The Fundamentals of Data Security in Cloud Computing

Daniel Olaogun
Nov 16, 2023
December 4, 2023
The Fundamentals of Data Security in Cloud Computing

In an era where cloud computing is no longer a luxury but a necessity, understanding the intricacies of data security within the cloud environment is crucial. But what does data security in cloud computing entail? At its core, it's about safeguarding your data when it's stored in remote servers—often across a complex network of data centers operated by cloud service providers.

This means that cloud services aren't just a convenience; they're an integral part of your business operations. And because your data is exposed to a wide range of security risks, data protection is exceedingly important.

The challenges you'll encounter in securing cloud data are multifaceted. First, there's the proliferation of clouds—infrastructure as a service (IaaS), platform as a service (PaaS), database as a service (DBaaS), and software as a service (SaaS). Each comes with its own set of security requirements and loopholes. Second, the shared responsibility model means you can't just offload data security onto your cloud service provider; you still hold ultimate responsibility. Third and last, the rate and ease of change in cloud environments, accelerated by practices like continuous integration, continuous deployment (CI/CD), software supply chains, and user-initiated changes in SaaS settings, further complicate your security landscape.

In this article, you'll learn more about the fundamentals of data security and how it has evolved with the cloud.

The CIA Triad

One of the fundamental security principles of data security is the confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA) triad.

Confidentiality

Confidentiality ensures that your data is not exposed to unauthorized entities. Methods for maintaining confidentiality include stringent access controls, encryption, and multi-factor authentication. But remember, it's not just about protecting data at rest and in transit; you also have to consider data during processing.

Beyond basic access controls and encryption, you need to consider the different states of data in a cloud environment. For example, data can exist in different layers of a stack in an IaaS or PaaS service. It might be present in a database, a virtual machine, or even a container. Each layer could potentially expose the data to different risks, so it's crucial to employ layered security mechanisms. Additionally, cloud services often integrate with each other, creating more entry points for data. Using advanced security measures like zero-trust architecture can offer another layer of defense.

Integrity

Integrity ensures that your data remains unaltered during storage, transfer, or processing unless a change is initiated by an authorized user. Hash functions, checksums, and digital signatures are commonly used to validate data integrity.

In the cloud, data often moves between multiple services or components—sometimes even across different geographical locations. Every handoff poses a risk to data integrity. Employing blockchain technology, for example, can provide an immutable history of all changes to the data, adding a layer of transparency and assurance.

Availability

What good is data if it isn't available when you need it? Your data should always be accessible to those who are authorized to see it. High-availability configurations, redundant systems, and disaster recovery plans are standard practices to ensure data availability.

The cloud introduces a variety of failover and redundancy options that are more sophisticated compared to traditional on-premise solutions. For instance, multi-region support ensures data is replicated in geographically diverse locations, mitigating the risk of data loss due to localized failures. However, it's crucial to maintain a balance; more redundancy can mean more complexity and potentially more points of failure. It's not just about having backup systems but also about ensuring those systems are effectively isolated and accessible.

By meticulously applying the CIA triad principles in your cloud environment, you not only create a strong foundation but also facilitate the integration of more advanced security measures tailored for cloud complexities. However, effectively implementing the CIA triad requires various roles and responsibilities.

Roles in Cloud Data Security

In cloud computing, security is not a one-size-fits-all affair or a solitary endeavor. Multiple parties are involved, and each carries distinct responsibilities in ensuring a secure data environment. Understanding these roles is crucial for effective data security governance.

Cloud Service Providers

Cloud service providers (CSPs) are the entities that offer the cloud infrastructure where your data resides. While they are responsible for the physical security of the data centers, data security isn't solely their responsibility.

CSPs secure the network, storage, and other fundamental computing resources. They also ensure uptime and availability, making it easier for you to focus on your specific data and application needs. However, it's essential to understand their security protocols, compliance standards, and what aspects fall under your purview.

Cloud Customers

Cloud customers (i.e., you and your organization) are responsible for the security of your own data, applications, and services running in the cloud. This includes implementing encryption, access controls, and any additional layers of security that your data might require. You also have the job of ensuring compliance with various industry standards and laws that apply to your data.

