The cloud is as insecure as its configuration

The last few weeks the news regularly reports about hackers who manage to steal data from public cloud environments, such as a recent hack at Amazon Web Services (AWS). The most common cause of this is the way in which customers have set up their security in the cloud, and not the security of the public cloud itself. The real security problem lies primarily in the way customers have set up their IT environments in the public cloud and how they keep them in order. An automated setup of cloud environments is of the highest importance to prevent security issues. In this blog I show you what cloud suppliers offer in terms of security, what is expected of customers and where things tend to go wrong.

Cloud suppliers put a lot of effort into security
The use of a cloud supplier compared to using your own data centre has a number of benefits. You don't need to invest a lot, you need fewer specialised administrators and the cloud supplier takes care of the physical security of the data center and the setup of the cloud platform.

Because cloud providers provide IT environments for a large number of customers from a wide variety of sectors (from the financial sector to healthcare), they have to meet the most stringent requirements. Cloud providers demonstrate their high level of security by ensuring that their data centers and practices meet the security standards generally accepted in the industries their customers operate in, such as PCI-DSS (financial sector) and HIPAA (healthcare). By comparison, for most organizations it is impractical and very costly to have external audits performed by in-house. Cloud providers can afford this with their economies of scale.

Security is a key issue for cloud providers
The market share, the number of data centers and the number of services of the three largest cloud providers - Google, AWS and Azure - is huge. They have a large number of data centers around the world with many hundreds of thousands of servers, large-scale storage and highly complex network environments. They have large teams in-house to handle specific aspects of security such as network security, encryption, identity & access management (IAM) and logging and monitoring. And with a large number of cloud vendor customers, every customer benefits from knowledge gained from other customers.

Cloud suppliers also have a lot to deal with when it comes to security - they only have a right to exist if there is no reason to question their security. If they make a mistake, they risk losing their credibility as a reliable partner.

A secure setup of the cloud is crucial
The underlying cloud platform may have a high level of security, but the design of cloud environments is a responsibility of the organization (the customer) itself. It is possible the customer has configured its security incomplete or incorrectly. To help their customers, major cloud providers have tools and automated services available to reduce the risk of errors.

By default, services in the public cloud are well protected. But in order to make use of services, they must be made accessible. And here things often go wrong. There are two reasons for this:

  1. The design of a cloud environment is different from what one is used to in an on-premises environment.
  2. A minor error can have very serious consequences - with a single click the customer environment can be made readable by the entire internet.

Setting up a cloud environment requires specialist knowledge. It really is a completely different platform than the traditional on-premises landscape, with many configuration options and new best practices. Customers must be able to use this new platform.

If a configuration error is made in such an environment without sufficient expertise, the effects can have a much greater impact than in an on-premises environment. For example, if the security of Amazon's S3 object storage is not configured properly, your data may become publicly accessible. A configuration error in an on-premises environment often has less far-reaching consequences.

Tools and automation are a good help
Fortunately, cloud providers provide a number of tools and services to reduce the risk of configuration errors. Problems can even be resolved automatically. For example, cloud providers provide scripts that can be launched automatically to shut down global readable data storage automatically and then alert you. I would strongly recommend using the available tooling as much as possible so when there is a configuration error, you will be informed as soon as possible.

In addition, it is of the greatest importance not to make manual changes in a cloud environment, but to make use of as much automation as possible. By using templates and scripts, components in the cloud can be implemented automatically and unambiguously.

Securing the public cloud is a shared responsibility
Public cloud environments have a very high security standard, where access to cloud components is locked by definition. It is the responsibility of the cloud provider to keep its platform secure. But it is the responsibility of the organization to ensure the security of the configuration of the cloud. The security of the public cloud is a shared responsibility. Be aware that a small error in the cloud can have far-reaching consequences, use the available tools and ensure maximum automation; after all, scripts do not make mistakes, but people do.

This blog first appeared (in Dutch) on the CGI site.

This entry was posted on Donderdag 17 Januari 2019

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Recommended links

Genootschap voor Informatie Architecten
Ruth Malan
Gaudi site
XR Magazine
Esther Barthel's site on virtualization
Eltjo Poort's site on architecture


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