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The “cloud” has become an inseparable part of daily life for both individuals and organizations. Businesses, non-profits, and other organizations all leverage cloud computing services on a daily basis to save time, money, and hassle that would otherwise be spent on managing an “on-premises” computing solution.
While the cloud helps a lot of companies improve their access to critical software apps, computing platforms, and services, it has also introduced new challenges in maintaining strong cybersecurity.
What is Cloud Computing?
Cloud computing is a term that covers a wide range of technology resources that are delivered “as a service” via an internet connection. This includes software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), among other services.
What do each of these services mean?
- SaaS Cloud Computing. This is the delivery of applications from a third party via a web-based interface. Here, the end user only interacts with the specific application provided by the third party—the cloud service provider (CSP) is responsible for everything else.
- PaaS Cloud Computing. PaaS services put more control and responsibility into the hands of end users, providing a predefined operating environment where the user can develop, test, and run their own applications. In other words, they provide a platform where the user can create and run cloud-based applications.
- IaaS Cloud Computing. This is the cloud computing service that provides the most freedom (and responsibility) to the user. Here, the CSP is providing what amounts to a remote data center with minimal configuration—users have to manage most aspects of the computing environment, such as operating systems and security. This is the closest experience to managing an on-premises data center that cloud computing can provide—albeit with the ability to freely scale resource allocation up or down depending on the user’s needs each month.
Any one of these services can help companies access computing resources and applications without having to commit to major upfront capital expenses for system hardware and maintenance. However, they each provide a different level of service, control, and responsibility.
Is Cloud Computing Secure?
One of the big questions that people have about the cloud is whether it’s secure. Security issues in cloud computing is a major source of worry for many organizations that are considering using cloud-based apps and infrastructure.
The answer is: It’s complicated.
Individual cloud computing solutions can be incredibly secure, using all of the latest protections. In fact, cloud service providers are often able to pour more resources into securing their data centers than other organizations can, since providing access to the infrastructure and apps in the data center is their primary business model.
However, cloud computing service users are often responsible for a major portion of their cloud security. Failing to properly address cloud computing security risks and issues can lead to an otherwise preventable data breach. And, according to information cited by McAfee, “Through 2023, at least 99 percent of cloud security failures will be the customer’s fault.”
In other words, cloud security can be highly variable, depending on how well the end user addresses cloud computing security issues and risks. In this, it’s not that much different from using on-premises data centers—aside from the fact that the cloud data center is located offsite.
What is Cloud Security?
Cloud security is a catch-all term for the security practices, controls, and technologies that are used to protect cloud computing environments. These controls can be classified into three distinct categories:
- Preventative Controls. These cloud security controls seek to minimize exposure and close potential security gaps in the cloud infrastructure. This can include things like firewalls, encryption solutions, and safe application use policies.
- Detection Controls. These controls work to detect attacks in progress or recently completed attacks so that automated or manual remediation can begin. Things like security information and event management (SIEM) solutions (which are frequently delivered via SaaS models), anti-virus/anti-malware scanning tools, and even managed network security monitoring could be considered examples of detection controls.
- Corrective Controls. These controls are designed to remediate the damage or negative effects of an attack after it happens. Things such as remote data backups (to restore corrupted or damaged files), virus/malware removal tools, and managed security incident response services could all serve as examples of corrective controls.
Why is Cloud Security Important?
So, why is cloud security important? It’s important for the same reason that your company’s internal network security is important: Because your reputation, organizational integrity, and ability to operate successfully are all at stake.
However, many people tend to underestimate the importance of cloud computing security. In large part, this is because they assume that the CSP is responsible for cybersecurity in the cloud. Unfortunately, this isn’t usually the case. Most of the time, it’s the user of a cloud computing solution that is responsible for any data breaches that occur.
Why are users responsible for data security in cloud computing? Because, even with the best security controls in place for preventing, detecting, and remediating breaches, if the end user doesn’t configure their cloud security strategy (or worse, actively circumvents the CSP’s security tools), there isn’t much the CSP can do to stop a breach.
While some cloud services place a bigger burden on end users to practice strong cloud security than others, it’s always a concern.
7 Common Cloud Security Issues and Challenges
So, what are some of the biggest cloud security issues and challenges that you might have to deal with? Here’s a shortened list of some commonly-cited concerns:
- Potential Loss or Theft of Intellectual Property. IP theft is a major concern for many companies. According to data from WIPO, there were over 3.3 million patent applications filed in 2018 alone. These IPs represent competitive advantages for the businesses holding them, so their loss or theft can have a tangible impact on market share as copycats recreate products and processes for cheaper since they don’t have to cover development costs.
- Regulatory Compliance Violations. Many organizations have to follow strict compliance guidelines within their industry. However, a cloud computing service may not necessarily meet the strict regulatory compliance standards an organization has to follow. This can lead to compliance violations if the cloud computing security issues related to the compliance standard aren’t addressed.
