Five critical cloud security challenges and how to overcome them

Today’s organizations desire the accessibility and flexibility of the cloud, yet these benefits ultimately mean little if you’re not operating securely. One misconfigured server and your company may be looking at financial or reputational damage that takes years to overcome.

critical cloud security challenges

Fortunately, there’s no reason why cloud computing can’t be done securely. You need to recognize the most critical cloud security challenges and develop a strategy for minimizing these risks. By doing so, you can get ahead of problems before they start, and help ensure that your security posture is strong enough to keep your core assets safe in any environment.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the five most pressing cloud security challenges faced by modern organizations.

1. The perils of cloud migration

According to Gartner, the shift to cloud computing will generate roughly $1.3 trillion in IT spending by 2022. The vast majority of enterprise workloads are now run on public, private or hybrid cloud environments.

Yet if organizations heedlessly race to migrate without making security a primary consideration, critical assets can be left unprotected and exposed to potential compromise. To ensure that migration does not create unnecessary risks, it’s important to:

  • Migrate in stages, beginning with non-critical or redundant data. Mistakes are often more likely to occur earlier in the process. So, begin moving data that won’t lead to damaging consequences to the enterprise in case it gets corrupted or erased.
  • Fully understand your cloud provider’s security practices. Go beyond “trust by reputation” and really dig into how your data is stored and protected.
  • Maintain operational continuity and data integrity. Once migration occurs, it’s important to ensure that controls are still functioning and there is no disruption to business operations.
  • Manage risk associated with the lack of visibility and control during migration. One effective way to manage risk during transition is to use breach and attack simulation software. These automated solutions launch continuous, simulated attacks to view your environment through the eyes of an adversary by identifying hidden vulnerabilities, misconfigurations and user activity that can be leveraged for malicious gain. This continuous monitoring provides a significant advantage during migration – a time when IT staff are often stretched thin, learning new concepts and operating with less visibility into key assets.

2. The need to master identity and access management (IAM)

Effectively managing and defining the roles, privileges and responsibilities of various network users is a critical objective for maintaining robust security. This means giving the right users the right access to the right assets in the appropriate context.

As workers come and go and roles change, this mandate can be quite a challenge, especially in the context of the cloud, where data can be accessed from anywhere. Fortunately, technology has improved our ability to track activities, adjust roles and enforce policies in a way that minimizes risk.

Today’s organizations have no shortage of end-to-end solutions for identity governance and management. Yet it’s important to understand that these tools alone are not the answer. No governance or management product can provide perfect protection as organizations are eternally at the mercy of human error. To help support smart identity and access management, it’s critical to have a layered and active approach to managing and mitigating security vulnerabilities that will inevitably arise.

Taking steps like practicing the principle of least privilege by permitting only the minimal amount of access necessary to perform tasks will greatly enhance your security posture.

3. The risks posed by vendor relationships

The explosive growth of cloud computing has highlighted new and deeper relationships between businesses and vendors, as organizations seek to maximize efficiencies through outsourcing and vendors assume more important roles in business operations. Effectively managing vendor relations within the context of the cloud is a core challenge for businesses moving forward.

Why? Because integrating third-party vendors often substantially raises cybersecurity risk. A Ponemon institute study in 2018 noted that nearly 60% of companies surveyed had encountered a breach due to a third-party. APT groups have adopted a strategy of targeting large enterprises via such smaller partners, where security is often weaker. Adversaries know you’re only as strong as your weakest link and take the least path of resistance to compromise assets. Due to this, it is incumbent upon today’s organizations to vigorously and securely manage third-party vendor relations in the cloud. This means developing appropriate guidance for SaaS operations (including sourcing and procurement solutions) and undertaking periodic vendor security evaluations.

4. The problem of insecure APIs

APIs are the key to successful cloud integration and interoperability. Yet insecure APIs are also one of the most significant threats to cloud security. Adversaries can exploit an open line of communication and steal valuable private data by compromising APIs. How often does this really occur? Consider this: By 2022, Gartner predicts insecure APIs will be the vector most commonly used to target enterprise application data.

With APIs growing ever more critical, attackers will continue to use tactics such as exploiting inadequate authentications or planting vulnerabilities within open source code, creating the possibility of devastating supply chain attacks. To minimize the odds of this occurring, developers should design APIs with proper authentication and access control in mind and seek to maintain as much visibility as possible into the enterprise security environment. This will allow for the quick identification and remediation of such API risks.

5. Dealing with limited user visibility

We’ve mentioned visibility on multiple occasions in this article – and for good reason. It is one of the keys to operating securely in the cloud. The ability to tell friend from foe (or authorized user from unauthorized user) is a prerequisite for protecting the cloud. Unfortunately, that’s a challenging task as cloud environments grow larger, busier and more complex.

