Cloud Security Assessment: Navigating Benefits, Challenges, and Implementation Steps

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The 2023 Mid-Year Security report by Check Point revealed an 8% surge in weekly cyber attacks in Q2 of 2023. This report means cloud threats are growing by the minute, but thankfully the cloud security market also continues to grow to accommodate innovation. 

One practice that has proven effective for many organizations in the US and around the world is  cloud security assessment. With its potential to improve the cloud security posture, it isn’t hard to see why it warrants this much attention and urgency.

Keep on reading as we dive deep into everything you need to know about cloud security assessment. We break down the benefits, step-by-step guide for execution, and challenges you may face along the way. 

What is cloud security assessment?

A cloud security assessment evaluates the security posture of a cloud-based IT infrastructure. The process is aimed at revealing potential cloud risks and configuration loopholes — i.e., gauging the efficiency and inefficiency of security-focused cloud components. 

Although they share a close semblance, cloud security assessment goes beyond vulnerability testing.  An assessment of the security of the cloud aims to provide a comprehensive look into present and future cloud dependability. It reveals the compatibility of currently deployed components and settings with use-case, compliance, SLA, and data protection needs.  

Key focus areas of cloud security assessment

A cloud security assessment covers the entire scope of cloud security provisioning, development, deployment, performance, and governance.

It pays specific attention to the following areas:

  • Configurations/Misconfigurations, such as unrestricted inbound and outbound ports, outdated monitoring scripts, and unprotected Internet Control Message Protocols (ICMPs), among others
  • Identity and Access Management (IAM), revealing the effectiveness of user, server, service, network, and system access restrictions
  • Data protection, digging into the existence and reliability of data encryption, segregation, masking, backup, recovery, and auditing policies, to mention a few 
  • Network security, providing insights into the reliability of firewalls, intrusion detection systems, VPNs, protocols, and monitoring policies 
  • Incident response and remediation, gauging the performance of the IT team, policies, processes, and systems in incidence discovery, classification, mitigation, forensic analysis, and remediation.    

To be as encompassing, the assessment also stretches beyond software-based/internal security. It covers factors such as security personnel qualification and training, as well as the reliability of third-party cloud services. This extension in scope helps especially when it comes to the need for organizations to meet stringent compliance standards.

Benefits of cloud security assessment

So, what does your organization stand to gain from cloud security assessment? Well, a comprehensively executed assessment provides the following advantages: 

1. Identify bad practices within the cloud environment

Insights from a cloud security assessment reveal inadequate and risky policies around critical security factors. 

These include factors such as cloud configuration, vulnerability testing, vendor management, cloud monitoring, and compliance — essentially any factor that revolves around operational breaches and financial costs.

2. Identify authentication and authorization loopholes 

A cloud security assessment can help spot the following issues that relate to authentication and authorization:

  • Excessive and inconsistent privileges
  • Inadequate authentication protocols
  • Exposed token handling with API
  • Poor credential management practices. 

3. Expose vulnerabilities 

The assessment also reveals current vulnerabilities within the cloud infrastructure, as well as vulnerabilities that may arise in the future. 

After exposing these vulnerabilities, a well-executed assessment goes the extra step of providing steps for mitigation. 

4. Ensure compliance

For organizations dealing with sensitive customer data, a cloud security assessment helps you evaluate compliance with standards such as the GDPR, HIPAA, ISO/IEC 27001, and SOC2

With this, you avoid financial losses that often result from business disruption, reputational damage, and regulatory penalties — losses that add up to millions of dollars

5. Increase understanding of the cloud environment

Overall, a cloud security assessment improves your grasp of the cloud environment and its security posture. When put to proper use, insights from the evaluation may then be used to improve various aspects of the cloud ecosystem, such as:

  • Vulnerability detection
  • Risk prioritization
  • Compliance adherence
  • Third-party provider selection
  • Incidence management for the future. 

A notable illustration of the advantageous impact of a cloud security assessment is exemplified by its successful implementation for MED49.

MED49, an organization specializing in innovative healthcare solutions, faced challenges around ISO compliance and needed comprehensive risk documentation to qualify for a certificate. They carried out manual and automated cloud security assessments.

The assessments revealed all possible security breaches. Based on these outcomes, they were able to prioritize risk and evaluate configurations in the Microsoft Azure environment. Information from these processes helped MED49 generate a comprehensive report — the written document needed to acquire the ISO 13485 certificate before the deadline for certification passed.

How to carry out a cloud security assessment: the essential steps

A cloud security assessment proves to be crucial and even compulsory for organizations looking to protect cloud resources and maintain continuous IT operations

The depth of this assessment requires a huge commitment that involves these fundamental steps:

  • Identify cloud assets
  • Classify assets according to sensitivity
  • Identify threats
  • Evaluate risks
  • Implement mitigations
  • Monitoring and continuous improvement

Step 1: Identify cloud assets

The first step to a comprehensive cloud security assessment is to identify all the cloud assets.

