What Are the Most Common Security Risks of Cloud Computing?

5 min read

Identifying and understanding the most common cloud security risks is crucial to a successful cloud computing adoption strategy. Organizations migrating to the cloud continually face new threats and discover vulnerabilities that were not present when they operated software deployed on-premises. According to IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach report, almost half of all data breaches are happening in the cloud, with attacks on systems hosted on public clouds costing an average of $5.02 million.  

To complicate matters, cloud data security is a shared responsibility between the service provider and the consumer. Without due diligence, complete visibility and adequate security measures, companies may leave themselves open to financial, technical and compliance problems.

This article discusses the most common security risks of cloud computing and the steps organizations can take to mitigate them. 

Security risks and challenges of cloud computing

The cloud and traditional on-premises environments both run software, which may contain vulnerabilities that threat actors can exploit to gain unauthorized access to information and resources. This threat landscape is continually changing as the proliferation of cloud deployments introduces new and unforeseen attack vectors that often go unnoticed until it’s too late.

The top cloud security risks are: 

Improper access control

Access control determines who (users) or what (machines) can access system resources and what they can do with these assets. 

System administrators may grant users excessive permissions or make policy exceptions to prevent development delays — a practice that significantly lowers the level of security provided. Internal threat actors can easily take advantage of these lax security measures to steal information or damage critical infrastructure. According to a Verizon report from 2019, 34% of all data breaches that year were caused by internal actors.

Through effective cloud identity and access management (IAM), it is possible to implement zero trust frameworks, practice the principle of least privilege and prevent data breaches. However, the sheer number of components involved and the dynamic nature of cloud platforms can make enforcing access control a challenge. Static or traditional models, such as role based access control (RBAC), lack the granularity necessary to secure cloud-based workloads, and complications such as role explosion can prevent scaling.  

Read more from Styra co-founder Tim Hinrichs as he discusses why we need to rethink access control for cloud-native environments.   

Inadequate visibility and awareness of the attack surface 

According to a Gartner report, less than 1% of companies had 95% asset visibility in 2022. Organizations moving their IT systems to the cloud often experience lower asset visibility and control over network operations because they hand over some of the responsibility for infrastructure management to the cloud service provider (CSP).

In addition, legacy asset management and network security tools can’t keep up with the rapid rate at which users can deploy cloud resources. The on-demand self-service features of cloud computing can allow users to provision systems, devices and applications without the approval of the central IT department. These shadow IT resources can create serious security and compliance issues, with the organization unaware of their existence. 

Along side of cloud adoption, switching to a microservice architecture for application development also increases the number of exposed internet-facing assets within the organization’s system, leading to a larger attack surface. The possibility of a breach increases as the attack surface expands.  

Loss of data

Organizations can suffer devastating operational and financial consequences if sensitive data is lost with no backup. Despite dispersed geographical locations and redundant servers making cloud storage more resilient, natural disasters, malicious attacks and negligence by the CSP can still result in data loss. In such an event, the company loses critical data, intellectual property, and customer trust. Companies may also face heavy fines for failing to comply with data protection laws. 

In cloud computing, data is typically lost in three ways: 

  • Data alteration: Data is changed or altered accidentally and can’t be reverted to the original state. 
  • Deletion: Data is deleted through human error or by someone with malicious intent and no backups exist to restore lost data. 
  • Lost access: Data might still be present in the system but can’t be accessed due to lost credentials or not having the correct encryption key. Ransomware attacks, for example, add a layer of encryption over existing security to prevent you from accessing your data.

Insecure APIs

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are the communication channels between applications, and they’re essential for linking multiple cloud environments or connecting on-premises applications to cloud systems. As a customer, you interact with two types of APIs: those provided by the cloud service providers (CSPs) and those you develop and deploy on the CSP’s infrastructure.

For the APIs you develop and deploy, you are responsible for their security. API security means implementing robust authentication and authorization checks to prevent unauthorized access. Encryption with transport layer security (TLS) is another excellent way to reduce risk.

The most common methods of compromising APIs are:

  • Brute force attacks: Gaining access by trying all possible combinations until the correct password is found.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks: Eavesdropping on the communication between two targets. 
  • Denial of service attacks: Flooding a target with traffic, causing it to crash and become unusable. 

Cloud security best practices

It is still worthwhile for many businesses and enterprises to migrate to the cloud despite the challenges involved. Cloud-based services and data storage offer significantly lower operational costs and easier scalability. 

Use the following security best practices to implement effective controls and maximize the benefits of cloud computing:

Enforce granular access control

Authorization checks must be performed at every level of the cloud computing platform to prevent unauthorized access. Consider deploying Open Policy Agent (OPA) to decouple authorization decision-making from the underlying software in your cloud system. 

OPA is a domain-agnostic policy engine that you can deploy next to any component in the cloud-native architecture, including microservice applications, Kubernetes, service meshes and API gateways. Use OPA and decoupled policy as code to achieve the granular access control your cloud systems and applications require.  

Make the right choice of CSP 

Cloud service providers offer various services and employ different techniques to protect data and applications. Compare CSPs to find the one best suited to your use case, industry and regulatory requirements. Make sure their platform architecture meets the compliance standards of your industry. 

Train employees 

Training employees and teaching them IT skills is a cost-effective way to create a cloud-ready workforce. Educating users and creating cybersecurity awareness is also one of the best ways to keep a cloud system secure and reduce the number of shadow IT resources. 

Encrypt data 

You should encrypt data in cloud storage to ensure your valuable information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, even after a data breach. Organizations must also encrypt data during transit, when it is most susceptible to attacks. 

Monitor systems and maintain logs 

Live monitoring of the cloud system can alert security professionals to violations in real time, allowing them to act quickly. Logs can also serve as forensic evidence in case of a data breach. 

Minimize cloud risks with OPA and Styra DAS

Using OPA and policy as code, organizations can systematically apply authorization policies to their cloud applications, APIs and API gateways. This strategy not only enforces authorization policy but also helps in detecting and auditing security violations, and reducing cloud risks. 

Styra Declarative Authorization Service (DAS) is a control plane for OPA, designed to let you manage the entire policy lifecycle for all OPA deployments in your cloud systems from a central location. 

Styra DAS comes with out-of-the-box policy packs mapped to security and compliance benchmarks, helping you better manage the security risks of cloud computing. Policy decisions and violations are shown in real-time graphs within the dashboard. Policy authors can combine the decision logging and impact analysis features to understand the impact of a new policy before implementing it.   

Schedule a demo with one of our engineers to discover how we can help you secure and make the most of cloud computing.   

Frequently asked questions

What is cloud security?

Cloud security is a collection of processes and tools to address security threats to cloud-based systems. The goal is to maintain the highest level of security without hindering productivity.  

What is the biggest threat to security on the cloud?

In a spotlight report published by Alert Logic, 55% of respondents considered unauthorized access, through the misuse of credentials and improper controls, the biggest threat to cloud security. Data protection is all about controlling who can access data and in what way, and deploying a robust access control system can go a long way toward preventing data breaches. 

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