Controlling shadow IT and maintaining better user visibility via behavior analytics and other tools should be a top priority for organizations. Given the lack of visibility across many contexts within cloud environments, it’s a smart play to develop a security posture that is dedicated to continuous improvement and supported by continuous testing and monitoring.

Critical cloud security challenges: The takeaway

Cloud security is achievable as long as you understand, anticipate and address the most significant challenges posed by migration and operation. By following the ideas outlined above, your organization will be in a much stronger position to prevent and defeat even the most determined adversaries.

An effective cloud security posture begins with these three steps

Public cloud adoption continues to surge, with roughly 83% of all enterprise workloads expected to be in the cloud by the end of the year. The added flexibility and lower costs of cloud computing make it a no-brainer for most organizations.

effective cloud security posture

Yet while cloud adoption has transformed the way applications are built and managed, it has also precipitated a radical rethink of how to approach security. What has historically worked on-premises is no longer relevant when dealing with public cloud or hybrid environments.

So, how does one modernize and develop an effective cloud security posture management (CSPM) strategy? Let’s take a closer look at some best practices you can adopt to efficiently manage this transition.

Don’t use static tools and practices in dynamic environments

On-premises security and compliance auditing procedures simply won’t work effectively in a dynamic cloud environment. Instead, you need procedures designed to accommodate the dynamic nature of cloud objects and the rules put in place by the cloud provider. Things simply change much too quickly in the public cloud for routine scanning or other point-in-time snapshot solutions to be a useful standalone security and compliance measure.

Instead, implement CSPM tools that offer the power of continuous, automated monitoring and test your security posture against cloud-specific benchmarks. One example of this approach is a breach and attack simulation (BAS) platform. These advanced tools launch non-stop simulated attacks against security environments and provide prioritized remediation guidance.

Unlike point-in-time scanning or manual pen testing, a BAS platform works continuously to uncover security gaps along with a variety of other key CSPM uses. By harnessing the power of automated continuous protection, these tools are ideally suited for the task of maintaining security in highly dynamic environments.

Rank and remediate

Alert fatigue is a dangerous phenomenon in many fields, and cybersecurity is no exception. Studies have shown that – particularly in information security or healthcare settings – alert fatigue can overload staff, increasing the odds that they miss truly significant events because they are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information coming at them.

Ideally, organizations need to minimize false positives and quickly identify critical risks and violations, i.e., those that jeopardize “crown jewel” assets by exposing data or allowing unauthorized access.

This raises an important question: How do IT staff slice through the fog and effectively prioritize the most urgent risks?

One option is to work with an outside expert to design a plan (as part of a cloud security posture assessment) for creating and enabling mission-critical security checks and policies. A second option is the incorporation of new technology (such as the aforementioned BAS platforms) to make the process of identifying, ranking and remediating threats simpler through continuous automation. By implementing both, it becomes possible to minimize the risk of critical threats being missed or mis-ranked.

More emphasis on security checks in development pipelines

We mentioned above how the dynamic nature of public clouds can render a security scan almost instantly irrelevant. Trying to stay current with outdated tools and approaches is more than a guaranteed losing battle – it’s also a massive waste of time and resources.

So how does one enforce security in such an ephemeral environment? It’s no small challenge, but it can be done without extreme commitments of time and money and never-ending games of “catch up.”

One simple fix is to define misconfiguration checks as a pipeline, allowing for violations to be rooted out once deployment pipelines are in force. Misconfigurations can therefore be quickly and easily rectified by embedding remediation into the pipeline. Feedback can be collected and analyzed to spot violation trends and adapt policies as needed.

Effective cloud security posture: The takeaway

The adoption of public cloud computing has been inexorable, and in a post-COVID-19 world, it will accelerate exponentially. Organizations are eager for a competitive edge by reaping the benefits of cloud computing at scale.

The mandate to migrate quickly needs to be balanced with an equal effort to maintain a strong security posture. In many cases, the ability to operate safely in the cloud has not kept pace with the speed by which adoption has occurred. One need only look at the countless examples of simple (and highly preventable) server misconfigurations causing massive amounts of financial and reputational harm. The fact that this often happens to the most deeply resourced enterprises with access to top drawer security talent should give organizations even greater pause.

To maintain a more robust cloud security posture, it’s necessary to update existing, on premises-centric policies and frameworks and align them with the new and fast-evolving circumstances of cloud and hybrid environments.

