With the growth of SaaS applications and cloud infrastructure in the past few years, many companies now have a more complex and broader attack surface than before. Even small companies have migrated traditional on-premises servers for email, file sharing, and collaboration to cloud-based services. COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of remote work, encouraging companies to embrace a cloud-first approach to infrastructure and SaaS applications. With employees working across dispersed geographies or from home offices, today’s typical company has more complexity than ever in its software stack and infrastructure. Cloud assessments are an opportunity to stop and take stock of any cloud-based security risks that have developed in the past few years, an assessment can help you discover urgent or high-risk cloud computing security gaps, while also providing insights on security improvements required in the medium term. In this article, we will discuss what cloud security assessments are, why they are a necessity, and how they contribute to proper risk management.
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What are Cloud Security Assessments?
A Cloud security assessment is a focused process specifically designed to evaluate the cloud infrastructure, SaaS applications, and cloud services in use by a company. They should be an integral part of your business’s cloud strategy. The process should identify risks, gaps, or control problems that may lead to security breaches, data theft, or operational disruptions or downtime. A proper cloud security risk assessment should include key findings and recommendations, while also figuring into the larger risk management conversation. Glaring security holes or issues should obviously be corrected quickly. Most cloud assessments uncover a long list of medium-sized risks, which may require labor-intensive work or additional investments. These improvements then need to be prioritized and built into your overall technology roadmap. There are usually some minor issues, especially regarding access control, which can be rectified with minimum effort.
4 Reasons Why You Need a Cloud Security Risk Assessment
A cloud risk assessment goes hand-in-hand with cloud readiness assessments. You need to determine if your business is ready to introduce a cloud environment before you assess your cloud security risk.
1. Cyber Security Risks are Just as Great in the Cloud vs. On-Premises
Sometimes, the ease of use and deployment of cloud-based services and SaaS applications cause companies to skip important security procedures or best practices. Moreover, the “easy” part of cloud applications also makes them more vulnerable to attack by outside threat actors. In addition, cloud and SaaS apps contain intellectual property, confidential documents, customer or patient information, and other private data which need protection, just like with traditional on-premises servers and storage.
2. Remote Work and Rapid Cloud Adoption Have Resulted in a Larger Attack Surface
Traditional approaches to cybersecurity are no longer relevant. With the growth in remote work, the corporate perimeter has dissolved. What matters most now is properly managing the identity of authorized users and their permissions within your cloud environment. That’s why a major part of your cloud risk assessment checklist is an audit and inventory of all the apps, services, data, and permissions of each user using an array of cloud assessment tools.
3. Misconfigurations are the Biggest Threat
While cloud-based applications are easy to deploy and scale, they are often misconfigured by inexperienced IT staff or users. Too often, permissions are lax or important security features are misconfigured or left unused altogether. A good cloud security risk assessment will discover glaring security holes or misconfigurations and then take the appropriate steps to bring your cloud infrastructure up to industry standards.
4. Excessive Permissions are Another Big Cloud Security Risk
Too often, users are given elevated permissions or access to systems, data, or controls that are unnecessary for the employee to do their job. This is especially common in SaaS or cloud applications. Organizations should implement a policy of “least privilege” for their cloud services, where users have access only to the bare minimum set of resources and data to effectively do their jobs. A proper cloud risk assessment should inspect the breadth of user permissions, with an eye towards dialing back access to resources and data housed within the cloud environment that are unnecessary.
8 Steps for Performing a Cloud Security Risk Assessment
1. Consult With Internal and External Experts
Cloud security assessments can be performed by internal IT personnel. However, it is always better to involve an outside, third-party expert to perform an assessment. A second set of eyes is a vital part of the cloud risk assessment and audit process. External experts will have little to no bias and will approach the assessment from a fresh perspective.
2. Perform Document Review and Interviews
One of the first steps is to review internal tech documentation and conduct interviews with key stakeholders to gain a broad overview of the technology stack and ecosystem of the company, including all the SaaS applications, cloud services, and current cloud infrastructure.
3. Inventory the Assets and Services and Classify Data
The next step in the process is to inventory everything, including cloud infrastructure, cloud services, SaaS apps, along with the various forms of data that reside in your company’s cloud applications. Data should be classified in terms of its sensitivity or proprietary nature, along with a clear understanding of what data is subject to additional laws, regulatory protection, and industry standards, such as customer or patient data.
4. Benchmark Against a Cyber Risk Framework
Whether assessing on-premises technology or cloud security, it is useful to leverage industry-standard cybersecurity frameworks, such as the National Institutes of Science and Technology Cyber Security Framework (NIST CSF). This framework provides a complete cloud security assessment checklist covering all the policies required for mature cybersecurity best practices.
5. Run Automated Cloud Assessment Tools, Manually Test, and/or Hire External Pen Testers
There are a lot of different ways to assess a cloud environment. Fortunately, there is a whole category of Governance, Risk and Compliance (GRC) software tools. These assessment tools help with automated analysis of your cloud infrastructure and applications. A lot of things need to be manually checked by experts as well. Finally, external penetration tests can simulate attacks against cloud applications, employees, and infrastructure to discover additional vulnerabilities.
6. Identify Threats in Specific Areas
Cloud assessments should focus on identifying security risks and potential threats in various areas, including:
- Identity and access management procedures, roles, access controls, password and authentication processes, including the use of multi-factor authentication (MFA)
- Network security, network segmentation, and firewall configurations for the cloud environment
- Incident response policies, procedures, and capabilities, including use of logging tools, SOC services, and rapid response processes
- Storage security
- Platform security configurations specific to each cloud services provider
- Workload security
- Evaluating internal threats, including employee and vendor risks
- Determining risks of theft, exfiltration, or ransomware (extortion) risks to various forms of data
- Reviewing relevant regulatory compliance issues
7. Document Recommendations and Review With Stakeholders
One of the last items on your cloud security assessment checklist should be to evaluate the risks and make recommendations. Risks should be measured both on the impact of a breach, and on the probability of a security occurring incident. Together, these two factors should result in a risk score that can be rank ordered and prioritized. Regardless of the size of your business or its budget, resources matter in remediation projects and priorities must be set.
8. Implement High-Impact Improvements and Manage a Plan of Action and Milestones (POAM)
Nearly all cloud security assessments will yield some number of high-risk items or security gaps which should be urgently addressed. These should be corrected immediately after conducting an assessment. For everything else, stepwise improvements in controls, cybersecurity technologies and investments, or other upgrade projects should be mapped to a POAM, or cybersecurity roadmap. A PAOM underscores the fact that cloud security improvements are never finished. Cybersecurity maturity and security posture improvement are ongoing processes where the bar should be consistently raised over time.
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Get a Comprehensive Cloud Risk Assessment From an Industry Leader
Now that you know that cloud security assessments are the first step in your journey to a higher level of cyber maturity, it’s time to take the next step and conduct a cloud assessment for your own cloud environment. At NENS, we provide our clients with annual risk assessments that include their cloud environment. If you are looking to improve your cloud security posture, our experts can perform a complete security assessment for your business. For more information on our annual risk assessment services, contact us today to schedule a consultation.