Cloud Security: How Safe Is the Cloud Anyway?
What Is the Cloud?
Before we get started, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what we mean when we say, “the cloud.” If you haven’t already read our guide—What Is the Cloud? —be sure not to miss it.
One of the most important and misunderstood concepts of the cloud is that it is not a physical object. In reality, it's a collection of servers, each performing different functions to provide a service to its end user.
For example, when you upload a photo to Facebook, you’re uploading to the cloud. They are storing your photos on a cloud-based server.
Microsoft Office is no longer something you go to the store and buy in a box. Why? Because they’ve moved the service to the cloud. Each time you open up an app/program like Microsoft Word, you’re connecting to their cloud server to perform your tasks and store the associated information back within their server.
Essentially, the cloud has delivered game-changing innovations to formerly tangible iterations of both hardware and software in an effort to eliminate the associated bulk, cost, and complexity. Let’s take a look at some of the additional benefits, then we’ll get into uncovering how the cloud deals with security threats.
Why Use the Cloud? 6 Benefits of Cloud Systems
Cloud users are able to create custom applications to suit their specific business needs, then scale to accommodate growth, and provide access to their teams around the world.
Cloud systems require far less financial commitment and far less time to implement and maintain when compared to traditional/legacy systems.
3. Automated, Regular Updating
Providers of cloud services are continually improving and updating their product, freeing up your internal IT resources to handle more specific issues within your organization.
4. Edge Over the Competition
When your IT resources aren’t devoted to maintaining your infrastructure, that freed-up time allows them to implement more effective and efficient systems, which then allows you to establish a competitive edge by concentrating on your core competencies.
5. Global Collaboration
With cloud-based systems that can be accessed on any device from anywhere, organizations are able to collaborate from every corner of the globe.
6. Security Features
Cloud security opens up new security features to help keep your data more secure than ever.
Now that we’re all on the same page about what the cloud is and why it’s so important, let’s dive deep into how your information is protected in the cloud and how the cloud deals with some of the most common IT threats.
How the Cloud Avoids Data Loss/Damage
One of the main concerns that enterprises have when it comes to transferring their data to the cloud is what systems the cloud provider has in place to avoid loss or damage to their valuable data. All cloud service providers implement the following redundancies to maintain the working order of your data and avoid any loss or damage.
The various forms of backups listed below are all stored offsite in multiple locations. That means that you’ll likely have multiple copies of multiple types of backups in more than one place in order to make sure your organization is never at risk for data loss or damage.
A backup is likely a process you’re already familiar with. A backup is a data protection copy of your official working data (production copy). This data is what is used to completely restore an application or other enterprise system correctly in the event of a crash or error. These backups should be done regularly to ensure that they contain the most up-to-date information possible.
Disaster recovery is something that an enterprise should hope to never need, but must maintain. In the event of a disaster, a backup of the entire IT infrastructure is available for recovery. It’s typically kept at a separate site than standard backups.
Now that we’ve covered how cloud providers address data loss or damage, let’s look at some of the most common external threats and how the cloud protects against them.
6 Common Threats & How the Cloud Handles Security
1. Data Breaches
Whether your network is traditional or cloud-based, you’ll face similar data breach threats. The severity of those threats is typically based on the nature of the data a breach gives access to.
For example, financial, health, and various intellectual information can present devastating repercussions for your organization. Some of these include fines and/or lawsuits, but much of the time these pale in comparison to the potential loss in customer trust, which may impact your business for years to come.
The important thing is to continually work to avoid them. With a traditional network, your organization is responsible for its own security protocols, which will need to be updated regularly.
One of the security benefits a cloud system brings is the fact that cloud providers typically implement highly sophisticated security measures for their users. This means that, rather than having to implement multi-factor authentications and encryption protocols yourself, the work is done for you, and it is maintained automatically and updated regularly.
2. Internal Threats
Internal threats can be the most difficult threats for enterprises to protect against, both in traditional and cloud-based systems. Disgruntled employees, for example, pose a wide variety of threats based on their security clearances and the types of information they have access to.
However, these threats can be reduced by taking proactive steps to minimize access of the majority of the systems users. It’s easy to give every member of your organization the access they need, without opening them up to more sensitive information or areas that could be damaged and/or tampered with.
