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Security threats in cloud computing and preventive methods

Updated on May 16, 2016

Background

Annual Reports, market presentations of almost all technology, IT service provider make it very evident that ‘Cloud Computing’ is a favoured buzz-word in technology market.

However, technology is a fascinating thing. While on one hand it tries to promise us unparalleled, unheard of advantages; on other hand, there is always a lurking danger on the loopholes that it might bring with it that can be leveraged to compromise with security.

Introduction

Cloud computing refers to the outsourcing of data centres services and application hosting services to a remote provider on pay-as-you-go contract basis. This ‘metered-pricing’ based approach lowers capital investments and reduces complications, simultaneously allows the businesses to consume and grab additional services whenever required on-demand.

Cloud-based hosting model allows enterprises to lower their costs through effective implementation of their IT backbone services by helping them tackle the shortage of resources, funds, man power and technology, and allows them to focus on core business. Organizations like NASA, Netflix, and Slack use cloud services and have realized significant benefits.

However, any slack in ensuring appropriate security protection when using cloud services could eventually result in higher operational costs along with possible potential loss of business value, thus wiping out any of the potential benefits of cloud computing.

Challenged and Preventions

There are several threats that this industry is trying to tackle and create a safety perimeter around. However, the major of them are-

  1. Data Security challenge
  2. Global Trust Issues
  3. User Authentication
  4. Contingency planning
  5. Insecure interfaces and APIs
  6. Account Hijacking and Phishing

(Cloud security alliance, 2016)

1.1 Data Security-

Challenge-

Data Breach is a terrifying yet a very common phenomenon. Big brands like Target, Neiman Marcus, Home Depot, and JP Morgan Chase all have earlier announced that their data had been compromised at some point of time. Toward the end of 2014, a report by Ponemon Institute claimed that around 43% of organizations had a traumatic experience of a data breach within the past year, which was 10% more compared to the year before. (Forest, 2015). A data breach generally involves any kind of sensitive or routine information that was not intended for public release including personal health records, financial details, personally identifiable information (PII), organization trade secrets and intellectual properties.

Cloud providers are exceptionally accessible over the internet and the enormous amount of data they contain make them a gold mine for an attacker to target. The threat is further enhanced due to the increased number of parties, devices and bunch of applications involved, which leads to an increase in the possible points of access that attackers can use. (Gao, 2014)

Prevention-

There are numerous ways to tackle this challenge -

  • Lists should be created for Access control so that all the data objects have defined permissions attached to them
  • Encryption should be done at storage level to protect in case unauthorized access happen at the data center (malicious internal IT staff)
  • Protect data during transmission by doing transport level encryption
  • Firewalls should include web application firewalls for protecting against outside attacks that are frequently launched against the data center
  • Servers hardening to protect against vulnerabilities in the software and at operating system level
  • Physical security for protecting against unauthorized physical access to data

(Applicure, 2016)

1.2 Global Trust Issues-

Challenge

NSA leaks/revelations have seriously impacted global trust levels. An increasing number of enterprises (and respective governments) are reluctant to put their data in the hands of U.S.-based cloud service providers. This apprehension can be seen at the policy level; for example, many data-and-privacy-focused countries, such as Germany, Japan and Australia have stiffened up their data placement requirements even further. (Radford, C.J, 2015)

There are several US federal laws like HIPAA, Dodd-Frank, GLBA, SOX that impact or govern data storage on cloud. (Wheeler & Winburn, 2015)

Prevention-

This is a more of a regulatory challenge rather than a technology oriented. To assuage fears of various governments and corporations, cloud service providers are opening new various countries. Example- Amazon’s AWS has opened data center in Germany to ensure compliance with both EU and German privacy laws. (Amazon aws, 2016)

1.3 User Authentication-

Challenge

Content resting in the cloud needs to be accessible only by those authorized to do so. This makes it critical to restrict and monitor whoever is accessing the company's data through the cloud. In order to ensure the reliability of user authentication, organizations need to be able to view data access logs and audit trails to verify that nobody except only administer-authorized users are able to access the precious data. These access logs and audit trails additionally need to be protected and held for as long as the company can make sure that they are not needed for any legal or validation purposes. (Webopedia, 2011)

Prevention-

There are variety of ways to enhance security features, such as mail and cell-phone number verification and multi-factor authentication among others. In addition, there should be a robust app-specific logic to user registration for fraud detection and user validation.

1.4 Contingency Planning-

Challenge

One should always hope that contingencies doesn’t occur but should always design systems considering the worst of the possible scenarios. With the cloud serving as a single centralized data source/ repository for an organization's critical data, the danger of that data getting out of the safety net and getting compromised due to a data breach or being made temporarily unavailable due to a natural disaster/calamity are real concerns. Companies need to know how their data is being protected and what measures the cloud service provider will take to ensure the availability and integrity of that data should the unexpected occur. Moreover, companies should also have contingency plans in place in the event their cloud provider fails or goes bankrupt. In scenarios like bankruptcy, acquisition of a cloud service provider, the data should not be compromised.

