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Cloud computing and cybersecurity

22 February, 2018

Cloud computing has revolutionised how businesses operate and in doing so has created new security challenges. The shift towards cloud technologies provides cost and efficiency improvements along with numerous advantages. This transition has created new security vulnerabilities as well as amplify existing ones. In this article some of the associated risks will be discussed and how best to mitigate them. Finally I will outline how cloud technologies will improve cybersecurity going forward.

Cyber risks associated with cloud computing

Data breaches

The first risk associated with cloud computing which comes to mind is data breaches. A data breach is an incident in which sensitive information is released, viewed or stolen by an individual who is not authorised. Cloud servers often contains sensitive information which is not intended for public release. Data breaches are not unique to cloud computing, but are a major concern for organisations using cloud services.

Insufficient identity credential and access management

Organisations are exposing themselves to unnecessary risks if they have insufficient identity, credential and access management. Attackers masquerading as legitimate users can read, modify and delete data, snoop on data in transit or even release malicious software. diligence on potential new cloud technologies before adoption. An organisation will expose themselves to a number of risks if they carry out insufficient due diligence.

Insecure interfaces and APIs

Enterprises use interfaces and APIs to interact with the cloud services. The overall security depends on the security level of the API. Poor interfaces and APIs may expose enterprises to risks which could affect their confidentiality, integrity and availability.

System and application vulnerabilities 

When organisations are using multi-tenancy in the cloud, systems from various organisations are placed close to each other and given access to shared memory and resources, creating a new attack path. The risk is that one of the organisations has system vulnerabilities which attackers can exploit allowing them to steal data, take control of the system or disrupt service operations.

Account or service hijacking

Cloud technologies add a new threat to the landscape when it comes to account or service hijacking. The risk is attackers gaining access to user’s credentials using software exploits or social engineering. The impact can be massive as an attacker with stolen credentials can often access critical areas of cloud computing services.

Malicious Insider 

A malicious insider such as a system administrator can access sensitive information and can have levels of access to more critical systems. It is worth noting that an insider threat does not always mean they have malicious intents. Systems that solely depend on cloud service providers for security are at a greater risk.

Data loss 

When organisations store data in the cloud there is always the risk of data loss. An accidental deletion by the cloud service provider can lead to the permanent loss of customer data unless the provider or cloud consumer takes adequate measures to back up data. By employing cloud technologies you are transferring most of the disaster recovery plans to the cloud provider.

Insufficient due diligence 

When defining a business strategy and roadmap it is essential that organisations carry out due diligence on potential new cloud technologies before adoption. An organisation will expose themselves to a number of risks if they carry out insufficient due diligence.

Denial of service

Organisations must also be aware of the denial of service risk which would prevent users from accessing their data or applications. Attacks can overload the targeted cloud service system resources and cause a system slowdown, leaving cloud users without access to services.

How to manage these risks

  • Identify the assets you are moving to the cloud and asses their confidentiality, integrity, and availability requirements. Perform effective due diligence before selecting a cloud provider to ensure they have strict measures for their security infrastructure
  • The use of multifactor authentication, strong passwords and automated rotation of cryptographic keys, passwords and certificates are all good security practice. Encrypting sensitive data can mitigate against a data breach
  • To mitigate the risk of system vulnerabilities and insecure APIs you should ensure proper patching and hardening is carried out
  • To minimise the risk of account hijacking through social engineering, all employees should receive security awareness training
  • To prevent a malicious insider attack you should manage privileged accounts and log their actions. Threat monitoring capabilities can be used to identify suspicious user activity
  • To mitigate the risk of data loss enterprises should not solely rely on one single cloud provider. It is also vital organisations have disaster recovery and business contingency plans in place

How cloud computing improves cybersecurity

Cloud services adds a lot of value to businesses and their innovations improve upon cybersecurity by providing an architecture and foundation that is secure by design. Cloud providers heavily invest in advanced technologies which allows them to improve upon cybersecurity

Threat monitoring and incident response

Many large organisations leverage cloud managed services to handle threat monitoring and incident response. By using a cloud-based solution it aggregates all alerts and threat information and filters out events that are not considered a security threat. Large managed service providers also often have access to global security operations centers and threat intelligence centers which are critical in aggregating data and filtering out false positives.

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Replacing passwords with advanced authentication

Advanced authentication as a cloud services helps manage access and improve trust among customers and business partners. Compromised credentials is the starting point for a lot of high profile hacks and by relying solely on passwords, you are exposing yourself to risk. There are many different cloud-based authentication platforms available which uses a combination of one-time passwords and hardware tokens which are more secure.

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Identity and access management

Organisations employing cloud-based services to tackle identity and access management is a growing trend. Data analytics for identity and access management can be used to monitor employee usage patterns and flag any unusual behaviour. The solution looks for patterns around the employee access entitlements and then identifies unwanted access.

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System updates, patching and hardening

Updating software is a timely task and often organisations can leave it fall through the cracks. The benefit of using the cloud is system updates are facilitated by the cloud service provider. As soon as the latest versions and patches are available, the organisation will have them. Each virtualised operating system can be secured by using hardening software.

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Cloud providers take responsibility for risk of threats

Cloud service providers use stricter security measures for their infrastructures than most businesses. Their business and reputation is at stake and so they need to ensure everything is secure. These providers often have a global incident response team that works around the clock to mitigate against attacks. Organisations using cloud providers are often operating in a more secure environment.

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Artificial Intelligence and machine learning

Artificial Intelligence equips cloud computing with massive power and immense capabilities from a cyber security prospective. It helps analyse and learn from historical data, identify patterns and make real time decisions. It can take many organisations several months to identify a breach. Combining cloud and AI could help identify breaches the day they happen. A lot of time is spent by cyber security professionals gathering and processing information. IBM’s Watson supercomputer can currently ingest four million security related documents in an hour. This highlights the potential capability of using AI in the cloud to improve security.

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As a final note, we would advise before an organisation transitions to the cloud that they are aware of all the associated risks involved and we also stress the importance of carrying out proper due diligence on potential cloud providers. As cloud technologies further advance and as new innovations come to the fore, we will also see improved cybersecurity.

Written by Len McAuliffe
First published in Accountancy Ireland, February 2018

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Pat Moran

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Leonard McAuliffe

Partner, PwC Ireland (Republic of)

Tel: +353 1 792 8632

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