- Reduced Visibility of the Cloud Environment. One of the key issues that companies have with a cloud computing solution is that some CSPs do not provide visibility into the cloud environment. This is most frequently an issue with SaaS solutions—PaaS and IaaS solutions tend to provide more visibility because the user is expected to do their own configuration and management for the cloud environment.
- Reduced Control of Cloud Environment Settings. Alongside reduced visibility, many cloud computing service users experience lessened control over their computing environments when working on the cloud. Once again, this is most common with SaaS-type cloud solutions that deliver a fixed application. IaaS and PaaS solutions tend to provide much more control.
- Lateral Attack Spread. If a cloud computing environment doesn’t have strong defense-in-depth controls, it can be easy for an attacker to spread from one workload on the cloud to the next. This can lead to multiple databases or apps on the cloud becoming compromised quickly during a breach.
- Increased Complexity of Security. Companies that work with multiple cloud service providers often complain of having to deal with several different complicated cloud security processes. For example, some SaaS solutions might require multi-factor authentication using SMS text messages, while others might have different authentication methods. This increases process complexity and makes it more difficult for end users to leverage different cloud solutions in their day-to-day workflows.
- Notifying Affected Parties after a Breach. Another consequence of having decreased visibility into a cloud computing environment is that it becomes harder to identify the parties affected by a breach. Without detailed records of which databases and apps were affected, it’s harder to know whose data was compromised. This makes meeting data breach notification requirements significantly more difficult.
Overcoming Common Cloud Security Challenges and Issues
So, how can you overcome some of the cloud computing security issues listed above? While there is always some risk to any IT environment, there are some things that can be done to minimize, if not eliminate, many of the issues outlined above.
1: Limit Your Cloud Computing Vendors
One of the major challenges in dealing with cloud-based solutions is that they can all have different security tools and processes—which makes them more difficult to manage. Here, finding ways to limit your selection of CSP vendors can be a major help.
When possible, consider sourcing as many cloud solutions from a single vendor as you can. This is often easier said than done, however.
2: Verify Your Access to Information about the Cloud Environment
Because visibility is so important to cybersecurity, it’s important to verify what information about the cloud environment you will have access to—preferably before signing an agreement. With greater visibility into the cloud environment, you can more easily track and control security.
3: Verify Security SLAs
Another thing to check before signing an agreement with a cloud service provider is what their service level agreements are regarding security. How quickly will they resolve a security breach after detection? How long will it take to restore normal service? Who is responsible for notifying affected parties?
Verifying these SLAs prior to signing an agreement can help ensure that they:
- Meet your industry’s cybersecurity standards;
- Will protect your business from untenably long service disruptions; and
- Establish who is responsible for what following a data breach.
4: Check for Specific Security Measures
How will the CSP ensure that attackers don’t infiltrate your cloud environment? How will they limit the spread of attacks from one node on their network to another? Checking what security measures a cloud service provider has to offer is crucial for establishing:
- How prepared they are to protect your information;
- Their ability to meet compliance standards; and
- How easy or difficult it will be to incorporate the solution into your existing cybersecurity architecture.
Note that not all cloud solutions will provide built-in security for the cloud computing environment. PaaS and IaaS solutions, in particular, will likely leave it up to their customers to incorporate the appropriate security systems to protect the cloud environment.
5: Consult with a Cybersecurity Expert
When in doubt: Get help.
If you are ever unsure of whether a cloud solution has the right security measures to protect your organization’s data, employees, and clients, consult with a cybersecurity expert. Having a bit of expert advice can help you make a more informed decision that will help you protect your organization better in the long term.
How to Choose the Right Cloud Security Technologies
Say you need to provide your own cloud computing security technologies and tools because you’re using a PaaS or IaaS solution. How do you choose the right tools for your needs?
In a lot of ways, choosing cybersecurity solutions for a cloud-based application or computing environment is similar to choosing security solutions for your own network. Some basic pointers to keep in mind include:
- Assess Your Biggest Risks and Vulnerabilities. Before choosing a security solution for your cloud computing environment, it’s important to know what your biggest risks and vulnerabilities are. This way, you can choose solutions that affect the things that are most likely to affect you and cause harm. This may involve running several kinds of cybersecurity assessments and audits, such as asset audits, risk assessments, and vulnerability assessments.
- Consider Your Regulatory Requirements. What industry regulations do you have to comply with? Will a given cybersecurity solution help you meet that compliance standard? If not, will it provide a significant boost to security that will be worth the expense? These are questions that need to be asked of any security tool or process before including it.
- Double Check Your Existing Security Tools. Can one of your existing cybersecurity solutions be adapted to work as a cloud computing security tool? If so, how well will it perform and how easily can it be adapted? Being able to adapt existing solutions to new cloud services can help make the transition easier for your people.
- Consider User Experience. How will introducing a security solution impact your processes? User-friendliness is an easily-missed aspect of security, but it’s incredibly important. Security solutions that are too difficult to use may end up getting circumvented by end users—compromising your cloud security. Even without people actively working around security measures, cumbersome security protocols can bog down processes so that time and labor get wasted.
Have more questions about cybersecurity? Check out our Cybersecurity Basics guide at the link below: