12 min read
Oct 22, 2020

Security Risks of Cloud Computing and How To Combat Them

Do you know how safe your data is in the cloud? Here are the key cloud computing risks you should be aware of and steps you can take to improve your cloud security.

Gitanjali MariaSr. Content Analyst

A few minutes and a couple of clicks, that’s all it takes to set up a cloud account. You may not even think twice before signing up for cloud applications such as Gmail or Azure. But are you ignoring security in the process? Do you know where your data is stored or who can access it? No doubt, cloud services are easy to set up, but they also increase security vulnerabilities. 

According to Gartner, organizations overestimated cloud security risks in the past, but the trend is shifting now, and companies are underestimating cloud-related risks. If you’re one of these companies, your cloud operations may be prone to hacking attempts that can damage your reputation and lead to penalties.

In this article, we’ve explained the key cloud security risks you should be aware of and suggested ways to overcome them. But first, let’s take a quick look at some basics of cloud computing.

Group 3@1x Created with Sketch.

What is cloud computing?

Cloud computing is the delivery of software applications and IT resources (e.g., servers, networks, storage, processing power, data centers) over the internet. Simply put, you rent IT tools and services from a cloud service provider (CSP) instead of buying and maintaining them yourself. The CSP is responsible for upgrades or maintenance, and you pay a fixed subscription fee (usually monthly or annually) for the services you use. 

You can either opt for public cloud or private cloud services. In the former, you share a set of cloud resources with other businesses or cloud users, while in the latter, you have access to dedicated resources. Private cloud services are costlier, as the CSP provides dedicated services for your business. 

Types of cloud computing models

You can start using cloud services via any of the following three models:

  • Software-as-a-Service (SaaS): In this model, third-party vendors deliver software applications over the internet. You don't have to install the cloud application on your computer and can access it online by logging into your account. G-Suite and Dropbox are some examples of SaaS.

  • Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): In this model, vendors deliver IT infrastructure services such as servers, data center, storage, virtualization, and networking over the internet. IaaS services are a cost-effective alternative to physical hardware and IT infrastructure. Microsoft Azure and AWS are some examples of IaaS.

  • Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): In this model, third-party vendors deliver the platforms and tools needed to develop software applications. PaaS users are usually software developers, and the service saves them from the trouble of writing codes from scratch.  Google App Engine and Microsoft Azure are some examples of PaaS. 

Group 3@1x Created with Sketch.

Top 4 security risks of cloud computing

DDoS attacks, ransomware attacks, account takeovers, and data breaches are some common types of cloud security threats. Let’s discuss the key risks you should be careful about when adopting cloud technology. 

Top 4 Security Risks of Cloud Computing

1. You have low visibility and control over cloud data

When using the cloud environment, you may not have a clear idea of where your data is stored, how it’s stored, and who can access it. Though you get benefits such as ease of use and low upfront costs, data visibility and control take a back seat. 

For instance, your SaaS provider may be relying on another cloud company to host your applications and data, leading to an obscure chain of command that further reduces control and visibility for you.

This lack of visibility and control diminishes your ability to establish clear rules about how your data is to be collected, where it should be stored, who’s accountable for protecting it, who can access it, etc. Inadequate data governance in the cloud can result in noncompliance with regulations and result in penalties for your business. 

According to Gartner’s Security Risks in Cloud Computing report (full content available to paid clients only), a whopping 90% of companies agree lack of governance and compliance visibility is a key cloud security risk.

For 90% of organizations, inability to monitor governance and compliance is a key cloud security risk.

What to check with a cloud provider?

Ask questions about where and how your data will be stored, what rights you and the provider will have over it, and who'll be responsible in case of data loss. Also, ask if you can add additional security measures to improve visibility and control over your data in the cloud.

2. Your CSP may not be following data compliance standards

Regulations such as GDPR require you to inform customers about how you store, process, and use their data. You also have to take customers’ consent before sharing their data with third parties. 

When you use cloud computing, you rely on your CSP to ensure your customers’ data is stored and processed per the regulations concerning your line of business, and that can be a compliance challenge. Let us explain why. 

First, the security measures followed by your CSP may not be relevant to or strong enough for your industry of operation. Also, your provider may not be willing to disclose how they’re following data security standards. They may not even let you audit their compliance policies, which can further complicate matters and lead to hefty fines and penalties for your business. 

When selecting a CSP, ask the right questions to ensure your data is in safe hands. In GetApp’s 2020 Business Model survey, 81% of respondents agreed they don’t enquire about vendors’ regulatory compliance practices when purchasing software. 

81% of SMBs don't ask their software vendors about their regulatory compliance practices.

What to check with a cloud provider?

