Cloud security: Weighing up the risk to enterprises

In this guest post, Chris Hodson, chief information security officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at internet security firm Zscaler, takes a closer look at why cloud security remains such an enduring barrier to adoption for so many enterprises. 

Cloud computing is growing in use across all industries. Multi-tenant solutions often provide cost savings whilst supporting digital transformation initiatives, but concerns about the security of cloud architectures persist.

Some enterprises are still wary using cloud because of security concerns, even though the perceived risks are rarely unique to the cloud. Indeed, my own research shows more than half of the most appropriate vulnerabilities with cloud usage (identified by the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA)) would be present in any contemporary technology environment.

Weighing up the cloud security risk

To establish the risks, benefits and suitability of cloud, we need to define the various cloud deployments, and operational and service models in use today and in the future.

A good analogy is that clouds are like roads; they facilitate getting to your destination, which could be a network location, application or a development environment. No-one would enforce a single, rigid set of rules and regulations for all roads – many factors come into play, whether it’s volume of traffic, the likelihood of an accident, safety measures, or requirements for cameras.

If all roads carried a 30 mile per hour limit, you might reduce fatal collisions, but motorways would cease to be efficient. Equally, if you applied a 70 mile per hour limit to a pedestrian precinct, unnecessary risks would be introduced. Context is very important – imperative in fact.

The same goes for cloud computing. To assess cloud risk, it is vital that we define what cloud means. Cloud adoption continues to grow, and as it does, such an explicit delineation of cloud and on-premise will not be necessary.

Is the world of commodity computing displacing traditional datacentre models to such an extent that soon all computing will be elastic, distributed and based on virtualisation? On the whole, I believe this is true. Organisations may have specific legacy, regulatory or performance requirements for retaining certain applications closer-to-home, but these will likely become the exception, not the rule.

Consumers and businesses continue to benefit from the convenience and cost savings associated with multi-tenant, cloud-based services. Service-based, shared solutions are pervasive in all industry verticals and the cloud/non-cloud delineation is not a suitable method of performing risk assessment.

Does cloud introduce new cloud security risks?

According to the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO), risk is “the effect of uncertainty on objectives.” So, does cloud introduce new forms of risk which didn’t exist in previous computing ecosystems? It is important that we understand how many of these are unique to the cloud and a result of the intrinsic nature of cloud architecture.

Taking an ethological or sociological approach to risk perception, German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer asserts that people tend to fear what are called “dread risks”: low-probability, high-consequence but with a primitive, overt impact. In other words, we feel safer with our servers in our datacentre even though we would (likely) be better served to leave security to those with cyber security as their core business.

The cloud is no more or less secure than on-premise technical architecture per se. There are entire application ecosystems running in public cloud that have a defence-in-depth set of security capabilities. Equally, there are a plethora of solutions that are deployed with default configurations and patch management issues.

Identifying key cloud security risks

ENISA, which provides the most comprehensive and well-constructed decomposition of what it considers the most appropriate vulnerabilities with cloud usage, breaks cloud vulnerabilities into three areas:

  • Policy and organisational – this includes vendor lock-in, governance, compliance, reputation and supply chain failures.
  • Technical – this covers resource exhaustion, isolation failure, malicious insider, interface compromise, data interception, data leakage, insecure data deletion, denial of service (DDoS) and loss of encryption keys
  • Legal – such as subpoena and e-discovery, changes of jurisdiction, data protection risks and licensing risks

The fact is, however, that most of these vulnerabilities are not unique to the cloud. Instead, they are the result of a need for process change as opposed to any technical vulnerability. The threat actors in an on-premise and public cloud ecosystem are broadly similar.

An organisation is idiomatically only as strong as its weakest link. Whilst it is prudent to acknowledge the threats and vulnerabilities associated with public cloud computing, there are a myriad of risks to the confidentiality, integrity and availability which exist across enterprise environments.

Ultimately, when it comes to the cloud it’s all about contextualising risk. Businesses tend to automatically think of high profile attacks, such as the Spectre meltdown, but the chances of this type of attack happening is extremely low.

Organisations undoubtedly need to assess the risks and make necessary changes to ensure they are compliant when making the move to the cloud, but it is wrong to assume that the cloud brings more vulnerabilities – in many situations, public cloud adoption can improve a company’s security posture.

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