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Rushing to the Cloud to Support Remote Workers Poses New Security Risks: IBM Study

Cloud Security

The pandemic and subsequent remote working resulted in businesses making sudden and intermittent changes to infrastructure. This is a risky proposition since security policies were often bypassed, and tools and technologies used by remote workers (shadow IT) are not yet audited and checked for compliance. This has resulted in new security threats that impact cloud security and enterprise network security. Research from IBM Security reveals new data examining the top challenges and threats impacting cloud security, indicating that the ease and speed at which new cloud tools can be deployed can also make it harder for security teams to control their usage.

According to IBM survey data and case-study analysis, basic security oversight issues, including governance, vulnerabilities, and misconfigurations, remain the top risk factors organizations should address to help secure increasingly cloud-based operations. The case-study analysis of security incidents over the past year also sheds light on how cybercriminals are targeting cloud environments with customized malware, ransomware, and more.

With businesses rapidly moving to the cloud to accommodate remote workforce demands, understanding the unique security challenges posed by this transition is essential for managing risk. While the cloud enables many critical business and technology capabilities, ad-hoc adoption and management of cloud resources can also create complexity for IT and cybersecurity teams. According to IDC, more than a third of companies purchased 30+ types of cloud services from 16 different vendors in 2019 alone. According to IDC CloudPulse Summary Q119, this distributed landscape can lead to unclear ownership of security in the cloud, policy “blind spots” and potential for shadow IT to introduce vulnerabilities and misconfiguration.

In order to get a better picture of the new security reality as companies quickly adapt to hybrid, multi-cloud environments, IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) and IBM X-Force Incident Response and Intelligence Services (IRIS) examined the unique challenges impacting security operations in the cloud, as well as top threats targeting cloud environments.

The IBM Institute for Business Value and Oxford Economics conducted a global survey, interviewing 930 senior executives across 17 industries and 20 countries including India, Australia and South Korea across Asia Pacific. The other countries are Brazil, Mexico, USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Spain, Nordics, Middle East, South Africa, China and Japan. The respondents interviewed are a mix of COOs, CISOs, CIOs, CTOs, CEOs — all occupying leadership roles across Security, Technology, Operation and Business Strategy.

They were interviewed to understand success factors and market trends related to cloud security strategy, deployment and operations, answering two key questions:

1. How are security operations being modernized for cloud-native scale, speed and interoperability?

2. How are security leaders enabling security awareness and collaboration across the ecosystem?

Top findings include:

Complex Ownership: 66% of respondents in the IBM Institute for Business Value Survey of 930 senior business and IT professionals say they rely on cloud providers for baseline security, yet the perception of security ownership by respondents varied greatly across specific cloud platforms and applications.2

Cloud Applications Opening the Door: The most common path for cybercriminals to compromise cloud environments was via cloud-based applications, representing 45% of incidents in IBM X-Force IRIS cloud-related case studies. IBM X-Force IRIS “Cloud Security Landscape Report” says, in these cases, cybercriminals took advantage of configuration errors as well as vulnerabilities within the applications, which often remained undetected due to employees using new cloud apps on their own, outside of approved channels.

Amplifying Attacks: While data theft was the top impact of the cloud attacks studied, hackers also targeted the cloud for crypto mining and ransomware – using cloud resources to amplify the effect of these attacks.

“The cloud holds enormous potential for business efficiency and innovation, but also can create a ‘wild west’ of broader and more distributed environments for organizations to manage and secure,” said Abhijit Chakravorty, Cloud Security Competency Leader, IBM Security Services. “When done right, the cloud can make security scalable and more adaptable – but first, organizations need to let go of legacy assumptions and pivot to new security approaches designed specifically for this new frontier of technology, leveraging automation wherever possible. This starts with a clear picture of regulatory obligations and compliance mandate, as well as the unique technical and policy-driven security challenges and external threats targeting the cloud.”

