Organisations look for secure ways to streamline their operations and store their data, mitigating the risk of data loss or theft. And, as the Covid-19 pandemic develops and more companies move to remote working, there is an increasing need for employees to have access to company files off-site. Cloud computing presents a viable solution to these issues.
Cloud computing is a service that moves data stored in traditional data centres into secure ‘cloud’ servers hosted over the internet. This data can then be accessed globally by the company’s employees.
This can improve the speed of resource sharing and connect companies across the globe without the need for the physical transfer of sensitive data. By removing the need for physical storage, cloud-based services protect against data loss due to natural disasters or human error in transferring files. Cloud services have numerous security risks, so organisations must make an informed decision before moving to cloud computing.
How Secure are Cloud Service Providers?
There is a growing need for cloud computing that can protect against increasingly sophisticated security threats. This is a challenge that cloud service providers have to adapt to. The latest security certificates, in particular ISO 27001 and Cyber Essentials Plus, are crucial for reassuring users that their data is protected. Governments and regulatory bodies place many legal requirements on organisations that store data, including the need for data protection officers and third-party audits of compliance.
Failure to fulfil these obligations can result in material consequences for a company, such as significant fines or loss of business. Vendors, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, undergo regular data security reviews and upgrades to identify weak points in their systems and ensure their service is well-protected.
Top Security Risks of Cloud Computing Services
Migrating sensitive information into the cloud carries unique risks. Incorrectly securing data leaves it vulnerable to theft. There are several issues that a cloud provider must protect against:
Limited visibility into network operations
When companies move data into cloud storage, they sacrifice some visibility and control over what happens to that data. Unlike in-house data centres or server rooms, third-party vendors manage external servers that companies use. There is a shared responsibility that the data remain secure. However, as the company is not in charge of the servers or the network, they may not be aware of any breaches until the vendor informs them. Risk management must be an ongoing part of security policy for organisations that store data in the cloud.
Malware and cyber attacks
Companies use cloud service providers to store all of their data, which can include sensitive information on employees and customers, as well as the intellectual property of the company. If the vendor does not have sufficiently advanced security, this data is vulnerable to attacks. Distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks can overwhelm the network of a cloud service, causing outages that can compromise an organisation’s ability to function. Malware attacks can penetrate poorly configured vendors’ firewalls, leading to the theft or ransom of sensitive data.
Cyber attacks are an ever-present threat to cloud storage security, but data can be lost in other ways. A hardware breakdown can lead to data loss, and human error can also cause problems. If a company stores its backups in the cloud with the same vendor, a single case of accidental deletion or corruption can render all stored data inaccessible.
Cloud systems are typically used across an entire company. This means that cloud infrastructure that is improperly configured can lead to unauthorised access to sensitive information. There are growing concerns over data privacy and the need to protect Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and other regulated data. Organisations that store data in cloud services must ensure that their providers are compliant with data protection laws, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act (DPA).
Companies should always be aware of their security risk management and stay informed on data protection laws. Any breach of these regulations can result in heavy fines and loss of business.
If malware or ransomware attacks cause the theft of customer data, those customers will hold the company responsible, regardless of where their data was stored. Companies that store their data in traditional in-house Server Rooms retain complete control over their security. Transferring this control to third parties risks losing customer trust should the cloud service security fail. This damages a company’s reputation as customers lose faith and take their business elsewhere.
Types of Cloud Service
Third-party vendors typically provide cloud services. Like a utility company, they charge based on a subscription model, so companies only pay for what storage or bandwidth they use. The vendor also manages cloud security. This makes cloud computing an attractive proposition for many companies. There are three primary types of public cloud service models offered by vendors:
SaaS (Software as a Service)
This delivers software to the user, usually as a web application or mobile app. The cloud service provider manages these, and users access these applications through a web browser. SaaS eliminates the need for locally installed apps, allowing for greater ease of access for employees.
Cloud security concerns for SaaS
- As these services become increasingly popular, smaller or less well-equipped vendors may not be able to keep up with developing technology. This can be a security risk, as the software may not be adequately protected. When considering cloud adoption, ensuring that the service is up-to-date is critical.