Cloud Security Professionals

Cloud security professionals are the specialists who act as intermediaries between CSPs and cloud customers. They bring expertise in data protection standards, laws, and best practices. They're responsible for interpreting the security documentation of the CSPs, adapting or extending it to meet your specific business needs, and ensuring that both parties fulfill their parts of the shared responsibility model.

When it comes to cloud data security, understanding these roles and their specific responsibilities allows you to delineate tasks and accountability clearly, and it eliminates gaps and overlaps that could lead to vulnerabilities. For example, while a CSP ensures that the physical servers are secure, it's your role to make sure the data you store is encrypted and that only authorized personnel can access it.

How Data Security Has Evolved with the Cloud

The journey of data security has been a progressive one, mirroring the rapid advancements in cloud technologies themselves. In the early days, cloud environments were primarily viewed as a storage solution, and security was often an afterthought. Over time, the paradigm shifted, and the cloud transformed into a platform capable of executing complex workflows, elevating the security risks associated with it.

Initially, the burden of security fell entirely on the cloud service providers. They invested heavily in state-of-the-art security infrastructures, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocols. However, as the technology matured, the shared responsibility model became more prominent, and it became the cloud customer's job to protect their data and applications. This collaborative approach amplifies the overall security posture but also increases the potential pitfalls if either party falls short.

Nowadays, you have the challenge of securing data that's more accessible and easier to share than ever before. The very attributes that make the cloud appealing—scalability, flexibility, and ease of access—also make it a prime target for cyber threats. This is particularly true in CI/CD environments and complex software supply chains where rapid changes are the norm. The velocity at which services are developed, deployed, and modified can often outpace security measures, leaving vulnerabilities that are easily exploited.

User-initiated changes in SaaS applications add another layer of complexity. Since SaaS platforms are inherently designed for ease of use, users with limited security knowledge can inadvertently introduce risks by changing settings or sharing data recklessly. To navigate this, companies like Cyera offer a Data Security Posture Management (DSPM) tool that leverages AI and other advanced technologies to dynamically adapt to these constantly changing environments, surpassing the capabilities of legacy data loss prevention (DLP) techniques.

It's also worth mentioning that as you navigate the challenges brought on by the proliferation of clouds, including IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, the requirements for metadata and static classifiers have become increasingly important. Tools that rely solely on traditional methods of data classification, like regular expression (regex) and sample data or objects, are less effective in these complex ecosystems. They require additional layers, like tagging mechanisms such as Microsoft Information Protection (MIP) sensitivity labels, to be truly effective.

The Tools Used for Data Security in Cloud Computing

Navigating the complexities of cloud data security necessitates a comprehensive toolbox where each tool has its own role, advantages, and limitations. A nuanced understanding of these tools can make a world of difference in crafting your security strategy.

Data Loss Prevention

Traditionally, the first line of defense, DLP tools monitor data transfers and communications to prevent unauthorized data exfiltration. While they've been effective for years, their methodologies are often static, relying heavily on pattern-matching techniques. As such, DLP alone may not suffice in the more dynamic and complicated cloud environment. In contrast, Cyera's DSPM approach leverages AI to dynamically adapt to changing data structures and security requirements.

Encryption

Encryption is the cornerstone of data security. Whether it's data at rest in storage or data in transit across networks, encryption transforms data into unreadable ciphertext, rendering it useless without the correct decryption keys. While CSPs often offer basic encryption services, it's your responsibility to manage these keys effectively, especially if your data falls under compliance regimes like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

Access Control

Controlling who gets to see or modify data is critical. Identity and access management (IAM) tools allow you to establish roles and permissions to ensure that only authorized users can access specific data sets. This is where granular policymaking comes into play, enabling you to specify who can do what within your cloud environment. The Cyera Data Access Governance (DAG) function allows for even more finely tuned control, which is especially useful in multi-cloud or hybrid environments.

Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems

Intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDS/IPS) scan network traffic to detect and thwart unauthorized activities. They identify signatures or behaviors consistent with malware attacks, unauthorized data transfers, or other security threats, which enables timely counteractions. Cyera integrates these functions into its broader DSPM framework.

Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity Planning

The ultimate goal of data security is not just to prevent unauthorized access but also to ensure data availability. Backup solutions and disaster recovery plans safeguard your data against loss or corruption due to hardware failure, data center outages, or other unforeseen incidents. Strategies like data minimization and limiting data copies help make these efforts more efficient.