Check if the provider follows data protection measures relevant to your line of work. Research the provider’s current clientele to see if they’ve worked with companies in the same industry as yours. We recommend partnering with a CSP that has a good track record in data security compliance.

3. Malicious co-tenants and careless insiders put your data at risk 

In the cloud, your data is managed by a third party—i.e., your CSP—which increases security risks. As much as 80% of companies are concerned about data security risks when using cloud services, according to Gartner’s Security Risks in Cloud Computing report (full content available to paid clients only).

Though your CSP has taken all required data security measures, hackers may still get through, and things can get worse if you're using a public cloud shared by multiple tenants. You can get victimized (experience downtime or a data breach) even if you aren’t the primary target. 

Malicious co-tenants in a public cloud may also hack your data if there are flaws in the CSP’s data separation methods. Careless insiders (e.g., your employees) are another cloud security risk. They could be using weak passwords, sharing their passwords with others, using insecure mobile devices, etc. Negligent insiders are usually targeted by hackers to take over your cloud accounts.

For 80% of organizations, data security challenges are a key cloud security risk.

What to check with a cloud provider?

Enquire about the types of data security measures—encryption, firewalls, access controls, backup, DDoS attack protection—used by the CSP. Also, check if any business continuity or disaster recovery clauses or terms and conditions are mentioned in the service level agreement (SLA).

4. Deleting your data permanently from the cloud is a challenge

What happens when you delete your data from the cloud? Is it removed completely, or does it leave traces behind? Forty percent of respondents, per Gartner’s Security Risks in Cloud Computing report (full content available to paid clients only), say ineffective deletion of data is a security threat, and here’s the reason why! 

Various studies show that deleting a file stored in the cloud doesn’t necessarily mean no copy or instance of the file exists elsewhere. Cloud providers regularly copy your files to multiple data centers as backup and to ensure uninterrupted service.

When you delete a file, your provider often marks it as “deleted” but doesn’t remove it from the cloud server immediately. The file is, instead, parked at a separate location. You’ll have to request a permanent deletion to remove all traces of your file. And even after that, you can’t be too sure it’s completely erased. Here's an example of a Flickr user who learned this the hard way.

40% of organizations say ineffective deletion of data is a security threat.

What to check with a cloud provider? 

Ask clearly what will happen to your data when you terminate the cloud service. Enquire how the provider will back up your data and where the backup data will be stored (personal servers or third-party servers). Ensure the provider has provisions to delete the backup data completely when you request for it.

Group 3@1x Created with Sketch.

Security measures to reduce risks for your cloud data

Gartner estimates through 2025, 99% of cloud security failures will be due to mistakes made by customers rather than cloud providers. To ensure your business isn’t one of that 99%, take all necessary security precautions. Here are the top data protection measures you should consider adopting.  

Encrypt your data 

Your CSP may already offer data encryption, but it’s recommended you use additional encryption methods to add an extra layer of protection to your data. Encryption helps mask data from hackers, even those using complex algorithms. Use encryption for data stored in the cloud as well as in-transit—i.e., when it’s being moved from your site to the cloud provider. 

Use multifactor authentication for more security

In multifactor authentication (MFA), you add an extra user verification method (e.g., OTP sent to your mobile or biometric verification) to access your cloud account, besides the usual username and password. This additional step will help prevent hacking attempts in case your employees share their passwords by mistake or if a hacker guesses their password.

Train your employees on security 

Careless actions by your employees can lead to accidental deletion or loss of data from the cloud. Also, untrained employees may not be able to spot phishing emails and thus become easy targets of account takeover attacks. Train your employees on security best practices for cloud applications using online training programs, AR- or VR-driven training, webinars, etc. 

Back up your data regularly

Data backups are crucial in the event of information loss due to DDoS attacks or other related threats. Your CSP may already be backing up data in the cloud, but you should also do the same at your end. Determine a backup frequency and opt for a disaster recovery plan that suits your needs. Here are some market-leading backup software tools to consider.

Dashboard showing data backup status in Spanning software

Dashboard showing data backup status in Spanning (Source)

Group 3@1x Created with Sketch.

Conclusion: Don’t shy from cloud adoption if you’ve taken all precautions

Cloud infrastructure has some inherent security risks, but don’t assume all cloud applications are poor on security. There’s no need to worry if you’ve chosen the services of a reputed CSP and are following all security measures. Remember, the cloud is a more secure option if your IT team is inexperienced or understaffed or if you lack an IT team altogether.       

When using cloud resources, be mindful of the risks we’ve discussed and use our suggested security measures to protect your data over and above what your cloud vendor has promised. Also, consider investing in software tools to strengthen your security efforts. Here are some top-rated IT security tools you can check out. 

Back to top