How do you secure the cloud? New data points a way

Reports show big differences in risk among public, private and hybrid cloud deployments. Here’s advice on the tools, information and organizational structure needed to execute a successful cloud security strategy.

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The march toward the cloud for data and services has many companies rethinking their approach to cybersecurity. Do they need a new cloud security strategy? Recent surveys have shed light on how security strategies are changing, and more important, how they should change.

Placing more IT infrastructure in the cloud is in some ways more secure than having it in house. For instance, you can be reasonably sure that the system is running the latest version with the proper patches in place. Cloud service providers are also building in new capabilities such as using machine language for anomaly detection. However, it also presents new risks, some of which is the result of misunderstanding how to manage cloud security.

It is important to know how a company’s cloud IT strategy—whether it’s hybrid, private hosted, or public—affects its cyber security strategy and the tactical execution of that strategy.

What sensitive data is in the cloud?

In October 2018, McAfee released its Cloud Adoption and Risk Report 2019. That research showed that sharing of sensitive data over the cloud increases by 53% over the previous year—a huge jump. Of all files in the cloud, 21% contain sensitive data, McAfee found, and 48% of those files are eventually shared.

That sensitive data includes company confidential data (27%), email data (20%), password-protected data (17%), personally identifiable information (PII) (16%), payment data (12%) and personal health data (9%). The risk associated with confidential data in the cloud is growing, as companies are trusting it to the cloud more. Twenty-eight% more confidential data was placed on the cloud over the previous year, according to McAfee.

With so much sensitive data in the cloud and being shared via the cloud, theft by hacking isn't the only risk. McAfee found that enterprises have an average of 14 misconfigured infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) instances running, resulting in an average of 2,200 misconfiguration incidents a month where data is exposed to the public.

What is the cloud security risk?

Data from cloud security provider Alert Logic shows the nature and volume of risk for each form of cloud environment as compared to an on-premises data center. For 18 months, the company analyzed 147 petabytes of data from more than 3,800 customers to quantify and categorize security incidents. During that time, it identified more than 2.2 million true positive security incidents. Key findings include:

  • Hybrid cloud environments experienced the highest average number of incidents per customer at 977, followed by hosted private cloud (684), on-premises data center (612), and public cloud (405).
  • By far, the most common type of incident was a web application attack (75%), followed by brute force attack (16%), recon (5%), and server-side ransomware (2%).
  • The most common vectors for web application attacks were SQL (47.74%), Joomla (26.11%), Apache Struts (10.11%), and Magento (6.98%).
  • Wordpress was the most common brute force target at 41%, followed by MS SQL at 19%.

Whether it’s a public, private or hybrid cloud environment, web application threats are dominant. What’s different among them is the level of risk you face. “As defenders, at Alert Logic our ability to effectively protect public cloud is higher as well, because we see a better signal-to-noise ratio and chase fewer noisy attacks,” says Misha Govshteyn, co-founder of Alert Logic. “When we see security incidents in public cloud environments, we know we have to pay attention, because they are generally quieter.” 

The data shows that some platforms are more vulnerable than others. “This increases your attack surface despite your best efforts,” says Govshteyn. As an example he notes that “despite popular belief,” the LAMP stack has been much more vulnerable than the Microsoft-based application stack. He also sees PHP applications as a hotspot.

“Content management systems, especially Wordpress, Joomla and Django, are used as platforms for web applications far more than most people realize and have numerous vulnerabilities,” says Govshteyn. “It’s possible to keep these systems secure, but only if you understand what web frameworks and platforms your development teams tend to use. Most security people barely pay attention to these details, and make decisions based on bad assumptions.”

To minimize the impact from cloud threats, Alert Logic has three primary recommendations:

  • Rely on application whitelisting and block access to unknown programs. This includes doing risk vs. value assessments for each app used in the organization.
  • Understand your own patching process and prioritize deployment of patches.
  • Restrict administrative and access privileges based on current user duties. This will require keeping privileges for both applications and operating systems up to date.

How the cloud is compromised

Threat actors are always refining the techniques they use to attack the cloud. In June 2020, IBM Security reported on data from its X-Force IRIS incident response activity showing the most common ways cloud environments are compromised. In many cases, attackers used a combination of the following techniques, according to the report.

Exploiting cloud applications

Remote exploitation of cloud applications was the infection vector 45% of the time, according to the IBM researchers. They attributed the popularity of this vector to a lack of cloud maturity at some organizations and the prevalence of shadow IT, which can the attack surface.

Many of the issues associated with cloud applications are not well catalogued, according to the report, in part because cloud product vulnerabilities were outside the scope of traditional CVEs until this year. Without public disclosure of vulnerabilities, it’s difficult for security teams to assess risk and take the proper precautions.

Misconfigured cloud environments

Misconfigured cloud servers allowed attackers to access more than 1 billion records in 2019, according to the IBM’s 2020 X-Force Threat Intelligence Index. That does not count data that was exposed but not stolen.

Cross-cloud compromise

Once an attacker compromises one cloud environment, they might use that trusted connection to move laterally to other clouds to access data or plant malware. This attack can be difficult to detect because the threat actors can hide their activity within regular operational activity. “This cross-cloud compromise can be especially insidious, as cloud environments, especially large public clouds, often have high volumes of communication and can make this type of infection more difficult to detect,” said the authors of IBM’s cloud threat report.