- As the software is managed externally, companies have no control over how their applications look and perform. Cloud security can be compromised if the software interferes with the company’s systems. Customisation of the software can be limited, so companies must be aware of the security risks.
- SaaS providers should have robust cybersecurity risk management in place, but the company using the service must also train employees on using the system correctly. Misuse of the system can leave it vulnerable to malware or phishing attacks.
IaaS (Infrastructure as a Service)
The servers, network and data storage are managed externally by vendors, and users gain access through a dashboard. The cloud service provider rents this infrastructure as an on-demand service, so companies only pay for what storage and network bandwidth they use.
Cloud security concerns for IaaS
- As the cloud infrastructure is entirely managed externally, a common issue with IaaS is misconfiguration, which can compromise data integrity through exposure to unauthorised users.
- As the service provider controls the servers, it can be difficult for companies to stop these unauthorised users from exfiltrating data out of the system. The company, not the IaaS provider, is liable for any theft of potentially personal data.
- It is cheaper and more efficient for vendors to transfer all data from on-site to the cloud at once, ensuring minimal disruption to business operations. However, this can result in a lack of integration between on-site systems and the cloud, potentially causing vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
PaaS (Platform as a Service)
This service is mainly used by developers and programmers, removing their need for hardware and software by allowing it to be managed by a third party. The vendors provide development platforms for companies to build applications, either as mobile or web-based applications.
Cloud security concerns for PaaS
- As the vendor maintains everything, the end-user has no control over the security settings. Therefore, companies should enquire about a provider’s security credentials and follow secure coding practices.
- If security settings are compromised, a data breach could affect a large number of applications, as opposed to a single application on an IaaS or SaaS platform.
Measures to Mitigate Cloud Computing Security Risks
Backing up data is crucial for companies to maintain business continuity in the event of their cloud service failing. Frequent backups of all information are the best defence against technical issues and ransomware attacks. Moving data from physical storage into the cloud without this failsafe is dangerous. Ideally, data should be backed up in multiple locations to ensure that it is not lost in the event of a fire or cyber attack.
Review Cloud Configurations
To have the best cloud service experience, companies should regularly review the configuration of their service. Vendor lock-in is a risk for those companies that only use a single service, making it difficult to transfer data to a different vendor. Diversifying data storage across several sites or vendors can help mitigate this, preventing loss of information or services should one site be attacked. However, misconfigured cloud services can affect data security, so it is essential to monitor these settings regularly.
Cyber attacks are one of the most significant security risks when storing data in the cloud. Penetration testing is a way of determining weaknesses in web applications before they are attacked. By simulating a cyber attack, businesses can catch flaws before they are exploited to cause damage.
Ensuring that only legitimate users have access to a company’s cloud service is crucial for ensuring cloud computing security. Access controls in two-step authentication prevent unauthorised access to the cloud. Combining a password with a second component, such as a one-time code, keeps data secure without compromising the end-user experience.
Companies need to have protocols in place to prevent accidental data deletion. Proper training should be provided for employees on using the cloud, reducing the risk of unintentional damage to the system. Network-based monitoring to track what information is available to employees can help mitigate insider threats, and user permissions should be regularly reviewed.
Differing from a public cloud computing environment, where multiple customers share the infrastructure, a private cloud is dedicated to a single customer. This means that all hardware and software is only accessible to that company.
By having complete control over the cloud infrastructure, a company can ensure the protection of their confidential data and reduce the risk of a data breach. The security risks of cloud computing are mitigated as the company manages the security controls.
Cloud computing has many benefits, allowing companies to streamline their operations and offset many physical secure data storage costs. The security threats associated with storing data in the cloud are an essential consideration, as data breaches are ever-present. The theft or loss of information can have far-reaching consequences for a company.
However, the security risks of cloud computing can be mitigated by taking the correct precautions. Securing sensitive data with multiple backups and ensuring the regulatory compliance of cloud service vendors are two essential steps. Maintaining cloud security through penetration testing and employee training can also help to reduce the risk of a data breach.
By understanding the security risks of cloud computing and implementing the appropriate security measures, companies can safely store their data in the cloud and reap the many benefits of this transformative technology.
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