Cloud assets are the various resources and components in the cloud infrastructure — the foundational elements on which the cloud environment and security are based. Common cloud assets include:

Identifying cloud assets is a step toward understanding the current state of the cloud environment. To simplify and enhance results from this crucial stage, you can engage a two-step procedure — define the scope of assessment and recon cloud assets within the scope. 

Define the scope of assessment

The scope of assessment is the specific area of the cloud environment that the evaluation seeks to cover. 

In this mini-step, you identify objectives for the security assessment. You then use the objectives to define relevant aspects of the cloud environment to be evaluated. These aspects can include:

  • Cloud applications
  • Data types
  • Compliance regimes
  • Third-party services
  • Cloud deployments. 

Recon cloud assets

The reconnaissance step is where asset discovery takes place. Here, you utilize cloud discovery tools like Qualys or SolarWinds, for example, to recognize all components and dependencies within the cloud environment. 

You build an inventory of all hardware and software assets that are relevant to the scope of the assessment and then ingest detailed information about each asset. This information, typically called the asset metadata, will include the following:

  • The present IAM policies
  • Data protection policies
  • Asset dependencies
  • Third-party exposure
  • Management policies governing the assets’ use. 

For instance, if the goal of the assessment is to qualify for ISO 9001 certification, the scope will cover cloud components and policies related to quality management systems. Next, you  recon the assets and services related to quality planning, control, assurance, and improvement. 

These may be assets like production data, performance assessment services, data validation tools, and credential management tools, to mention a few. If the goal is to meet GDPR standards, the assessment scope places more focus on data-handling cloud assets.

To formalize the whole assessment, you should also document the process from this conceptual stage of asset identification. This means you maintain a report on the following:

  • Assessment scope
  • Methodologies implemented
  • Tools utilized
  • Identified risks
  • Evaluated findings
  • Recommendations.

Step 2: Classify assets according to sensitivity

Once all relevant assets have been duly identified, the second step involves creating a hierarchy of assets. 

This hierarchy ranks assets based on their exposure to risks and their overall importance to business continuity

Without classifying assets based on sensitivity, you risk placing insufficient assessment and remediation efforts on critical IT components

This translates to an inefficiency in risk management, which ultimately affects aspects such as incidence management, compliance, SLA adherence, and operational continuity. 

So how do you classify the company’s cloud assets for assessment?

Categorize data

Data is arguably the most valuable and vulnerable resource within any organization’s cloud environment. Gerrit Kazmaier, the vice president and general manager of Data and Analytics at Google Cloud, has emphasized its significance as the lifeline for business survival. Consequently, it is imperative that we accord special attention to safeguarding it.

With data, you want to create different categories based on the degree of effect a breach or loss will have. Based on this, you should categorize data into the following:

  • Business-Critical Data: This is confidential data about business operations, the leak and exploitation of which may result in operational downtime and business continuity risks. 
  • Sensitive Data: As important as business-critical data, sensitive data includes resources like personal identifiable information (PII) and customer health records that are usually subject to regulatory protection. It also includes organizational trade secrets whose breach may result in a loss of competitive advantage in the market.  
  • Private Data: Private data may not put your organization in any operational, financial, or regulatory risk. However, it is data that needs to be kept a secret for proprietary reasons. This includes information on employee satisfaction statistics, employee salaries, product, and partnership agreements, to mention a few. 
  • Public Data: Public data is the least critical of all, and includes information that anyone may access without affecting the company. 

Categorizing relevant data is important for the subsequent steps under asset classification. 

Create asset classes

Asset classes are the different sensitivity levels you want to group assets into. A common grouping scheme involves classifying assets into risk levels of low, medium, and high or/and critical. 

An attack on or failure of low-risk assets will have little impact on business operations while an attack on high-risk/critical assets will have the most impact on the cloud infrastructure. 

For distribution purposes, a risk score of  between 0 and 100 is typically implemented, where 0 represents the lowest risk and 100 represents the highest. You also make quantitative considerations on an asset’s external exposure to risks, probability of being attacked, and importance in compliance. 

Triage

Triaging is the formal term for ranking components, people, or processes based on urgency. You utilize quantitative categories of data and other assets to determine their importance within the infrastructure. 

Using risk, exposure, and probability scores, you give assets criticality tags and establish a hierarchy for the cloud assessment exercise. 

What’s great about triaging is that it also simplifies the benchmarking process. You more easily determine what assets need the most stringent cloud management specifications.

Create a checklist for assessment

After prioritizing assets, you also create a checklist featuring the crucial benchmarks the assessment needs to pursue. These benchmarks include; 

  • Optimal access control policies
  • Expected infrastructure security features
  • Data protection best practices
  • Optimal data backup workflows
  • Efficient cloud IT monitoring policies, among others. 

Step 3: Identify threats

Red teaming is usually the go-to for this operation. It involves ethical hacks where the IT team simulates real-life attacks on the cloud infrastructure to identify security flaws. 

For best results, please delegate these simulated attacks to specialized red-teaming personnel, whether internally or through outsourcing. Vulnerability and penetration tests also involve attack types commonly faced by the IT team or new forms of attacks you wish to test.

