9 top threats to cloud computing security

Data breaches and cloud service abuse rank among the greatest cloud security threats, according to Cloud Security Alliance

Cloud computing has grabbed the spotlight at this year's RSA Conference 2013 in San Francisco, with vendors aplenty hawking products and services that equip IT with controls to bring order to cloud chaos. But the first step is for organization to identify precisely where the greatest cloud-related threats lie.

To that end, the CSA (Cloud Security Alliance) has identified "The Notorious Nine," the top nine cloud computing threats for 2013. The report reflects the current consensus among industry experts surveyed by CSA, focusing on threats specifically related to the shared, on-demand nature of cloud computing.

First on the list is data breaches. To illustrate the potential magnitude of this threat, CSA pointed to a research paper from last November describing how a virtual machine could use side-channel timing information to extract private cryptographic keys in use by other VMs on the same server. A malicious hacker wouldn't necessarily need to go to such lengths to pull off that sort of feat, though. If a multitenant cloud service database isn't designed properly, a single flaw in one client's application could allow an attacker to get at not just that client's data, but every other clients' data as well.

The challenge in addressing this threats of data loss and data leakage is that "the measures you put in place to mitigate one can exacerbate the other," according to the report. You could encrypt your data to reduce the impact of a breach, but if you lose your encryption key, you'll lose your data. However, if you opt to keep offline backups of your data to reduce data loss, you increase your exposure to data breaches.

The second-greatest threat in a cloud computing environment, according to CSA, is data loss: the prospect of seeing your valuable data disappear into the ether without a trace. A malicious hacker might delete a target's data out of spite -- but then, you could lose your data to a careless cloud service provider or a disaster, such as a fire, flood, or earthquake. Compounding the challenge, encrypting your data to ward off theft can backfire if you lose your encryption key.

Data loss isn't only problematic in terms of impacting relationships with customers, the report notes. You could also get into hot water with the feds if you're legally required to store particular data to remain in compliance with certain laws, such as HIPAA.

The third-greatest cloud computing security risk is account or service traffic hijacking. Cloud computing adds a new threat to this landscape, according to CSA. If an attacker gains access to your credentials, he or she can eavesdrop on your activities and transactions, manipulate data, return falsified information, and redirect your clients to illegitimate sites. "Your account or services instances may become a new base for the attacker. From here, they may leverage the power of your reputation to launch subsequent attacks," according to the report. As an example, CSA pointed to an XSS attack on Amazon in 2010 that let attackers hijack credentials to the site.

The key to defending against this threat is to protect credentials from being stolen. "Organizations should look to prohibit the sharing of account credentials between users and services, and they should leverage strong two-factor authentication techniques where possible," according to CSA.

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