The principle of data minimization is based on storing only the data you need for only as long as you need it. This is a critical practice for reducing your attack surface. This approach limits the potential impact of a breach by reducing the amount of data at risk in the first place.

While each of these tools plays a role in securing your cloud environment, it's crucial to note that many of these controls operate in silos. For example, cloud security posture management (CSPM) tools might focus solely on IaaS, extending perhaps to PaaS but not SaaS. SaaS security posture management (SSPM) concentrates on SaaS; DLP, mainly on unstructured data; and data governance tools may not even extend to SaaS. This is where Cyera shines by providing a unified DSPM solution that integrates these disparate controls into a single, holistic security strategy.

Data Security Posture Management and Cyera's innovative solution to data security

DSPM is a comprehensive approach that brings cohesiveness and agility to cloud data security. Unlike legacy solutions that rely on static classifiers like regex or require extensive metadata and tagging (such as MIP sensitivity labels) to function effectively, DSPM dynamically adapts to your evolving data landscape. It provides real-time data detection and response (DDR)  and uses advanced algorithms to detect anomalies and secure sensitive data across various types of cloud services—be it IaaS, PaaS/DBaaS, or SaaS.

Cyera's unique unified data security platform stands out for several reasons:

  • Cloud-native data discovery: Cyera implements an agentless architecture that leverages APIs to continuously discover a company's structured and unstructured datastores, across their hybrid landscape. 
  • AI-powered classification: Cyera uses machine learning and large language models to automatically discover, learn, classify, and understand the business purpose of sensitive data. This removes the manual, error-prone processes typically associated with data classification, allowing you to focus on strategic decision-making. Going beyond the capabilities of traditional DLP solutions, Cyera dynamically adapts to changes in your data landscape. This is particularly valuable for organizations that employ CI/CD pipelines and experience frequent changes to data structures and applications.
  • Data Detection and Response (DDR): Cyera's DDR feature provides you with real-time alerts and actionable insights for immediate remediation of security and compliance exposures. It integrates seamlessly with your existing incident response platforms, enabling swift and coordinated action.
  • DAG: Unlike conventional access control solutions, Cyera's DAG capability provides a more nuanced, granular control over who can access what data. This stems from Cyera’s deep understanding of your data as it evolves versus the pattern-based classification that legacy solutions rely upon. This deeper knowledge allows you to implement least privilege access policies, minimizing the risk of unauthorized data exposure.
  • Data Privacy: With ever-changing data privacy laws like GDPR, California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and HIPAA, staying compliant across a hybrid cloud architecture is complex. Cyera's unified data security platform empowers you to comply with privacy regulations, respond to audits and data subject access requests, and improve the efficacy of your information governance programs to remain compliant with changing regulations, ensuring that you are always on the right side of the law.

What sets Cyera apart from competitors is its ability to offer a single, unified platform for all your cloud data security needs. Most legacy tools—be it CSPM that focuses on IaaS, SSPM on SaaS, or DLP on unstructured data—operate in isolation. Cyera breaks down these silos, integrating these diverse controls into a holistic data security framework.

Conclusion

Data security in cloud computing is both multifaceted and dynamic. The distributed nature of the cloud has brought numerous benefits—scalability, flexibility, and efficiency, to name a few. But it's also introduced a new set of challenges that make data security a complex undertaking. The proliferation of diverse cloud models, like IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS, and the swift changes introduced through CI/CD pipelines demand a more agile, adaptive approach.

The emergence of DSPM solutions, specifically the Cyera platform, offers an innovative path forward. By embracing a holistic approach that incorporates sensitive data discovery, classification, real-time detection, and granular access governance, you're better positioned to manage and protect sensitive data in the cloud.

As a chief information security officer (CISO) or an experienced cybersecurity professional, your role has never been more critical. With platforms like Cyera, you're not just keeping up with the challenges posed by the evolving cloud landscape; you're staying ahead of them. Adopting advanced solutions like DSPM lets you go beyond merely reacting to security incidents, enabling you to proactively manage and protect your organization's most valuable asset—data!

Author: Daniel Olaogun