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Understanding Cloud Security Risks

A cloud security risk is any threat that might impact the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of data and applications hosted in the cloud.

Wiz Experts Team
6 minutes read

A cloud security risk is any threat that might impact the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) of data and applications hosted in the cloud. Thanks to numerous benefits, such as accessibility, scalability, and reliability, cloud computing has revolutionized the way organizations manage data, applications, and infrastructure. However, because threat actors are always looking for new attack surfaces to exploit vulnerabilities, organizations must prioritize safeguarding their data and systems. 

Understanding cloud risks is crucial for implementing effective security measures in cloud environments. In this exploration of cloud security risks, we’ll delve into the top five cyber threats, how they occur, and strategies to mitigate them.

Cloud security: Risk vs. challenges

Cloud security introduces various risks and challenges, and while many people think that these two terms mean the same thing, each represents a different aspect of managing security in the cloud:

  • Cloud security risks refer to the potential vulnerabilities that exist in a particular cloud environment that might lead to data breaches, unauthorized access, and compliance violations. 

  • Cloud security challenges encompass the operational difficulties and complexities that organizations encounter while implementing and managing effective security measures in cloud environments. Examples include complex cloud architectures, ensuring data privacy and compliance, and sharing security responsibilities with cloud service providers (CSPs).

The top 5 cloud security risks

Next, let’s look at the five biggest cloud security risks:

1. Data breaches

Cloud environments typically store huge amounts of sensitive data, including personally identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI). Data is often the most valuable target for threat actors, so it’s essential to take vulnerabilities seriously. Data breaches can occur for many reasons, including a lack of strong authentication, misconfigured permissions, and insider threats. Other sensitive information such as company emails or internal documents can be leveraged to sabotage a company’s reputation and/or influence its stock price through malicious actions such as sending damaging messages to customers through the company’s email address or using sensitive information like an upcoming merger to influence stock price.

Example

In 2018, Uber fell victim to a huge data breach which affected more than 57 million of its customers and drivers when a misconfigured Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage bucket exposed their sensitive information. Hackers identified that the bucket was improperly configured and lacked encryption or authentication. They exploited this to gain access to the buckets containing confidential customer information such as email addresses, names, and contact numbers. After this security incident, Uber faced legal consequences and regulatory oversight.

Mitigation strategies

  • Protect data at rest and in transit by implementing a robust encryption mechanism.

  • Enforce strong authentication methods through techniques like multi-factor authentication (MFA) to prevent unauthorized access.

  • Regularly audit access controls and permissions to identify and remediate potential vulnerabilities.

  • Leverage data loss prevention (DLP) tools to monitor and prevent the unauthorized transfer of sensitive information.

2. Inadequate identity access management (IAM)

IAM is a set of policies used to control what users are allowed to access which resources. Because improperly configured IAM rules and policies can result in unauthorized access to cloud resources, identity access management can present critical risks to cloud security. Excessive permissions, lack of role-based access control (RBAC), and weak authentication mechanisms can lead to security breaches, compromising the confidentiality and integrity of your data and cloud systems.

An example of a toxic combination of public exposure, authentication misconfiguration, and excessive privileges

Example

In 2017, Equifax fell victim to one of the biggest security breaches of all time. Hackers identified and exploited a known vulnerability in an open-source software module used in Equifax web applications. Consequently, they gained unauthorized access to important customer records containing details about 147 million individuals. Irregularities and inconsistencies in IAM controls led to the breach that allowed hackers to act as legitimate users and navigate undetected through Equifax's systems for months, resulting in severe financial losses, regulatory scrutiny, and damage to Equifax's reputation.

Mitigation strategies

  • Implement a comprehensive IAM framework and enforce the principle of least privilege using role-based access control.

  • Regularly review permissions and update them whenever necessary to make sure users’ privileges reflect their changing roles at your organization.

  • Utilize centralized identity management solutions to streamline user authentication and authorization processes.

  • Continuously monitor user activity logs for any suspicious behavior and revoke access for compromised accounts.

