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CDN: Does Our Need For Internet Speed Put Sensitive Data at Risk?

  • Evan Morris 
Network Architecture
Network Architecture of the Internet and Data Exchange

Technology is making us more impatient than ever before.

Research suggests that, for an average user, it takes 16 seconds of a slow website loading to trigger those primal feelings of frustration and occasional fits of rage. Others barely make it to that number.

Next-day shipping, immediate answers to all questions at the palms of our hands, more content than one can consume in a lifetime, and instant gratification have reshaped our generations to the point of no return.

What is happening behind the scenes of increasingly faster websites and applications?

Businesses use CDN technology to cater to audiences that can’t imagine life before lightning-fast loading time or that have gotten used to life without lag.

What is a CDN, how does it prevent lagging websites, does the convenience come at the cost of users’ personal data, and what are some top practices for securing such networks?

We investigate below.

What is a CDN, Exactly?

CDN: Does Our Need For Internet Speed Put Sensitive Data at Risk?

A content delivery network – or CDN – also referred to as the backbone of the internet, is the technology behind every rapidly loading website and application.

It’s dedicated to removing lag and allowing users to instantly load their chosen content wherever in the world they might be.

How does a CDN function in practice?

A CDN creates shortcuts, reducing the distance the content travels from the website’s hosting server and you. As a result, it allows immediate access to the website even if the original server is on another continent.

If we broke down the anatomy of a CDN, it would consist of:

  • Points of Presence (PoP) — strategically placed data centers that contain cache
  • Caching servers that are placed in various locations all over the globe and store cached files
  • SSD/HDD and RAM inside of caching servers that are used for storage of cache files

Websites that utilize a CDN are well performing and faster because their users don’t have to wait for it to travel from the original host’s geographical area back to you. Instead, it reaches cached versions of content stored in a local PoP.

Buffering Was Never an Option

Primarily, CDNs have been designed to speed up the loading time and remove latency.

For online businesses, this is relevant as they enable remote employees to connect to the network without anything disrupting their workflow. They also allow users to enjoy multiple content platforms and impulsive purchases without interruptions.

Lagging websites affect the sales of eCommerce sites whose customers quickly leave their shopping carts. Additionally, the lag would also impact the performance metrics of blogs whose audience would bounce before reading the article’s hook.

As for video content, patience levels are even lower.

The study suggests that users will not wait for longer than five seconds before they bounce (leave) buffering content and find another video to enjoy.

Can a CDN Compromise Sensitive Data?

Yes. In 2017, it was reported that the CDN provided by Cloudflare featured a bug in the source code that led to the possible leak of users’ sensitive data. Anyone who noticed this mistake could get to the otherwise encrypted personal information.

Those users have been advised to update their passwords.

In 2021, another flaw was discovered — the vulnerability in the CDNJS that put 12% of the sites on the internet at risk. At the time, millions of websites were using Cloudflare services to make their services more efficient.

All vulnerabilities in the code have been fixed since, making the network safe to use.

Regardless, these incidents did raise major cybersecurity concerns as more and more businesses adopt this technology.

What can companies do to secure a CDN and prevent data breaches and leaks?

Best Practices For Securing a CDN

Some precautions you can take with CDNs include:

  • Being careful as to which CDN vendor you choose
  • Deploying WAF on your application
  • Having good cybersecurity hygiene

Nowadays, many CDNs are available for free and offered by different vendors. Not all of them are reputable.

Get to know how they approach security (e.g. ask how often they conduct pen testing and cache information) and what their current measures are that keep data safe.

Web Application Firewall (WAF) monitors and blocks any malicious traffic that might infect your website and consequently put your users’ sensitive data at risk.

Continual management of the security that defends your organization is essential. This includes scanning, monitoring, testing, analyzing the findings, and patching up the possible vulnerabilities.

If such hygiene is conducted regularly, the company is protected from cyberattacks that lead to data leaks, unauthorized user access, or breaches.

Larger companies usually have cyber analysts whose task is to manage security and mitigate advanced threats that have the potential to result in major incidents for the organization.

Keep this in mind as well:

Since CDN vendors already have experience with flaws and errors, they have honed the security and their features since the 1990s — making CDNs safer to use.

Should You Use a CDN?

As technology advances, we can only expect even higher speed and faster connections — meaning users might become even more impatient as they get used to better and more rapid websites.

For companies that enable telecommuting and rely on their online services to reach their global audience, CDNs are invaluable tools that better work and user experience.

However, lag-free services and websites should not come at the cost of compromised user data.

Consider whether CDN services are suitable for your business. For instance, if all of your remote workers and audience (users) are local anyway, you might not benefit from this network as someone with a worldwide audience would.

Suppose you decide that CDNs are a necessity. In that case, you should enforce top security practices to protect the information of your employees and customers as they get the fastest service possible — wherever they might be in the world.