Uncovering the CSA Top Threats to Cloud Computing with Jim Reavis

By Greg Jensen, Sr. Principal Director – Security Cloud Business Group, Oracle

For the few that attend this year’s BlackHat conference kicking off this week in Las Vegas, many will walk away with an in depth understanding and knowledge on risk as well as actionable understandings on how they can work to implement new strategies to defend against attacks. For the many others who don’t attend, Cloud Security Alliance has once again developed their CSA Top Threats to Cloud Computing: The Egregious 11.

I recently sat down with the CEO and founder of CSA, Jim Reavis, to gain a deeper understanding on what leaders and practitioners can learn from this year’s report that covers the top 11 threats to cloud computing – The Egregious 11.

(Greg) Jim, for those who have never seen this, what is the CSA Top Threats to Cloud report and who is your target reader?

(Jim) The CSA Top Threats to Cloud Computing is a research report that is periodically updated by our research team and working group of volunteers to identify high priority cloud security risks, threats and vulnerabilities to enable organizations to optimize risk management decisions related to securing their cloud usage.  The Top Threats report is intended to be a companion to CSA’s Security Guidance and Cloud Controls Matrix best practices documents by providing context around important threats in order to prioritize the deployment of security capabilities to the issues that really matter.

Our Top Threats research is compiled via industry surveys as well as through qualitative analysis from leading industry experts.  This research is among CSA’s most popular downloads and has spawned several translations and companion research documents that investigate cloud penetration testing and real world cloud incidents.  Top Threats research is applicable to the security practitioner seeking to protect assets, executives needing to validate broader security strategies and any others wanting to understand how cloud threats may impact their organization.  We make every effort to relate the potential pitfalls of cloud to practical steps that can be taken to mitigate these risks.

(Greg) Were there any findings in the Top Threats report that really stood out for you?

(Jim) Virtually all of the security issues we have articulated impact all different types of cloud.  This is important as we find a lot of practitioners who may narrow their cloud security focus on either Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS), depending upon their own responsibilities or biases.  The cloud framework is a layered model, starting with physical infrastructure with layers of abstraction built on top of it.  SaaS is essentially the business application layer built upon some form of IaaS, so the threats are applicable no matter what type of cloud one uses.  Poor identity management practices, such as a failure to implement strong authentication, sticks out to me as a critical and eminently solvable issue.  I think the increased velocity of the “on demand” characteristic of cloud finds its way into the threat of insufficient due diligence and problems of insecure APIs.  The fastest way to implement cloud is to implement it securely the first time. 

(Greg) What do you think are some of the overarching trends you’ve noticed throughout the last 3 iterations of the report?

(Jim) What has been consistent is that the highest impact threats are primarily the responsibility of the cloud user.  To put a bit of nuance around this as the definition of a “cloud user” can be tricky, I like to think of this in three categories: a commercial SaaS provider, an enterprise building its own “private SaaS” applications on top of IaaS or a customer integrating a large number of SaaS applications have the bulk of the technical security responsibilities.  So much of the real world threats that these cloud users grapple with are improper configuration, poor secure software development practices and insufficient identity and access management strategies.

Greg Jensen, Sr Dir of Security, Oracle

(Greg) Are you seeing any trends that show there is increasing trust in cloud services, as well as the CSP working more effectively around Shared Responsibility Security Model?

(Jim) The market growth in cloud is a highly quantifiable indicator that cloud is becoming more trusted.  “Cloud first” is a common policy we see for organizations evaluating new IT solutions, and it hasn’t yet caused an explosion of cloud incidents, although I fear we must see an inevitable increase in breaches as it becomes the default platform.

We have been at this for over 10 years at CSA and have seen a lot of maturation in cloud during that time.  One of the biggest contributions we have seen from the CSPs over that time is the amount of telemetry they make available to their customers.  The amount and diversity of logfile information customers have today does not compare to the relative “blackbox” that existed when we started this journey more than a decade ago.

