If you are considering migrating your personal data to the cloud, one of the foremost questions on your mind is probably “is the cloud safe?”. This question has been asked by countless organizations in an increasing variety of industries. The security of personal information has become a central concern for organizations of all sizes as they seek to maintain profitability or operational integrity in the face of attacks that are increasing in both number and sophistication.
Migrating your personal information to the cloud is a decision that should be done with a firm understanding of the associated risks. Each organization must grapple with the advantages that cloud computing brings, as well as the risks to data security and integrity that it may hold. Gaining a better sense of both of these aspects of cloud computing is essential to making an informed decision about what to do with your personal information. Learn more in our related blog article, Your Third-Party Cyber Risk Assessment Checklist or consult RSI Security’s compliance advisory services.
Alongside understanding any risks that utilizing cloud computing may pose to your personal data, there are also regulatory and compliance considerations that must be weighed. Whether your organization interacts with sensitive cardholder data and must maintain compliance with PCI DSS, or whether you are a healthcare provider and interact with protected health information (PHI), you will have to ensure that your compliance obligations are met when migrating to the cloud. This can present challenges for organizations that have stringent compliance requirements for protecting personal information. Even if you are not bound by clear regulatory requirements, protecting personal information is essential in today’s world to ensure ongoing profitability and avoid disastrous reputational and economic harm associated with a data breach.
How Does the Cloud Work?
If you don’t already have a basic understanding of how the cloud works, it is helpful to have a foundation of knowledge about this service before diving into the security implications of it. Cloud computing in one form or another is by now a ubiquitous feature of nearly all of our daily lives. In our personal lives, we may use cloud storage services to store our photos, emails, or files. We may also use applications that are entirely cloud-based, as opposed to applications that exist as a standalone client that we install on-site. In fact, you may be using programs that reside in the cloud but don’t realize it. This speaks to the widespread reliance on cloud computing that we experience in our daily lives. However, while we may interact with the cloud on a daily basis, it should be thought of as distinct from web-based applications. Let’s look at what cloud computing really is.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines cloud computing in a specific way that differentiates it from web-based applications. According to NIST, cloud services have five characteristics; on-demand self-service, rapid elasticity, resource pooling, broad network access, and measured service. Each of these five traits must be present for a service to be considered part of the cloud. Cloud computing gives users access to a scalable pool of resources which. The degree to which they utilize these services can be rapidly expanded or contracted without having to get prior approval through an administrator, making it on-demand. Resources are pooled between different tenants, meaning that your data may be present on the same hardware as other tenants simultaneously.
Cloud services can be either public or private, meaning that you may contract with a public provider of cloud services or your organization could choose to operate a cloud internally within your own network. The three types of cloud service models that are offered are Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS). Some organizations may utilize one of these cloud service models, whereas others may utilize a combination of them or all three at the same time.
So, to sum it all up, cloud computing offers organizations access to a pool of resources that are shared among a number of tenants. These resources are rapidly scalable to operational needs, and this elasticity is on-demand. Organizations may utilize cloud services for infrastructure, software, or platform capabilities. There are also both public and private cloud services, and each will have different security implications.
What Are the Advantages of Cloud Computing?
At a basic level, the security implications of cloud computing revolve around removing your data from physical control on-site. This is particularly true for public cloud services. Given this, why are organizations increasingly utilizing cloud services? The answer is that cloud computing offers a number of advantages for organizations in nearly any industry.
One key advantage that cloud services offer is scalability. Cloud-based services are capable of rapidly scaling with demand. For example, if you are an educational institution, server demand during enrollment windows will be at their peak. If your enrollment systems are operated on-site, you may not be able to quickly increase capacity efficiently or cost-effectively during periods of high demand. In contrast to this, if your enrollment system is operating on a cloud-based service, you can rapidly provision additional resources during times of peak demand and then scale those resources back as demand wanes. This rapid scalability allows organizations to tailor their network footprint more closely to existing demand.
Cloud computing services also offer an important level of redundancy that protects your sensitive data against hardware failure or corruption. In a cloud system, you are utilizing a pool of shared resources. Your data isn’t on a single hard-drive or server, but rather is spread out across hundreds or many thousands of machines, along with the data of all of the other tenants of the cloud. When one piece of hardware fails, it can be quickly replaced without damaging the integrity or accessibility of your data. The level of redundancy that cloud services offers to organizations with sensitive data can be an immense advantage.
