If we’ve learned one thing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that digital-native business models are essential to survival. That means cloud adoption is more important than ever before. Research shows that the public cloud market is expected to grow to $308.5 billion in 2021, an increase of 16% from 2020.
But while the cloud holds incredible potential, we have an outstanding security issue to address. That issue is cloud misconfigurations. Through 2025, 99% of cloud security failures will be the responsibility of the customer, quantifying the need for security professionals to turn their attention to security hygiene issues like cloud misconfigurations.
Digging Into the Cloud Misconfiguration Problem
To get to the root of the problem, we must fully understand the risk of cloud misconfigurations and how they differ from more traditional vulnerabilities. While traditional vulnerabilities can be patched, cloud misconfigurations can create vulnerabilities in otherwise secure applications and infrastructure. Imagine cloud infrastructure like a highway system and cloud misconfigurations as road hazards. They can be incredibly dangerous and lead to accidents.
As a specific example of cloud misconfigurations, let’s look at identity and access management (IAM). Poorly configured IAM, such as misconfigured roles or a lack of multi-factor authentication (MFA), can lead to compromised administrative accounts. If a threat actor hijacks a legitimate administrator account, they potentially can take full control of an entire cloud environment. Because IAM sits above the cloud infrastructure layer and all workloads and data within, once it is exploited a threat actor will often be able to circumvent your other security barriers, such as network segmentation, leaving you defenseless.
Cloud Misconfigurations Can Easily Scale
Where misconfiguration risk dramatically increases is through the adoption of cloud-native applications and practices like infrastructure as code (IaC) templates used by DevOps teams. These templates offer teams greater speed and scale for building and managing applications, but the downside is that misconfigurations can be unknowingly replicated from development environments to production environments (where sensitive data is stored) at greater velocity.
In short, the biggest risk to organizations right now is scaling these misconfigurations through the cloud. As the cloud grows in adoption and scale, we’re witnessing these misconfigurations scale right alongside it. Where before, a misconfiguration might have been limited to a siloed application or environment, today, that same misconfiguration can impact the entire organization without checks in place to catch it. Worse, many cloud storage buckets have logging disabled, meaning once threat actors are able to identify a misconfiguration and access an internal cloud bucket, an organization won’t even be able to see what data was accessed.
Understanding the Shared Responsibility Model
This all points to a higher-level, hygiene-related issue to keep in mind when securing cloud environments: responsibility. Particularly, organizations struggle to understand the shared responsibility model and how it applies within their own organizations. While some may fail to delineate between cloud provider responsibilities and their own, the major issue at stake is the shared responsibility between various internal teams that often goes undiscussed and undocumented until there is a security event.
When thinking about software-as-a-service (SaaS), to a much lesser degree the responsibility falls on consumers. However, when considering infrastructure- and platform-as-a-service (IaaS/PaaS) and all the moving parts such as network, user credentials, resource configurations, workloads, identity configurations and more, cloud consumers become responsible for much more. A key consideration to note is that one can never outsource accountability, no matter which cloud model is used. To put this more simply, if one puts data in any cloud provider, they are still accountable for that data.
Enabling a Holistic Cloud Security Strategy
When advising security and business leaders on how they can better secure their cloud environments and applications, I highlight what my team calls “The Big Cloud 5,” a set of recommendations developed to help organizations adopt a holistic cloud security model that accounts for proper security hygiene and shared responsibility.
- Gain awareness and deep cloud visibility
The very first step to ensuring cloud security is understanding how teams are using cloud technologies, leveraging shadow IT and cloud provider APIs. This allows you to get situational awareness and make informed decisions today as well as in the future. This is not a one-time event, but something you’ll need to do continuously.
- Set guardrails to automatically prevent the most serious cloud misconfigurations
Drawing lines in the sand around the most offensive (and potentially destructive) misconfigurations that should never exist in an environment is key to automating protection in the cloud. This will help keep templates and practices controlled, so that poor hygiene doesn’t inadvertently take root and spread. Think of this as your “dirty dozen.” What configurations should never exist in your cloud environments?
- Standards are the precursor to automation
One can’t automate what hasn’t been standardized, and while there aren’t widely accepted security standards yet, key stakeholders in an organization must be in agreement about how to secure cloud infrastructures.
- Train and hire security engineers who code
To fully leverage APIs, security teams must have engineers who know how to code and automate security processes. An assessment of skills that exist across your security team (e.g., knowledge of coding in the likes of Python or Ruby) can point to areas in training and hiring that need further investment.
- Embed security in the development pipeline
Map out who, what, when, where and how your organization pushes code into the cloud. Once mapped, identify the least disruptive insertion points for security processes and tools, so that they can exist in as much of the development pipeline as possible.
If you feel your organization is a step behind on proper cloud security hygiene, know that you’re not alone. Earlier in 2021, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) released a report highlighting the importance of strengthening security configurations based on the uptick in successful cloud attacks, often attributed to poor hygiene and the mixed use of computing devices in the remote work environment. While this is a growing problem, it is also a reversible trend. Best practices, cyber hygiene and a shared responsibility model can help companies safely and securely migrate to the cloud.