In that same vein, it also makes sense to deploy newer cloud security posture management tools, such as BAS, that are especially well-suited to this particular task. The dynamism of cloud environments is one of the core challenges defenders must face; tools that offer automated and continuous protection are part of the answer to surmounting this challenge. Without continuous monitoring, it is simply impossible to manage risk in an ephemeral landscape.

By combining a new approach with a better selection of tools to help implement that approach, today’s enterprises can manage risk more effectively – and develop the kind of resilient cloud security posture management that helps prevent the nightmare of critical asset exposure.

How to prioritize IT security projects

If you’re an IT security professional, you’re almost certainly familiar with that sinking feeling you experience when presented with an overwhelming number of security issues to remediate. It’s enough to make you throw your hands up and wonder where to even begin.

prioritize IT security projects

This is the crux of the problem that develops in the absence of effective security prioritization. If you aren’t prioritizing cybersecurity risks effectively, you’re not only creating a lot of extra work for your team and yourself – you’re also needlessly exposing your organization to IT security attacks.

For better, faster and more robust protection, smart prioritization is an absolute must. Unfortunately, prevailing conditions in the IT space have long worked against this goal.

Why prioritization metrics are lacking

For many years, IT security attacks have been enabled by a haphazard approach toward prioritization. Here’s what we mean: IT security is highly complex and perpetually changing; given the extraordinary number of variables and the dynamic nature of the landscape, it’s difficult for security personnel to make optimal decisions – or to even understand the best processes for making those decisions.

Compounding this problem is the fact that prioritization metrics have historically been under-emphasized. Organizational security leaders are bombarded with marketing messages touting the virtues of one product over another, yet they receive much less assistance with the task of prioritization. Additionally, prioritization metrics are not uniform across the industry, so IT staff will often hear contradictory information.

Making this problem even more acute are the conventional challenges that accompany any IT security team. Resources are limited, decisions must be made about where to apply those resources, and team members are typically overworked and moving in a dozen directions.

How should IT teams prioritize risk?

The simplest way to implement an effective prioritization strategy is to develop a basic framework that can be followed and adjusted as needed. The following is one such example:

  • Risk identification.
  • You can’t prioritize effectively if you don’t understand what makes you vulnerable. Control risks, systemic risks, integration risks – all of these categories (and more) must be accounted for.

  • Risk assessment.
  • Once you’ve identified all potential risks, it’s time to assess the likelihood and probable impact of these risks. Risks that fall into the high likelihood, high probable impact bucket should obviously move to the front of the remediation list. It’s possible to define these risks in both qualitative and quantitative terms, and organizations often choose to create a ranking matrix based on a numerical scoring model.

  • Risk management.
  • With risks identified and assessed, the next step is developing processes to address existing vulnerabilities and protect against future risks. This may include more frequent training and improved IT hygiene, vulnerability scans, penetration testing etc.

Harnessing the power of automation for prioritization

The state of IT security has never been more precarious. Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs), often state-sponsored, can embed themselves in a security environment, move laterally, and steal an organization’s critical assets without being detected for months. Cloud migration – and the challenges of handling on prem/cloud risks in an integrated manner – has created new attack paths while greatly increasing the demands placed on modern organizational security teams.

These developments exacerbate the already tough mandate for IT security pros: they must be right every time, and the attackers need only be successful once. This doesn’t mean that hackers can operate with an entirely free hand; they, too, must pick and prioritize their spots. If your security is robust enough relative to other targets, attackers may judge it to be more trouble than it is worth, especially when there are so many other lightly guarded networks, devices, etc.

Automation is the critical weapon in this game of attack and defend, as it allows attackers to maximize their resources and probe for the most vulnerable targets at scale. For defenders, automation plays an equally essential role. IT security penetration testing does an excellent job of uncovering weak spots, yet it’s also highly manual and episodic. When you aren’t actively red teaming IT security, your environments are exposed. An automated solution – such as a modern Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) platform – can help ensure 24/7, 365 security.

These automated solutions also come with another added benefit: they make effective prioritization simple in an industry that struggles with the practice. A fully automated BAS solution can identify all attack vectors can exploit and protect critical assets, whether on prem or in the cloud. These solutions work by launching controlled simulations that mimic the likeliest attack path hackers will take, making them an invaluable tool in APT IT security. Breach and attack simulations run continuously, using automation to provide non-stop protection. In essence, it’s like having a highly skilled red team that never takes a moment off.

Equally important, advanced BAS solutions offer prioritized remediation of security gaps. As we’ve seen above, this is a critical feature for today’s security teams, who are facing extraordinary challenges – and need all the help they can get.

The takeaway

Given the enormity of the threat posed by APTs, IT prioritization should be a key organizational mandate. By following the steps outlined above, you can put your security team in the best possible position to win.