Cloud Data Security: Challenges and Best Practices

Nimrod Iny
Jul 4, 2022

Cloud data security means - securing your data assets and resources running on the cloud. The adoption of cloud technologies offers flexibility and benefits that were never possible with traditional computing. For this reason, almost 83% of enterprise workloads are currently running on cloud platforms. Unfortunately, due to this radical shift, we also see a steady increase of cybercriminals focusing their efforts on compromising cloud infrastructure and data.

Many regulatory and governing bodies have introduced strict guidelines for protecting customers and sensitive data on the cloud to mitigate these risks. They also enforce mandatory disclosure policies and fines to ensure that organizations provide their best efforts to establish the proper security postures. Violating regulations such as GDPR means that companies are required to pay millions of dollars in fines alone, not to mention the reputational damage that a company goes through after a data breach.

We will look at some of the best practices that help organizations with cloud data security.

Why is Cloud Data Security important?

Unlike the old days when an attacker would attack a particular set of IP addresses or a specific localized data center, the data centers in the cloud may include multiple data centers dispersed across regions, broadening the attack surface. These attackers tend to exploit any weakness found in code, configurations, and deployments, thus leading to catastrophic consequences for the organization.

Customer data and other sensitive information are the most important assets that any organization could have, and sometimes competitive organizations employ cybercriminals to gain an advantage over their competitors. The organization's responsibility is to keep all attackers away from their crown jewels by using a combination of state-of-the-art technology and experienced cyber security teams.

One common mistake all organizations make is assuming that a cloud service provider guarantees cloud data security is far from the truth. Most cloud service providers work on a shared responsibility model where the cloud provider is responsible for providing security to the underlying infrastructure and networking components. At the same time, the customer is responsible for securing the applications, servers, and other components that they build on the cloud.

The following diagram demonstrates the shared responsibility model at Azure.

The challenges of securing your Cloud data

The limitless possibilities of cloud services ensure that business applications can reach new heights and cater to complicated use cases. However, the magnitude of risks data presents in the cloud also increases.

Next, we'll explore some of the most significant challenges when securing your cloud data.

Insecure access control points

The nature of cloud services is that they are accessible from anywhere and from any device. The constant ability to access components such as API endpoints from anywhere poses a tremendous risk to its security posture.

Compromising these API endpoints could allow an attacker to gain access to the data and potentially allow them to alter the data, thus compromising its integrity.

Data loss

Constant scrutiny is essential to ensure data security since it is easy to lose track of the amount of data you are storing.

In some instances where the users do not have proper controls, this can lead to data loss. Data loss in the cloud does not always mean that the data is lost. It could also mean that the user will not have access to this sensitive data for many different reasons. Data loss in the cloud can happen due to inadequate data backups, automated data loss controls, audits, and risk assessments.

Data breaches

Excessive or insecurely configured access control is one of the main reasons behind data breaches on the cloud. Of course, data breaches are not unique to cloud infrastructure. However, the vast resources and configurations present within the cloud infrastructure make it a prime target since any misconfigurations could introduce vulnerabilities into the cloud environment that inadvertently leak data to unauthorized users.

Data breaches in the cloud have seen a significant increase in 2022, with almost 79% of companies hosting their data on the cloud experiencing at least one data breach. Considering the rise of data breach incidents, they remain one of the most prevalent cloud computing issues.

5 best practices for Cloud Data Security

Even though there are numerous ways attackers can get into and compromise data security in the cloud, users can still use security best practices to keep their data safe, making it harder for attackers to exploit vulnerabilities. To ensure you've done everything you can, you should cover all basis, including;

  • Identifying sensitive data
  • Risk profiling and setting up infrastructure protection 
  • Implementing  response plans

Here are best practices to get started on implementing cloud data security.

1. Evaluate built-in security

All major cloud providers have built-in security controls that allow users to customize the level of security required by their applications. Unfortunately, these security controls may have undesirable default settings allowing security misconfigurations to affect the applications and infrastructure running on the cloud platform.

However, to make configurations easy, these cloud providers introduce functions that allow users to manage all these default settings and retrieve a "Security Score" to keep track of the built-in security features.

