Google has announced that its Google Apps for Business has earned the international security standard ISO 27001 certification following a nine-month auditing process.

The ISO standard was certified by auditors Ernst & Young CertifyPoint, and covers Google’s data centres, systems, technology and processes serving the enterprise cloud applications.

“This new certification, along with our existing SSAE 16 / ISAE 3402 audits and FISMA certification for Google Apps for Government, help assure our customers that Google is committed to ongoing development and maintenance of a robust Information Security Management System (ISMS) that an independent, third-party auditor will regularly audit and certify,” said Eran Feigenbaum, director of security at Google Enterprise.

According to Adam Swidler, senior manager for security at Google Apps, the achievement of the standard was especially important for the company’s activities in Europe and Asia Pacific, where he believes ISO 27001 is seen more as a neutral validation of security.

He added that he expects more highly regulated sectors, such as financial services, to be “more receptive” to Google Apps.

Meanwhile, the wider scope of the audit differentiated Google from other service providers, Swidler said.

"Our data centres, networking infrastructure and applications were reviewed by an auditor. We believe the scope is a bit broader. Others only have got [the standard] for their data centres," he said.

Not necessarily a ‘seal of security approval’

However, security consultant Alec Muffett warned that while it was good to see ISO 27001 stamped on a vendor’s product and business processes, it did not guarantee the applications were 100 percent secure.

"[The standard] is emphatically not a 'seal of security approval' – not at all," he said.

This is because the standard allows a vendor to decide what security threats and risks they want to document and what processes they set up to deal with this.

"In sporting metaphor, a vendor, in this case, Google, gets to design their own high-jump bar, document how tall it is and what it is made of, how they intend to jump over it and then they jump over it.

"The certification agency simply attests that they have successfully performed a high-jump over a bar of their own design. The design documents and jump technique do not need to be made public," said Muffett.

He added: "What would be really interesting would be if Google publishes their security requirements, their standards, their policies and risk assessments, so everyone can see what kind of high-jump they have just performed – how high, how hard and landing upon what kind of mat?

"It would be that, which would inform me of how far I would trust Google Docs with sensitive data, most especially with regard to the provisions they must make for ‘lawful access’ to data by government actors."