instances. Significantly, on 3 December 2015, Azure Active Directory was offline. The company said then: “Customers began experiencing intermittent issues accessing Azure services that use, or have dependencies on Azure Active Directory.” As more businesses adopt Azure and, in particular, take advantage of Azure Active Directory for single sign-on, any downtime can have a devastating effect.

Hauger says: “There will be outages. But we have continually been able to minimise the number of downtimes we have, and we exceed the SLAs [service-level agreements] we have with customers.” He argues that there are ways to build cloud services that are resilient even if one region goes offline. Alternatively, Hauger recommends that CIOs encourage their teams to engineer their on-premise environment to support continuous access, ensuring a robust, reliable environment in the event of a failure in the cloud service.

Hauger believes that whenever there is an incident Microsoft needs to remain transparent. “The CIO wants to know that if there is downtime we are transparent. We let customers know what is happening.” Through the Microsoft Premier programme and public alerts, the company can notify customers about how the situation is being managed. This is an important consideration in any disaster recovery and business continuity plan: the CIO is able to relay the latest information from Microsoft back to the executive team.

Cloud maturity

In 2002 Microsoft launched the Trustworthy Computing initiative to change the way it developed software given that its system software was seen as becoming an easy target for hackers. This later evolved into Microsoft Secure by Design to drive best practice across the Windows developer community.

Hauger recognises the need to raise the bar for developing cloud-native applications. He says: “We are definitely seeing a maturing of the approach to build cloud applications, but it is not happening fast enough.” This is an important step if public clouds are to become the main way IT is delivered in the future.

In the past, applications were engineered as a single instance, running well until something went wrong, such as a network slowdown. Cloud-native applications can make use of multiple services, each of which could fail or become temporarily unavailable. Hauger says: “We need to make sure there are developers who understand how to architect the application in a way that if there is a disruption it is not affected.”

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