Although there are many other advantages that cloud computing can offer, let’s touch on one more that can be crucial for many organizations. Cloud services offer organizations of any size access to a robust pool of resources that would often be outside of their grasp otherwise. Cloud services offer smaller organizations access to the level of resources they need, without forcing them to invest in costly infrastructure or manpower to operate and maintain those services in-house. The cost-effectiveness of the cloud computing model is a key consideration for most organizations that are looking to migrate to the cloud.
What are the Safety Considerations for Cloud Computing?
One of the first questions for any organization contemplating migrating to the cloud is usually “is cloud computing safe?”. The answer isn’t as straightforward as most people would like. At a certain level, all technologies are vulnerable to attack. Cloud services are no exception to this, and it should be understood from the outset that like all over computer services, malicious actors may find vulnerabilities in cloud services to exploit. However, most of the initial concerns over the safety of utilizing cloud services have since been alleviated over time.
So, how safe is the cloud storage? Many people now argue that cloud storage is, relatively speaking, safer than traditional on-site servers. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that cloud services haven’t been involved in some of the most massive data breaches in recent years. These attacks have instead targeted traditional servers or hardware. A second reason that many experts argue that cloud services are safer is that cloud providers are extremely security conscious. Keeping in mind that the security of the cloud service depends on the provider themselves, as a whole cloud service providers have some advantages over traditional IT departments. The most obvious of these advantages is that they are able to focus on one task, rather than being required to ensure that a number of network assets or systems are secure against an attack as would be the case for security experts working in a traditional system. This focused expertise has allowed cloud service providers to offer enhanced security with around-the-clock monitoring, which may account for the lack of data breaches involving cloud services thus far.
With all of that being said, security is still a central concern when deciding to migrate your personal data to the cloud. One of the reasons for this is multi-tenancy. One of the requirements for something to be considered part of the cloud is the fact that it is a pooled resource. This means that many different clients will have their data on the same cloud, and potentially the same machines, at the same time. Cloud service providers are largely responsible for ensuring that the data of one tenant is not accessible to other tenants on the cloud at the same time. This is a crucial consideration for organizations that deal with sensitive personal data and is an especially acute concern when considering compliance requirements for protecting sensitive data such as PHI or cardholder data.
A second major security concern for most organizations stems from the fact that by utilizing a cloud service model, they are relegating day-to-day implementation of security controls over to the cloud provider themselves. Put another way, by moving your personal information off-site, your own staff no longer have direct oversight of the hardware and systems that are holding and protecting your data. This presents challenges from a compliance perspective, as both the cloud service provider and the client must navigate the compliance process together to ensure that sensitive data is protected according to regulatory requirements.
One of the ways that these concerns are addressed by cloud service providers is through process verification that demonstrates adherence to data protection principles and practices. It should be noted that not all cloud service providers are created equally. As such, not all providers will be able to offer the level of security you may need to protect personal information and ensure you remain compliant when migrating to the cloud. Because of this, organizations must be very selective when choosing a cloud service provider to host their personal information.
In terms of compliance, it is often the case that although a cloud services provider is responsible for ensuring that security controls are in place and being applied on their cloud systems, it is the client’s responsibility to ensure that those controls are proper and meet the regulatory requirements placed on them. Essentially, utilizing a cloud service results in a type of shared responsibility for data security which can be difficult to navigate. The provider is often responsible for ensuring that agreed-upon security controls are in place, while the client is responsible for ensuring that those controls are adequate to protect their data and meet regulatory requirements, as well as verifying that those controls are being implemented over time. What this comes down to is creating a service contract between the provider and client that clearly outlines areas of individual responsibility for each party, as well as areas of shared responsibility for protecting cardholder data. Additionally, steps must be put in place to verify that security controls are being implemented properly over time.
In the end, cloud services are only as safe as the cloud security controls and processes that are implemented to protect personal information being stored on the cloud computing system. Just like any other computer system, the cloud is vulnerable to attack. That being said, cloud services can be just as secure as any in-house data storage environment provided that an adequate level of care is taken to ensure personal user information is protected.
The advantages that cloud services offer can be immense for many organizations. The scalability, elasticity, and redundancy that cloud services offer is a boon for organizations that don’t have the resources or capabilities to operate a large amount of network infrastructure internally. Still, the decision to migrate your personal information to the cloud should be undertaken with a full understanding of the security risks that this entails. Many organizations rely on contracts with providers that clearly outline areas of responsibility for both parties, and verification process to ensure that those contractual obligations are being met. Contact RSI Security today to find out more about how to incorporate cloud computing and cybersecurity solutions into your current operations.