This means implementing a system of logging in, monitoring, and auditing administrator activities regularly to avoid leaving gaps for malicious activities to take place. With simple systems like this, the opportunity for internal threats can be dramatically reduced.
With cloud-based systems, the process can be automated. Rather than needing to create a new system for your IT team to implement, your cloud provider can work with you to review administrator activities and report on anything suspicious.
Enhance your security further by requiring that members of your organization who have access to privileged information be under closer scrutiny. Also, insist that they participate in regular education to help them understand secure data handling and access control.
3. Compromised Authentication Credentials
Enterprises often have trouble allocating the exact permissions required for each user/employee as they are needed. For example, if upgraded permissions are needed for a project, they are often left in place even after the project is completed or when the user leaves the organization for whatever reason.
A common mistake, made by even seasoned developers, is to embed authentication credentials or cryptographic keys into source code which is then stored in a public repository.
However, the steps necessary to avoid these issues are fairly straightforward and mainly consist of regularly rotating or updating credentials/keys. With cloud systems, this process can, once again, be automated to further reduce the opportunity for unauthorized access.
To keep things even more secure, change the access each team member receives in the cloud depending on where they are and the device they’re using. For example, desktop logins at headquarters would allow full access, while a mobile login from a coffee shop would require additional security measures and limit access.
4. System Vulnerabilities
Multi-tenancy in cloud computing has opened systems up to new vulnerabilities. As organizations share everything from memory to databases, they create new attack surfaces for “bugs.”
Fortunately, all that is necessary to mitigate these threats is implementing effective IT protocols. Regular maintenance that includes scanning for vulnerability, prompt patching, and rapid reviews for reported system threats is all that most organizations need to avoid these system vulnerabilities.
While this may sound like an IT resource-intensive process, it’s really not. The time and cost of addressing these issues is minimal compared to various other IT expenditures. That said, the cost of operating without these protocols in place could be monumental.
The Cloud Security Alliance recommends that regulated industries patch as part of a recurring automated process. They also recommend that you regularly update the processes that address emergency patching, document them, and educate your IT team on them regularly. With these protocols in place, system vulnerabilities virtually become a non-issue.
Additionally, you should identify which databases house your most valuable/sensitive information and work with your cloud provider to implement additional encryption and monitoring around them.
5. Hacked Interfaces and APIs
Nearly all cloud service platforms now offer their own APIs, which are used by IT teams to manage an organization's interactions with the platform. These APIs typically represent the most exposed part of any cloud system due to the fact that they can be accessed from the internet.
However, these issues can be mitigated with the appropriate proactive measures, such as threat modeling of your systems and applications like data flows and your unique architecture/design.
Additionally, regular reviews of your code for security issues and penetration testing should be done in any system, traditional or cloud-based. By incorporating these actions into your development cycle, you can stay a step ahead of potential problems.
6. Permanent Data Loss
Both traditional and cloud-based systems present opportunities for permanent data loss. Internal systems are subject to technology failure and natural disasters. While they’ve become increasingly rare, cloud-based systems have been subject to malicious attacks by hackers looking to harm an organization. In any case, it’s still a common point of worry and uncertainty for many potential cloud service users.
As mentioned in the previous section, by simply distributing your data and backups across a variety of locations, cloud systems avoid risking any permanent loss. That’s not to say that enterprises can do away with traditional best practices around disaster recovery and continuity. However, once again, cloud systems allow processes like daily backup and off-site storage to be automated, reducing the risk for such issues even further.
As the cloud has matured, the question of its security has been raised less and less. Yes, there are highly publicized and extremely isolated incidents where cloud systems have become vulnerable to the threats listed above.
However, the truth remains that a cloud provider can deliver a higher level of security than the vast majority of traditional systems in operation today, all the while drastically reducing an organization’s resource investment.
Should you choose to implement a cloud system in your organization, remember that controlling access to your data is much more important than the location of your data. Most data breaches occur due to discovered vulnerabilities, both in traditional and cloud-based systems.
The cloud is as safe as you keep it, so use what you’ve learned in this guide to empower your IT team and the rest of your organization. The more proactive you are about security, the less room there is for error to occur.