Cloud Database Security – Businesses are no longer sitting on their hands, wondering if moving applications and data to the cloud could be risky. They do – but security is still a big issue.[ Deep Dive: How to rethink security in the new IT world. | Find out how to protect your system with InfoWorld’s Security newsletter. ]
Cloud Database Security
At the RSA conference earlier this month, the CSA (Cloud Security Alliance) listed the “Treacherous 12”, the top 12 cloud computing threats facing organizations in 2016. CSA reports to help cloud customers and providers focus security efforts.
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The distributed, on-demand nature of cloud computing introduces the possibility of new security breaches that could wipe out any gains from the cloud technology revolution, the CSA warned. As noted in previous CSA reports, cloud services in nature allow users to bypass organization-wide security policies and set up their own accounts in shadow IT project services. New controls must be installed.
“The 2016 Top Threats publication reflects the changing nature of poor cloud computing decisions across the board,” said JR Santos, CSA’s vice president of research.
The cloud environment faces the same threats as traditional business networks, but due to the large amount of data stored on cloud servers, providers have become an attractive target. The severity of potential damage depends on the sensitivity of the data displayed. Personal financial information tends to get the headlines, but breaches involving health information, trade secrets, and intellectual property can be more damaging.
When a data breach occurs, companies may be fined, or may face lawsuits or criminal charges. Breach investigations and customer notifications can be costly. Indirect effects, such as brand damage and loss of business, can affect organizations for years.
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Cloud providers often put security controls in place to protect their environments, but ultimately, organizations are responsible for protecting their data in the cloud. The CSA recommends that organizations use multifactor authentication and encryption to protect against data breaches.
Data breaches and other attacks are often the result of invalid authentication, weak passwords, and mismanagement of keys or certificates. Organizations often struggle with identity management as they try to assign appropriate permissions to user roles. More importantly, they sometimes forget to remove user access when a job function changes or a user leaves the organization.
Multifactor authentication systems such as one-time passwords, phone-based authentication, and smartcards protect cloud services by making it difficult for attackers to access stolen passwords. The Anthem breach, which exposed more than 80 million customer records, was the result of user authorization being stolen. Anthem failed to implement multifactor authentication, so once an attacker gets the credentials, it’s game over.
Many developers make the mistake of embedding licenses and cryptographic keys in their source code and leaving them in public repositories like GitHub. Keys need to be properly protected, and a secure public key infrastructure is needed, CSA said. They also need to be rotated periodically to make it difficult for attackers to use the keys they obtain without permission.
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Organizations looking to connect their identity to a cloud provider need to understand the security measures the provider uses to protect its identity platform. Placing one’s identity in a single fund carries risks. Organizations need to balance the trade-off of ease of establishing identity against the risk of making this database an extremely valuable target for attackers.
Almost all cloud services and applications now offer APIs. IT teams use interfaces and APIs to manage and interact with cloud services, including those that offer cloud provisioning, management, orchestration and monitoring.
The security and availability of cloud services — from authentication and access control to encryption and activity tracking — depends on API security. The risk increases with third parties that rely on APIs and build on these relationships, as organizations may need to release more services and licenses, the CSA warned. Weak connections and APIs expose organizations to security issues related to confidentiality, integrity, availability, and accountability.
APIs and interfaces are often the most visible part of a system because they are often accessible on the open Internet. The CSA recommends adequate monitoring as a “first line of defense and screening.” Modeling threat models and systems, including data flow and architecture/design, has become an integral part of the development life cycle. CSA also recommends security-focused code reviews and rigorous penetration testing.
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System vulnerabilities, or exploitable bugs in programs, are not new, but they have become a bigger problem with the advent of multitenancy in cloud computing. Organizations share memory, data and other resources in close proximity, creating new attack surfaces.
Fortunately, attacks on system vulnerabilities can be mitigated by “basic IT processes,” according to the CSA. Best practices include regular vulnerability scanning, prompt patch management, and rapid monitoring of reported system threats.
According to CSA, the cost of mitigating system vulnerabilities “is small compared to other IT costs.” The cost of putting IT processes in place to detect and fix vulnerabilities is small compared to the potential damage. Regulated industries need to catch up as quickly as possible, particularly in the areas of automated and repetitive processes, the CSA said. A change control process that focuses on emergency patching ensures that remediation activities are properly documented and reviewed by the technical team.
Phishing, fraud and software exploitation are still effective, and cloud services add a new dimension to the threat as attackers can eavesdrop on activity, manipulate transactions and modify data. Attackers may also be able to use cloud applications to launch other attacks.
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Defense-in-depth defense strategies can include damage caused by transcription. Organizations should prohibit the sharing of account credentials between users and services, and also enable multifactor authentication systems where available. Accounts, even service accounts, should be tracked so that each account holder can be traced back to the owner. The important thing is to protect the account credentials from being stolen, says the CSA.
Insider threats take many forms: current or former employees, system administrators, contractors, or co-workers. Malicious agendas range from data theft to revenge. In a cloud scenario, a hellbent person can destroy entire infrastructure or manipulate data. Systems that rely solely on the cloud service provider for security, such as encryption, are most at risk.
The CSA recommends that organizations control the encryption process and keys, separating duties and minimizing the access granted to users. Equally important is the involvement of stakeholders, monitoring, and effective monitoring.
As the CSA notes, it’s easy to interpret subtle attempts to perform routine tasks as “harmful” activity. An example would be an administrator who accidentally copies sensitive customer data to a publicly accessible server. Proper training and management to prevent such mistakes becomes more critical in the cloud, due to the possibility of more explosions.
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CSA calls these types of advanced “parasitic” attacks (APTs). APTs infiltrate systems to set up a site, then secretly leak data and intellectual property over a long period of time.
APTs often move through networks and are mixed in with normal traffic, making them difficult to detect. Major cloud providers implement advanced techniques to prevent APTs from entering their infrastructure, but customers need to be as diligent about identifying APT compromises in their cloud accounts as they are on their on-premises systems.
Common entry points include spear phishing, direct attacks, malware-laden USB drives, and third-party networks. In particular, the CSA recommends training users to recognize phishing techniques.
A regularly updated notification program keeps users alert and less likely to be tricked into allowing APTs into the network – and IT departments need to be informed of the latest advanced attacks. Advanced security controls, process management, incident response plans, and IT staff training lead to increased security budgets. Organizations should weigh these costs against the potential economic damage caused by a successful APT attack.
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As the cloud has matured, reports of permanent data loss due to provider errors have become rare. But malicious hackers have been known to completely delete cloud data to the detriment of businesses, and cloud data centers are as vulnerable to natural disasters as any building.
Cloud providers recommend sharing data and applications across multiple regions for added security. Adequate data retention measures are essential, as well as adherence to business continuity and disaster recovery best practices. Daily data backups and off-site storage remain critical in the cloud environment.
The burden of preventing data loss is not on the cloud service provider. If a customer encrypts data before uploading it to the cloud, the customer must take care to protect the encryption key. Once the key is lost, so is the data.
Compliance policies often specify how long an organization must retain audit records and other documents. The loss of such data can have serious legal implications. The new data protection regulations in the European Union also address data destruction and corruption of personal data as it violates data that requires appropriate disclosure. Know the rules to avoid problems.
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Organizations that embrace the cloud without fully understanding its environment and risks may face “business, financial,
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