Microsoft introduces this in the form of the "Microsoft Secure Score." It is a feature that allows users to configure their Azure tenant according to the best practices set by Microsoft to fine-tune these built-in security controls.

Users may use security best practices highlighted by trusted entities such as CIS (Center for Internet Security), which provide guidelines to maximize the security of the cloud entities by using the built-in security controls.

CIS provides benchmarks for the most common and well-known cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure, AWS, GCP, Alibaba, and Oracle Cloud Infrastructure.

Users can leverage automated tools such as Polar Security to implement continuous data security posture management while helping prevent security loopholes and ever-changing regulatory and compliance violations by introducing continuous monitoring and evaluation.

2. Restrict access with strong credentials

All access to cloud services depends on some authentication mechanism. Usually, this includes user credentials that consist of a username and a password.

Granting access to cloud resources occurs once a user enters valid user credentials. However, from the attacks seen in the past, it is evident that attackers can gain access to these credentials by either stealing these credentials from a secure location, tricking the user by using phishing tactics or guessing these credentials.

All users must practice good password hygiene to prevent attackers from giving an easy way into the cloud resources.

Users should always adhere to the following basic password hygiene practices:

  • Never share your passwords.
  • Never save your passwords on web browsers, sticky notes, text files, etc.
  • Always log in to your cloud resources from trusted devices.
  • Always create complex passwords.

3. Encrypt data in motion and at rest

Encrypting data in motion

Data in motion refers to the data when it makes its way from the client to the server or any other API endpoints.

Transferring data from multiple endpoints to the cloud can expose your data to man-in-the-middle attacks. Encrypting data in motion can help mitigate these types of attacks.

There are multiple approaches to achieving encryption of data at motion; the most common techniques are:

  • Encrypting the communication channel - This approach involves securing the communication channel by which the data transfer occurs. Implementing secure protocols such as HTTPS and TLS can help encrypt the communication channel.
  • Encrypting the actual data - This approach adds a layer of security by encrypting the actual data to ensure that even if an attacker compromises the channel encryption, they would be unable to read the data.

Using these two approaches would give maximum security to the data while it is in motion.

Encrypting data at rest

Data at rest refers to the data when an application or user stores it in a storage mechanism such as a File Storage, Database, etc.

Once the data reaches its destination, it needs a secure mechanism to ensure that no unauthorized party can read this data even if they get access to the underlying storage mechanisms such as File Storage, Database, etc. Encrypting the data at rest prevents anyone from reading this data without knowing the encryption keys.

Robust encryption algorithms such as AES-256 allow for the highest level of encryption without compromising the application's performance.

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4. Use intrusion detection and prevention technologies

Network-based attacks are one of the most common attack methods for compromising data security on the cloud due to their versatility.

Intrusion detection and prevention mechanisms detect and mitigate these threats based on pre-defined signatures or advanced machine learning algorithms. Implementing these technologies to monitor the cloud infrastructure will help inspect all network packets reaching the servers to ensure the packets contain no malicious payloads.

These controls may not be available on the cloud by default and may require special tools and configurations.

5. Conduct audits and penetration testing

No matter what security controls you deploy to keep data security intact, some loopholes may remain dormant in cloud deployments. An efficient way of bringing these misconfigurations and loopholes to the surface is with the help of audits and penetration testing activities.

These audits and penetration tests may be specific to a regulation or compliance requirement that focus on security postures expected by regulating bodies. Conducting these activities exposes most of these security loopholes; however, the one downside of conducting audits is that security loopholes will remain open until the next scheduled cycle. However, implementing automated systems that continuously check for these controls while detecting sensitive data exposure or changes to data flow is an efficient way of ensuring that regulatory and security controls remain the same throughout the business operations.

Secure your cloud data with Polar Security

We’ve discussed the  importance of cloud data security and the best practices to help start your cloud data security journey.

An automated tool like Polar Security enables you to manage data security more efficiently and is a good fit for solving many issues related to enforcing security and compliance controls within cloud platforms. Learn more about Polar’s  data security and compliance platform.

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