While ransomware has been the leading concern for enterprise security teams over the few past years, software vulnerabilities are nipping at its heels. The boom in cloud-based apps and services and increased digitization of work have been a boon for hackers, who are taking advantage of developers’ and DevOps teams’ attempts to work faster and smarter to keep up with demand. One estimate says that four out of 10 zero-day attacks carried out in the last decade happened in 2021 alone.
Many things account for this increase. Developers are stretched and are reusing code, which allows for misconfigurations and vulnerabilities to reappear unexpectedly in different programs, and the use of multiple cloud services fragments security measures and reduces visibility into the code running many enterprise functions. This is why developers and security professionals alike are paying more attention to security throughout the software development life cycle (SDLC), particularly in the early stages.
Shift Left Security Principles and Challenges
The zero-day surge has led to an increased interest in shift left practices as a way to make security a priority in the development process. Shift left culture brings security into the equation much earlier in the software life cycle, before the software is deployed, rather than patch bugs after users report them. This preemptive approach helps head off vulnerabilities that can affect an application’s security posture unbeknown to its defenders.
Shift left principles can also enhance security when developers build applications for cloud platforms—such as Amazon Web Services, Microsoft’s Azure or Google Cloud—where visibility into the proprietary code and security tools of the platform can be limited. In a shift left culture, DevOps embeds least privilege policies as part of the daily work on cloud workloads, to protect network infrastructure and avoid granting excess permissions on those workflows.
For example, setting up role-based access control (RBAC) on Kubernetes containers enforces a least privilege model on those clusters and avoids excessive permissions that can lead to a breach, while removing admin credentials from continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) workstations shuts off hackers from using those pipelines as an attack vector.
Shift left security is a great concept, but runs into hurdles in execution, mainly the internal conflict between development teams who want to move at the speed of business while security staff takes a more cautious approach. This leads to friction, with developers warning about access denials affecting their work and causing deployment delays, while the security analysts worry about data breaches caused by too many users with unchecked admin privileges.
Working out this friction requires a mindset shift, where DevOps understands that security is part of the development process, and management can trust that developers have security in hand. This also requires tools and training to integrate shift left practices, such as platforms that can bridge the security needs of the CISO (by granting greater visibility into the network infrastructure code, for example) and the agility needs of the DevOps teams (by automating security guardrails and entitlements, for example). The ultimate goal is creating what is known as a DevSecOps model, bringing together development, security and operations into one agile, safe and efficient workflow.
How to Adopt Shift Left Security on the Cloud
Four best practices can help:
● Gain deep visibility: With enterprises often working in multiple cloud environments—and mixing public and private clouds into hybrid infrastructures—visibility into assets typically suffers, which makes getting a clear view of risk difficult. Being able to discover all identities, permissions, configurations and resources in the environment and all the access paths to specific resources can help build a contextual inventory of cloud assets to better manage them and carry out policy analysis.
● Prioritize risk: Risk management is a key practice of any security program, but the flood of alerts from multiple cloud providers and systems can overwhelm security operations centers, which are often short on talent and time. Automation tools can now search and prioritize risks across an entire cloud environment, from development to production, spotting problem combinations and alleviating the workload of sorting manually through alerts across multiple silos, freeing the staff to work on higher-priority mitigation and remediation tasks.
● Just-in-time access: Zero-trust architecture has become the standard to aspire for most security defenses, but it is often challenged by the difficulties of managing access privileges. Just-in-Time (JIT) access, granting limited-time revocable rights, is a useful tool for building a zero-trust security architecture and enforcing least privilege policies to maintain it. Technology tools that actively manage and monitor developer access to cloud environments, including a strong audit trail of privileged activity, give security a means to enforce JIT access and zero-trust in turn.
● Find and prevent vulnerabilities and misconfigurations: Infrastructure-as-code (IaC) has made software deployment in the cloud (much more agile and efficient with the use of virtual machines, containers, microservices, etc. However, security is often an afterthought both pre- and post-production when standing up cloud infrastructure. Organizations should scan code for security policy violations and other risks in order to mitigate flaws before they reach production and to detect and fix problems in production environments. With feedback and automated guardrails built into development workflows, DevOps and security teams can reduce security risks in their code.
Like zero-trust, shift left is on its way to becoming a standard practice for cybersecurity assurance. But building a DevSecOps model takes more than good intentions. It requires practices, tools and training to execute that model, and a mindset of partnership across the enterprise and with outside cloud and security partners. Only a group effort will provide the cloud security assurance an agile business needs.