Going back to the layered model of cloud yet again, CSPs understand that most of the interesting applications customers build are a mashup of technologies.  Sophisticated CSPs understand this shared responsibility for security and have doubled down on educational programs for customers.  Also, I have to say that one of the most rewarding aspects of being in the security industry is observing the collegial nature among competing CSPs to share threat intelligence and best practices to improve the security of the entire cloud ecosystem.

One of the initiatives CSA developed that helps promulgate shared responsibility is the CSA Security, Trust, Assurance & Risk (STAR) Registry.  We publish the answers CSPs provide to our assessment questionnaire so consumers can objectively evaluate a CSP’s best practices and understand the line of demarcation and where their responsibility begins.

(Greg) How does the perception of threats, risks and vulnerabilities help to guide an organization’s decision making & strategy?

(Jim) This is an example of why it is so important to have a comprehensive body of knowledge of cloud security best practices and to be able to relate it to Top Threats.  A practitioner must be able to evaluate using any risk management strategy for a given threat, e.g. risk avoidance, risk mitigation, risk acceptance, etc.  If one understand the threats but not the best practices, one will almost always choose to avoid the risk, which may end up being a poor business decision.  Although the security industry has gotten much better over the years, we still fight the reputation of being overly conservative and obstructing new business opportunities over concerns about security threats.  While being paranoid has sometimes served us well, threat research should be one of a portfolio of tools that helps us embrace innovation.  

(Greg) What are some of the security issues that are currently brewing/underrated that you think might become more relevant in the near future?

(Jim) I think it is important to understand that malicious attackers will take the easy route and if they can phish your cloud credentials, they won’t need to leverage more sophisticated attacks.  I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about sophisticated CSP infrastructure attacks like the Rowhammer direct random access memory (DRAM) leaks, although a good security practitioner worries a little bit about everything. I try to think about fast moving technology areas that are manipulated by the customer, because there are far more customers than CSPs.  For example, I get concerned about the billions of IoT devices that get hooked into the cloud and what kinds of security hardening they have.  I also don’t think we have done enough research into how blackhats can attack machine learning systems to avoid next generation security systems.

Our Israeli chapter recently published a fantastic research document on the 12 Most Critical Risks for Serverless Applications.  Containerization and Serverless computing are very exciting developments and ultimately will improve security as they reduce the amount of resource management considerations for the developer and shrink the attack surface.  However, these technologies may seem foreign to security practitioners used to a virtualized operating system and it is an open question how well our tools and legacy best practices address these areas.

The future will be a combination of old threats made new and exploiting fast moving new technology.  CSA will continue to call them as we see them and try to educate the industry before these threats are fully realized.

(Greg) Jim, it’s been great hearing from you today on this new Top Threats to Cloud report. Hats off to the team and the contributors for this year’s report. Has been great working with them all!

(Jim) Thanks Greg! To learn more about this, or to download a copy of the report, visit us at www.cloudsecurityalliance.com

Organizations Must Realign to Face New Cloud Realities

Jim Reavis, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, CSA

While cloud adoption is moving fast, many enterprises still underestimate the scale and complexity of cloud threats

Technology advancements often present benefits to humanity while simultaneously opening up new fronts in the on-going and increasingly complex cyber security battle. We are now at that critical juncture when it comes to the cloud: While the compute model has inherent security advantages when properly deployed, the reality is that any fast-growth platform is bound to see a proportionate increase in incidents and exposure.

The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) is a global not-for-profit organization that was launched 10 years ago as a broad coalition to create a trusted cloud ecosystem. A decade later, cloud adoption is pervasive to the point of becoming the default IT system worldwide. As the ecosystem has evolved, so have the complexity and scale of cyber security attacks. That shift challenges the status quo, mounting pressure on organizations to understand essential technology trends, the changing threat landscape and our shared responsibility to rapidly address the resultant issues.

A decade later, cloud adoption is pervasive to the point of becoming the default IT system worldwide. As the ecosystem has evolved, so have the complexity and scale of cyber security attacks. 

