Cloud security for SMEs: Seven key steps

Seven steps which SMEs should follow when considering a cloud service, selecting a cloud provider and managing a cloud contract

Cloud security remains a key concern for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and is still often cited as a chief impediment to moving to the cloud. This is understandable, as security breaches can have major negative repercussions for a business.

However, the risks need not be insurmountable for SMEs, nor outweigh the benefits of cloud services. It is also important to remember that while most SMEs are not specialists in data security, cloud service providers need to be – they have a vested interest in maintaining the security of customer data.

Below are seven steps which SMEs should follow when considering a cloud service, selecting a cloud provider and managing a cloud contract.

1. Audit your data

Review your data to determine whether there is any which should not be shifted to the cloud, perhaps because a contract restricts the transfer of confidential information, for example, or your privacy policy does not allow certain personal data to be transferred. 

Create a clear record of the categories of data you intend to shift to the cloud.

2. Do your homework

As the cloud market is maturing, there are now many service providers and types of service on offer. This means you can shop around to find the cloud provider that best meets your security and other needs. Asking the right questions before you select a provider is key.

If you are transferring personal data to the cloud, you are likely to be viewed as a "data controller" of the data under EU data protection laws and will be responsible for ensuring that any processing of personal data is secure – even where that processing is carried out by a cloud provider on your behalf. You will therefore need to choose a cloud provider that gives sufficient written assurances in respect of security.

A good starting point for SMEs is the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) Guidance on the use of cloud computing(2012). The guidelines outline the different types of cloud models, including the risks associated with them, and raises questions to take into account during a cloud selection process. For example:

  • A careful consideration of the security risks in the early stage of planning and the implementation of sound risk management strategies are central to a successful cloud project

    Louise Taylor, Taylor Wessing

    How is data stored by the cloud provider (is it co-mingled with other customers’ data, for example)?
  • Does the provider have any industry accreditations, such as ISO 27001?
  • Can it give you copies of any independent security audits or other evidence of its security track record?
  • How does it monitor, report and deal with security breaches?
  • Is encryption used/permitted?

EU data protection law regulates the transfer of personal data outside the European Economic Area, so if you are shifting personal data to the cloud, it is also important to ask where the provider’s servers are located and what safeguards are in place there. 

Cloud providers should be transparent about this. Some providers offer Europe-only solutions, or US clouds operating within the confines of the Federal Trade Commission-enforced Safe Harbor regime, but whether these (or other) solutions are appropriate – or necessary – for you will depend on your particular circumstances. If in doubt, seek legal advice.

3. Look at the contract

The flexibility and pricing benefits of public cloud solutions come at a cost. Most SMEs will be presented with standard terms on a "take it or leave it" basis for such solutions. You will need to shop around to find the best terms for your business, remembering that, as data controller of any personal data in the cloud, you must retain sufficient control over the personal data to meet your legal obligations. The contract should, for example:

  • State that the provider will act only on the customer’s instructions;
  • Give assurances as to the security of your data;
  • Specify the limited circumstances in which the provider can access the data;
  • Clarify the customer’s rights to access and delete the data;
  • Set out how security is monitored and breaches are dealt with.

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4. Encrypt data where necessary

Place encryption around any personal data in transit between your IT infrastructure and the cloud provider’s to limit the risk of unauthorised access or exposure of the data, and ensure that the encryption used meets industry recognised standards. 

The ICO also advises businesses to consider whether the encryption should be used on data at rest, such as where sensitive personal data is stored in the cloud. 

5. Check your privacy policy

You may need to amend your privacy policy if it does not currently allow you to process personal data in the cloud.  

The ICO states that businesses should be as open as possible with individuals when processing personal data in this way.

6. Manage your contract

To maintain control of your data throughout its lifecycle, monitor and review your cloud provider’s security measures on a regular basis to ensure it is meeting the expected standards, and check whether any updated security audit reports are made available.

7. Train your staff

Security measures are only as good as the people implementing them. Ensure relevant staff understand their responsibilities, such as keeping their authentication details safe, maintaining the security of encryption keys and adhering to access controls.

The steps above are simply starting points for an SME considering a cloud service, or a quick checklist for those who have already shifted data to the cloud. 

Regardless of what stage you are at, bear in mind that a careful consideration of the security risks in the early stage of planning and the implementation of sound risk management strategies are central to a successful cloud project.

Louise Taylor is senior associate at international law firm Taylor Wessing

Image: Thinkstock

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