In the end, you will gather and analyze relevant security data to reveal the following: 

  • Cloud misconfigurations
  • IAM authorization loopholes
  • API vulnerabilities
  • Network anomalies, to mention a few.

This stage also involves gathering data on third-party cloud service providers as well as compliance-related inefficiencies.

Step 4: Evaluate risks

With threats identified and analyzed, you then evaluate the severity of risks within the cloud environment. 

At the end of this stage, you will have a comprehensive picture of the following: 

  • The actual weight of risks on business continuity/integrity
  • The overall exposure of the cloud environment to attacks
  • The general and specific probability of attacks happening
  • The readiness and adequacy of security tools, personnel, and policies in reliably tackling existent risks. 

Just like when triaging assets, quantifying risk in terms of exposure, probability, and impact also goes a long way in simplifying threat evaluation and management. 

The models from FAIR and the NIST 800-53 are excellent frameworks that can guide in quantifying cloud security risks.

Also read: Breaking Down the NIST Cybersecurity Framework

Step 5: Implement mitigations

For a lot of organizations, cloud security assessment stops at threat detection and evaluation. However, you should go the extra mile to remediate security threats and loopholes. 

In this stage and with relation to priorities, you first create a remediation plan. This plan should outline the following items:

  • Recovery actions for each vulnerability
  • Alternate tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs)
  • Recovery goals
  • Responsibilities of IT personnel. 

Based on the threats identified, you then implement the plan by

  • Patching/updating internal and external systems
  • Improving access control measures
  • Enhancing network configurations

If you find inefficiencies in incident response workflows, for instance, mitigation measures will revolve around improving the mean time to recovery (MTTR). Based on the data ingested during detection, this may require adopting better security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) tools or simply writing better response scripts.

If human mistakes are high, mitigation may involve better employee training methods, while vulnerabilities from external services may require an overhaul of the cloud vendors. 

Step 6: Monitoring and continuous improvement

Now, for the best result possible, you need to create a path for monitoring and continuously improving the cloud infrastructure.  

Undertake the following:

  • Maintain continuous visibility into cloud asset statuses and metadata
  • Continuously scan assets for vulnerabilities
  • Continuously prioritize threats for remediation
  • Continuously update cloud security policies and procedures 
  • Use automated cloud management tools for above tasks. 

The major advantage of continuous monitoring and improvement is that it gives administrators consistent control over the cloud security posture. This is better than having to wait for long periods before checking on the cloud environment. Instead, evaluations happen every day and a full-blown cloud assessment would only be a matter of meeting compliance requirements. Prudent undertaking of this step means the need to perform urgent, large-scale security assessments would be generally eliminated from the cloud security workflows.  

Challenges to cloud security assessment

A cloud security assessment may be your organization’s key to eliminating long standing network vulnerabilities or saving itself unnecessary cloud costs

However, as mentioned earlier, the assessment is a hard task to embark on, and these challenges can often make it even more difficult.

1. Complexity of multi-cloud environments

Multi-cloud environments feature cloud solutions or services from more than one vendor and over private, public, or hybrid cloud infrastructures.

This is a popular cloud setup adopted by an estimated 76% of companies, according to an Oracle survey. 

However, due to incompatibility between vendors and inconsistent cloud service performance, the management of these multi-cloud instances can be difficult to navigate. 

Regrettably, cloud security assessments are not immune to the complexities arising from multi-cloud environments. The intricacies in security assessments stem from the expanded attack surface, challenges in resource orchestration, and difficulties in ensuring compliance.

2. Ever-evolving threat landscape

Blackberry’s Global Threat Intelligence Report for 2023 revealed that 1.7 new malware variants are released every minute. 

This represents a growth of 13% from 1.5 variants per minute in 2022. Two things are clear from this revelation —- cyber attackers are not slowing down in their innovation and your cloud infrastructure faces unrecognized threats every minute. Without continuous monitoring and improvement workflows, cloud security assessments are never enough.

Also read: The Latest Cybersecurity Statistics

3. Shadow IT

Shadow IT refers to hardware or software utilized by employees without the knowledge or approval of the IT department.

The existence of shadow IT makes it difficult to carry out a comprehensive assessment of the cloud. This is because these tools fall outside the coverage of reconnaissance, threat detection, and threat remediation workflows.

How do you know if employees are already practicing Shadow IT? Consider these solutions for detecting and preventing Shadow IT

How to perfect the art of cloud security assessment

Yes, there are challenges to cloud security assessments that may be difficult to scale. However, the consequences of avoiding the assessment evidently exceed the challenges. For example, Cognyte’s failure to secure a database with authentication protocols resulted in the exposure of 5 billion sensitive and business-critical records to hackers. Had they been active in assessment, this loophole would have been discovered  and the attack avoided. 

Some of the best practices that can lead to optimal cloud security assessment include:

  • Encrypting data assets
  • Adopting a unified policy across cloud service providers
  • Establishing shared responsibility agreements with cloud vendors. 

It’s also important to set data sharing and usage restrictions among employees, automate continuous monitoring, and put more focus on security awareness and training.

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