Prevention-

Several prominent cloud service providers always design fail-safe systems and keep multiple copies of customer data at secure and separated locations so that natural calamities don’t hit all the data centers at once. Organization should also negotiate the terms prior to giving commitment to go cloud so as to ensure the data can be moved to a new service provider in case cloud service provider gets bankrupt or acquired. There should be a proper due-diligence done on CSP. (Insidecounsel, 2013)

1.5 Insecure interfaces and APIs-

Challenge

Practically every cloud service and application are now offeing APIs. IT teams use these interfaces and APIs to enable interaction with cloud services, including those that offer cloud enablement, management, and monitoring.

The security and availability of cloud services at each stage from authentication to access control to encryption and activity monitoring depends a lot on the security of the APIs provided. Risk increases many-fold with third parties that solely rely on APIs and build on these provided interfaces, as companies may be needed to share more services and credentials. Weak interfaces and APIs expose companies to several security issues related to data confidentiality, data- integrity & data-availability as well as accountability. (Fahmida, 2016)

Prevention-

Threat-modelling applications and systems, including data flows and architecture/design, should be focused more during development lifecycle itself to save valuable time and efforts in later phases. It is also recommended that security-focused code reviews and rigorous penetration testing are done. The developer needs to understand the limitations and understand the best practices around implementing API keys. (Information week, 2012)

1.6 Account Hijacking and Phishing-

Challenge

Account and service hijacking, usually with mischievously stolen credentials and user information is a top threat. With stolen credentials, it is a cake-walk for attackers to access critical areas of cloud computing services, compromising the integrity, confidentiality and availability of those services. Account or service hijacking is not new. Attack methods such as fraud, phishing and exploitation of vulnerabilities in software still achieve wonderful results for attackers. If an attacker somehow gains access to the credentials, they can spy on your activities and transactions, manipulate data & reports, return falsified information and even redirect your clients to illegal sites bringing down the brand value.

Prevention-

Organizations should ensure to prohibit the habits of sharing of account information and credentials among users and services and should leverage strong two-factor authentication and validation techniques wherever possible. All account activities should be monitored and traceable to a responsible owner.

Conclusions

In this interconnected digitalised world, Cloud security is comparable to a bank security- Like a bank, a cloud provider has the resources to put security measures in place for protection that cannot be achieved easily specially on the corporate network. Like when we store valuables in a bank, the data owner should not shy away from their responsibilities and check out the robustness of the protection measures, for all possible security threats. (Applicure, 2016)

While almost all CSPs have security experts to alleviate customer concerns, ultimate responsibility lies on cloud users and before they make a final decision to move to cloud, all the contingencies, liabilities and their effects should be understood.

References (You might want to read here for more)

  • Cloud security alliance. (2016). Cloudsecurityallianceorg. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from https://downloads.cloudsecurityalliance.org/assets/research/top-threats/Treacherous-12_Cloud-Computing_Top-Threats.pdf
  • Forest, C.O.N.N.E.R. (2015). TechRepublic. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.techrepublic.com/article/cloud-security-10-things-you-need-to-know/
  • Gao, G.U.O.C.U.I. (2014). Investigating Security Issues in Cloud Computing. Introduction to computer security,
  • Radford CJ. (2015). Top 5 Cloud Security Challenges Facing the Cloud Adopting Enterprise. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://blog.vormetric.com/2015/04/20/top-5-cloud-security-challenges-facing-the-cloud-adopting-enterprise/
  • Wheeler, A.A.R.O.N. & Winburn, M.I.C.H.A.E.L. . (2015). Cloud Storage Security: A Practical Guide. Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
  • Amazon aws. (2016). Amazon Web Services, Inc. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from https://aws.amazon.com/compliance/eu-data-protection/
  • Webopedia. (2011). Webopediacom. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.webopedia.com/DidYouKnow/Hardware_Software/cloud_computing_security_challenges.html
  • Insidecounsel. (2013). Insidecounselcom. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.insidecounsel.com/2013/12/06/technology-a-lack-of-due-diligence-still-a-top-thr?slreturn=1463082570
    • Fahmida, Y. (2016). InfoWorld. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.infoworld.com/article/3041078/security/the-dirty-dozen-12-cloud-security-threats.html
  • Information week. (2012). Information Week-Dark Reading. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.darkreading.com/cloud/insecure-api-implementations-threaten-cloud/d/d-id/1137550
  • Applicure. (2016). Applicurecom. Retrieved 12 May, 2016, from http://www.applicure.com/blog/securing-cloud-data

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