Swimming upstream

IBM found that some threat actors tried to gain privileged access by accessing the underlying cloud hardware. With the swimming upstream approach, attackers first compromise the cloud environment to gain access to the host. From there, they try to access the management system to move among client environments.

As with cross-cloud compromise, swimming upstream attacks can be difficult to detect because they look like legitimate administration activity. The report’s authors cited the Perfect 10.0 Microsoft flaw as an example of how attackers might exploit a vulnerability to carry out a swimming upstream attack.

How to secure the cloud

According to a survey by market researcher VansonBourne and sponsored by network monitoring solutions provider Gigamon, 73% of respondents expect the majority of their application workloads to be in the public or private cloud. Yet, 35% of those respondents expect to handle network security in “exactly the same manner” as they do for their on-premises operations. The remainder, while reluctant to change, believe they have no choice but to change their security strategy for the cloud.

Granted, not every company is migrating sensitive or critical data to the cloud, so for them there is less reason to change strategy. However, most companies are migrating critical and proprietary company information (56%) or marketing assets (53%). Forty-seven percent expect to have personally identifiable information in the cloud, which has implications due to new privacy regulations such as the EU’s GDPR.

Companies should focus on three main areas for their cloud security strategy, according to Govshteyn:

  1. Tools. The security tools you deploy in cloud environments must be native to the cloud and able to protect web applications and cloud workloads. “Security technologies formulated for endpoint protection are focused on a set of attack vectors not commonly seen in the cloud, and are ill equipped to deal with OWASP Top 10 threats, which constitute 75% of all cloud attacks,” says Govshteyn. He notes that endpoint threats target web browsers and client software, while infrastructure threats target servers and application frameworks.
  2. Architecture. Define your architecture around the security and management benefits offered by the cloud, not the same architecture you use in your traditional data centers. “We now have data showing that pure public environments allow enterprises to experience lower incident rates, but this is only achievable if you use cloud capabilities to design more secure infrastructure,” says Govshteyn. He recommends that you isolate each application or micro-service in its own virtual private cloud, which reduces the blast radius of any intrusion. “Major breaches such as Yahoo began with trivial web applications as the initial entry vector, so the least important applications often become your biggest problem.” Also, don’t patch vulnerabilities in your cloud deployments. Instead, deploy new cloud infrastructure running the most recent code and decommission your old infrastructure. “You can only do this if you automate your deployments, but you will gain the level of control over your infrastructure you could never achieve in traditional data centers,” says Govshteyn.
  3. Connection points. Identify points where your cloud deployments are interconnected to traditional data centers running legacy code. “Those are likely to be your biggest source of problems, as we see a clear trend that hybrid cloud deployments tend to see most security incidents,” he says.

Not everything about a company’s existing security strategy has to change for the cloud. “Using the same security strategy--for example, deep content inspection for forensics and threat detection--for cloud as on-premises is not a bad idea by itself. Companies pursuing this are typically looking for consistency between their security architectures to limit gaps in their security posture,” says Tom Clavel, senior manager of product marketing at Gigamon.

“The challenge is how they get access to the network traffic for this kind of inspection,” Clavel adds. “While this data is readily available on-premise using a variety of ways, it is unavailable in the cloud. Plus, even if they get access to the traffic, backhauling the firehose of information to the on-premise tools for inspection, without the intelligence is extremely expensive and counter-productive.”

The cloud’s visibility issues

One complaint that the VansonBourne respondents had was that the cloud can create blindspots within the security landscape. Overall, half said the cloud can “hide” information that enables them to identify threats. They also said that with the cloud, they are also missing information on what is being encrypted (48%), insecure applications or traffic (47%), or SSL/TLS certificate validity (35%).

A survey conducted by the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) from December 2018 to February 2019 showed that cloud environments are becoming more complex, leading to more visibility issues. Of all respondents, 66% said their organizations used multiple clouds while 55% worked in a hybrid cloud environment. Thirty-six percent had both multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments.

Nearly three-quarters of the CSA survey respondents that used the cloud reported a lack of expertise hampered their ability to manage security on the cloud. For example, most respondents who reported a cloud outage did not know the cause. CSA speculated that this was due to visibility issues and lack of security expertise.

It’s not just data that security teams have limited visibility into. Sixty-seven percent of the VansonBourne respondents said that network blindspots were a hindrance to them protecting their organization. To gain better visibility, Clavel recommends that you first identify how you want to organize and implement your security posture. “Is it all within the cloud or extended from on-premises to the cloud? In both cases, make sure pervasive visibility to your application’s network traffic is central to your security strategy. The more you see, the more you can secure,” he says.

“To address the visibility needs, identify a way to acquire, aggregate and optimize the network traffic to your security tools, whether they are an intrusion detection system (IDS), security information and event management (SIEM), forensics, data loss prevention (DLP), advanced threat detection (ATD), or to all of them concurrently,” Clavel adds. “Finally, add SecOps procedures to automate visibility and security against detected threats even as your cloud footprint grows.”

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