• Jim Finnerty

What Are the Main Security Risks of Cloud Computing?

Around the globe, companies are increasingly turning to the cloud for data storage. In the past five years alone, the cloud computing market has more than doubled. Adoption of cloud-based computing is only expected to continue its steady increase.

So, why is this?

Businesses cite a number of factors to the boom in cloud computing. For example, lower overheads, quicker turnaround times, and an increase in employee productivity.

But there is a potential dark side! One of the biggest concerns in shifting to cloud-based computing is data security. Protecting the confidentiality and integrity of data is of the utmost importance to any successful business. And in the wake of highly publicized data breaches, such as Equifax and Capital One, it’s important to be aware of risks.

Relinquishing Control of the Tech Stack

There is one main concern when considering the risks associated with cloud computing. That concern is preventing unauthorized tampering or viewing of private data.

It was easier to feel secure when the equipment that data was being stored on was physically present. It could literally be observed in order to prevent any malicious manipulation.

The same is not true for data stored in the cloud. Remote data storage is a selling point of the cloud. However, it can also be a drawback when considering security.

For cloud security, safety needs to be ensured along the entire tech stack, rather than one room full of physical machines. All of the tools, frameworks, and programming languages used to create the applications that make up the cloud need to be secured. Patches need to be regularly applied and timely updates are imperative.

That’s the rub:

When you adopt cloud storage, you lose a bit of control. Instead, the vendor assumes control over the physical equipment and embedded software.

Understanding the Stack

To fully understand and prepare for the security risks of cloud computing, it’s vital to understand just what the tech stack is and does.

A well-rounded system is going to provide security at all levels of the stack. But the person responsible for that security is going to vary.

First, at the top of the stack is the user interface. This is where the access management and controls that are up to the data owner lie. These are simple tools—things like password protection—but they provide an important level of control at the company level. It’s important to remember passwords, keep them safe, and only give access on a need-to-know basis.

The top of the stack is also where things like decryption codes are kept. Vendors don’t have access to these things, so they provide a measure of control that stays in the hands of the company.

Next, there’s the data transfer part of the stack. When the data leaves the user interface, where does it flow? What channels does it go through? Most importantly, how is it protected?

Both the data owner and the vendor should be able to answer these questions. Understanding data flow is important for preventing security risks.

Third, there’s the embedded software of the physical equipment. This software manages the data once it’s been transferred. It should be patched and updated frequently, and the data should be encrypted (with the key being held by the data owner.)

Finally, the deepest part of the stack is the actual physical hardware. Protecting data at this level is different than the others, because it involves security for things beyond remote-access security breaches like hacking.

Ensuring Vendor Diligence

Handing over physical access of your data to an outside vendor can be nerve-wracking. After all, how do you prevent insider threats? Anyone could plug in malicious software at the physical location and expose vulnerable information.

How do you ensure no one walks off with a server that holds your sensitive data? You need to trust the vendor with the rack running your data. So, it’s important for that vendor to be trustworthy!

A vendor needs to have internal controls in place, and those controls needs to be reviewed periodically. The way data is protected must be documented and readily available to the client.

There’s an easy way to handle this:

Audits can help with this. In-house audits ensure updates and patches are anticipated and applied in a timely manner. Meanwhile, external audits adds yet another layer of security. A diligent cloud vendor subjects themselves to outside audits that produce System and Organization Controls (SOC) reports. These reports ensure that proper controls and procedures are followed.

The diligence of any data owner over those controls, and the constantly audited management of those controls is key!

Limiting Exposure

When evaluating cloud security risks, first establish what you do have control over. What security steps you can you take to limit the exposure of the outsourced part of the tech stack?

A good place to start is with encryption. Encrypting your data and owning the encryption keys could be the difference between a data breach and an efficient storage method.

Taking it a step further, spreading already encrypted data across multiple, independent parties provides yet another layer of security. This ensures that there is no centralized point of vulnerability. So, even if a malicious actor were to decrypt the data, they’d have only a meaningless fragment of the total data. A major breach would be virtually impossible.

Security failures along the deeper part of the data stack could contaminate or reveal sensitive information. But when that information is in smaller chunks and in various places, the cloud becomes a far safer place.

The Bottom Line

Most companies are willing to take the risk involved with cloud storage because the rewards outweigh the risks. However, data stored in the cloud is vulnerable in a way that physically stored data will never be.

In order to mitigate these vulnerabilities, it’s important to understand the system, stay vigilant on your own end, know your vendor, and demand their diligence!

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How Did the Capital One Breach Happen?

How and Why the Equifax Breach Happened

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