3. Insecure APIs

Application programming interfaces (APIs) play a significant role in communicating with the cloud services offered by cloud providers. APIs define the protocols and methods for requesting and exchanging data, allowing applications to access various cloud resources such as storage, computing power, and databases. Insecure APIs can be easily attacked by hackers, and sensitive data can be exposed, leading to data leaks, account takeovers, and service disruptions.

Example of an AWS Lambda exposing an API to the internet and storing a secret that allows for lateral movement

Example

In 2018, Facebook faced severe scrutiny when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm, accessed the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent. The root cause of this breach was an insecure API that allowed third-party developers to access users' data beyond what was necessary. Cambridge Analytica exploited this vulnerability to gather information for targeted political advertising during the 2016 US presidential election. The incident raised concerns about the privacy and security of user data on social media platforms and galvanized Facebook to implement stricter API controls and enhance data protection measures to prevent future breaches.

Mitigation strategies

  • Conduct thorough security assessments, deep vulnerability scans, and code reviews before integrating third-party APIs into any software.

  • Implement strong authorization and authentication mechanisms like OAuth or API keys to secure publicly accessible APIs.

  • Perform regular scans to monitor API activity for unauthorized access attempts.

  • Transmit data via APIs in an encrypted format to avoid any malicious interception or tampering.

4. Insufficient cloud configuration management

Misconfigurations in cloud infrastructure and services create vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit to obtain unauthorized access and disrupt operations. Errors in the setup or management of cloud applications or services, such as firewall rules and IAM policies, may inadvertently expose sensitive data or grant undue privileges. Attackers leverage these misconfigurations to breach security controls, compromise systems, and disrupt services.

Example

Capital One, one of the largest credit card issuers, suffered a massive security breach that exposed the personal information of more than 100 million people, including their social security numbers and financial records. The breach occurred because of insufficient or improper cloud configuration management: A former employee exploited a misconfigured open-source web application firewall (WAF) in the cloud infrastructure, gaining unauthorized access to sensitive customer data stored on an AWS server. 

Mitigation strategies

  • Adhere to cloud security best practices and guidelines to configure services securely.

  • Follow configuration management practices to mitigate these risks, including automation with infrastructure as code, standardization of configurations, monitoring and logging for visibility, and formal change management processes.

  • Use automated configuration management tools to enforce consistent security configurations across cloud environments.

  • Perform regular audits of cloud configurations to detect and resolve misconfigurations promptly.

  • Deploy network segmentation and access controls to mitigate the impact of misconfigurations.

5. Shared-infrastructure vulnerabilities

Public cloud environments involve shared infrastructure where multiple users can use the same physical hardware and resources simultaneously. Vulnerabilities in this shared infrastructure can potentially expose all tenants to data leaks or security breaches, highlighting the importance of robust isolation and segmentation mechanisms.

Example

In 2018, a configuration change triggered a cascading failure across multiple Google Cloud Platform (GCP) services, including Google App Engine, Cloud Storage, and Cloud Datastore, affecting numerous users and services worldwide. The outage disrupted critical business operations for various organizations relying on Google's cloud services. This incident highlighted the interconnected nature of cloud infrastructure, which means a single configuration error can impact multiple users and services. It also emphasized the importance of implementing robust redundancy measures and monitoring systems to mitigate the risks associated with shared cloud infrastructure.

Mitigation strategies

  • Implement isolation mechanisms such as virtual private clouds (VPCs) or network segmentation to prevent cross-tenant attacks.

  • Perform regular updates and patching to hypervisors and underlying infrastructure components to boost security.

  • Use intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPSs) to monitor and block malicious activities within shared cloud infrastructure.

  • Encrypt all data in shared storage to prevent unauthorized access.

Conclusion

Given the critical importance of addressing cloud security risks, organizations must equip themselves with robust cloud security solutions tailored for today’s cloud-native era. That's where Wiz's cloud native application protection platform (CNAPP) comes into play.

Offering advanced threat detection, real-time monitoring, and automated response capabilities, Wiz CNAPP is a comprehensive solution designed to mitigate risks effectively. With our industry-leading platform, organizations can embrace the benefits of cloud computing with confidence, knowing their applications and data are protected by a cutting-edge security solution. See for yourself: Schedule a personalized demo today.

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