There are real concerns that organizations have not adequately realigned for the cloud compute age and in some cases, are failing to reinvent their cyber defense strategies. Symantec’s inaugural Cloud Security Threat Report (CSTR) is a landmark report that shines a light on the current challenges and provides a useful roadmap that can help organizations improve and mature their cloud security strategy. The report articulates the most pressing cloud security issues of today, clarifies the areas that should be prioritized to improve an enterprise security posture, and offers a reality check on the state of cloud deployment.

Cloud in the Fast Lane

What the CSTR reveals and the CSA can confirm is that cloud adoption is moving too fast for enterprises, which are struggling with increasing complexity and loss of control. According to the Symantec CSTR, over half (54%) of respondents agree that their organization’s cloud security maturity is not keeping pace with the rapid expansion of new cloud apps.

The report also revealed that enterprises underestimate the scale and complexity of cloud threats. For example, the CSTR found that most commonly investigated incidents included garden variety data breaches, DDOS attacks and cloud malware injections. However, Symantec internal data shows that unauthorized access accounts for the bulk of cloud security incidents (64%), covering both simple exploits as well as sophisticated threats such as lateral movement and cross-cloud attacks. Companies are beginning to recognize their vulnerabilities–nearly two thirds (65%) of CSTR respondents believe the increasing complexity of their organization’s cloud infrastructure is opening them up to entirely new and dangerous threat vectors.

For example, identity-related attacks have escalated in the cloud, making proper identity and access management the fundamental backbone of security across domains in a highly virtualized technology stack. The speed with which cloud can be “spun up” and the often-decentralized manner in which it is deployed magnifies human errors and creates vulnerabilities that attackers can exploit. A lack of visibility into detailed cloud usage hampers optimal policies and controls.

The report also revealed that enterprises underestimate the scale and complexity of cloud threats.

As CSA delved into this report, we found strong alignment with the best practices research and education we advocate. As the CSTR reveals, a Zero Trust strategy, building out a software-defined perimeter, and adopting serverless and containerization technologies are critical building blocks for a mature cloud security posture.

The CSTR also advises organizations to develop robust governance strategies supported by a Cloud Center of Excellence (CCoE) to rally stakeholder buy-in and get everyone working from the same enterprise roadmap. Establishing security as a continuous process rather than front-loading efforts at the onset of procurement and deployment is a necessity given the frenetic pace of change.

As the CSTR suggests and we can confirm, security architectures must also be designed with an eye towards scalability, and automation and cloud-native approaches like DevSecOps are essential for minimizing errors, optimizing limited man power and facilitating new controls.

While there is a clear strategy for securing cloud operations, too few companies have embarked on the changes. Symantec internal data reports that 85% are not using best security practices as outlined by the Center for Internet Security (CIS). As a result, nearly three-quarters of respondents to the CSTR said they experienced a security incident in cloud-based infrastructure due to this immaturity.

The CSTR is a pivotal first step in increasing that awareness.

The good news is that the users of cloud have a full portfolio of solutions, including multi-factor authentication, data loss prevention, encryption and identity and authentication tools, at their disposal to address cloud security threats along with new processes and an educated workforce. The bad news is that many users of cloud are not aware of the full magnitude of their cloud adoption, the demarcation of the shared responsibility model and the inclination to rely on outdated security best practices. The CSTR is a pivotal first step in increasing that awareness.

Cloud is and will continue to be the epicenter of IT, and increasingly the foundation for cyber security. Understanding how threat vectors are shifting in cloud is fundamental to overhauling and modernizing an enterprise security program and strategy. CSA recommends the Symantec CSTR report be read widely and we look forward to future updates to its findings.

Download 2019 Cloud Security Threat Report >>

Interested in learning more? You can watch our CloudBytes webinar with Jim Reavis, Co-Founder & CEO at Cloud Security Alliance, and Kevin Haley, Director Security Technology and Response at Symantec as they discuss the key findings from the 2019 Cloud Security Threat Report. Watch it here >>