July 26, 2018

The march toward the cloud for data and services has many companies rethinking their approach to cyber security. Do they need a cloud security strategy? What is different about a 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 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 percent), followed by brute force attack (16 percent), recon (5 percent), and server-side ransomware (2 percent).
  • The most common vectors for web application attacks were SQL (47.74 percent), Joomla (26.11 percent), Apache Struts (10.11 percent), and Magento (6.98 percent).
  • WordPress was the most common brute force target at 41 percent, followed by MS SQL at 19 percent.

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.

6 types of cloud threats

In April, cloud security platform provider ShieldX outlined six categories of cloud security threats that it believes are likely to occur in 2018. Most organizations will have a hard time mitigating the risk of these threats because of mismatch between their defenses and the nature of the threats, says Manuel Nedbal, CTO and senior vice president at ShieldX. “The form factor of the threats is not matching the virtual perimeter. Traditional security controls were built to protect the physical form factor.”

Those controls must change as organizations transition to virtual data centers in private and public clouds. “Security has to adapt to find those new boundaries between the physical and virtual infrastructures,” says Nedbal. He adds that cloud security tools need to be “very small, very dynamic, and placed where and when needed.”

1. Cross-cloud attack

With a cross-cloud attack, a hacker can access on-premise systems and private cloud systems through the public cloud. For example, workloads or content in a public cloud that are infected with malware could spread to the private cloud.

The risk is minimized if the right lateral defenses are in place, but that’s not the case in too many instances especially in hybrid cloud environments. “The amount of attacks against the cloud is increasing,” says Nedbal. Hackers monitor for new cloud instances. “As soon as there’s workload activity, it will be attacked.” If an organization has different sets of controls for its on-premise and cloud systems, it could leave gaps that hackers exploit.

2. Cross-data-center attack

Once a hacker breaches a data center location, it is often easy for them to access other locations. The reason: the connections between the points of delivery (PoDs) in the data centers is likely not well secured because they are considered trusted zones. If an attack compromises one component of a PoD it can spread to other connected data centers.

In a blog post, Nedbal advised sending all traffic through a multi-layered perimeter defense system. This is partly due to a desire to perform services such as data back-up or synchronization without security controls slowing things down.

3. Cross-tenant attacks

In a multi-tenant environment, hackers can exploit the network traffic among cloud tenants. Tenants might assume that the host has secured their assets in the cloud, but they are responsible for implementing much of the defenses. Again, sending traffic through a multi-layered defense system with the appropriate controls will mitigate the risk of this cloud threat.

4. Cross-workload attack

Cloud-based workloads can easily connect with other workloads. Compromise one workload and an attacker can access others whether it occurs on a virtual desktop, virtual web server, or database. Defending against cross-workload attacks, especially if they run on the same tenant, is difficult. “If you just seal off all workloads from each other, then they are secure,” says Nedbal. In a blog post, he advised that workloads with similar security requirements should be placed in a zone that has appropriate controls to monitor traffic.

5. Orchestration attacks

Cloud orchestration enables many key tasks including provisioning, server deployment, storage and network management, identity and privilege management, and virtual machine (VM) creation. Hackers typically execute orchestration attacks to steal account logins or private cryptography keys. With those, the attacker can perform orchestration tasks to essentially gain control and access. “Once in, [an attacker] can create additional workload for their own purposes or remove workloads,” says Nedbal. The higher privilege they can steal, the more damage they can do.

The way to defend against orchestration attacks, Nedbal says, is through monitoring admin behavior. “[The orchestration threat] needs more admin behavior detection to look for unusual patterns or accounts behaving anomalously,” he says.

6. Serverless attacks

Serverless applications allow organizations to rapidly spin up cloud-based functions without having to build or extend infrastructure. Also called function as a service (FaaS), it presents new opportunities for hackers and new challenges for network defenders. A new function might have access to sensitive assets like a database. If the privileges for that function are set up incorrectly, an attacker might be able to perform a number of tasks through the function. This includes launching a VM, accessing storage, or creating new accounts. As with orchestration attacks, the best way to detect a serverless attack is by monitoring network and account behaviors.

How to secure the cloud

According to a survey by market researcher VansonBourne and sponsored by network monitoring solutions provider Gigamon, 73 percent of respondents expect the majority of their application workloads to be in the public or private cloud. Yet, 35 percent 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 percent) or marketing assets (53 percent). 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 percent 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 percent), insecure applications or traffic (47 percent), or SSL/TLS certificate validity (35 percent).

A hybrid cloud environment can hamper visibility even more, as it can prevent security teams from seeing where the data is actually stored, according to 49 percent of the survey respondents. Siloed data, some held by security operations and some by network operations, can make finding data even worse, 78 percent of the respondents claimed.

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