Prashant Bhatkal, Security Software Leader, IBM India/South Asia, said, “While companies have been slowly moving to the cloud for years, the global pandemic has served as a forcing function for businesses to drastically accelerate their cloud adoption. The pandemic has created a premium on agility, which the cloud and associated services can provide. Businesses need the ability to adapt quickly and access tools and systems remotely, making cloud the inevitable solution for the new normal.” 

He continues, “While agility is essential, rapid technology shifts lead to new opportunities for cybercriminals. In the case of the cloud, we are moving to a very flexible and dispersed IT landscape that is easy to deploy and scale, but more complex to manage and control. As the rapid move to the cloud has likely exacerbated these challenges, companies must quickly re-evaluate their security policies for the new normal. Customers in India before the pandemic focused around on-prem deployments of critical applications and data. As they started moving to SaaS-based offerings in the last couple of months to allow availability and access to data anywhere, they realized the need to re-imagine their security posture. We are working with clients to help migrate their mission-critical workloads to Cloud by ensuring security is baked in at every level. We are partnering with customers on how they can shift their security approaches to protect increasingly dispersed, hybrid-cloud environments. Cloud today is a key enabler in providing a secure environment to applications and data across various platforms.”

Who owns Security in the Cloud? 

A survey from IBM Institute for Business Value found that responding organizations that relied heavily on cloud providers to own security in the cloud, despite the fact that configuration issues – which are typically users’ responsibility – were most often to blame for data breaches (accounting for more than 85% of all breached records in 2019 for surveyed organizations). Reference: IBM X-Force Threat Intelligence Index, 2020.

Additionally, perceptions of security ownership in the cloud for surveyed organizations varied widely across various platforms and applications. For example, the majority of respondents (73%) believed public cloud providers were the main party responsible for securing software-as-a-service (SaaS), while only 42% believed providers were primarily responsible for securing cloud infrastructure-as-a-service(IaaS). 

While this type of shared responsibility model is necessary for the hybrid, multi-cloud era, it can also lead to variable security policies and a lack of visibility across cloud environments. Organizations that can streamline cloud and security operations can help reduce this risk, through clearly defined policies that apply across their entire IT environment.

Top Threats in the Cloud: Data Theft, Cryptomining, and Ransomware

To get a better picture of how attackers are targeting cloud environments, X-Force IRIS incident response experts conducted an in-depth analysis of cloud-related cases the team responded to over the past year. IBM X-Force IRIS “Cloud Landscape Report,” based on client incident response cases taking place between June 2018 and March 2020.

The analysis found:

Cybercriminals Leading the Charge: Financially motivated cyber criminals were the most observed threat group category targeting cloud environments in IBM X-Force incident response cases, though nation-state actors are also a persistent risk.

Exploiting Cloud Apps: The most common entry point for attackers was via cloud applications, including tactics such as brute-forcing, exploitation of vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. Vulnerabilities often remained undetected due to “shadow IT,” when an employee goes outside approved channels and stands up a vulnerable cloud app. Managing vulnerabilities in the cloud can be challenging since vulnerabilities in cloud products remained outside the scope of traditional CVEs until 2020.

Ransomware in the Cloud: Ransomware was deployed 3x more than any other type of malware in cloud environments in IBM incident response cases, followed by cryptominers and botnet malware.

Data Theft: Outside of malware deployment, data theft was the most common threat activity IBM observed in breached cloud environments over the last year, ranging from personally identifying information (PII) to client-related emails.

Exponential Returns: Threat actors used cloud resources to amplify the effect of attacks like cryptomining and DDoS. Additionally, threat groups used the cloud to host their malicious infrastructure and operations, adding scale and an additional layer of obfuscation to remain undetected.

“Based on the trends in our incident response cases, it’s likely that malware cases targeting cloud will continue to expand and evolve as cloud adoption increases,” said Charles DeBeck, IBM X-Force IRIS. “Our team has observed that malware developers have already begun making malware that disables common cloud security products and designing malware that takes advantage of the scale and agility offered by the cloud.” 

Maturing CloudSec Can Lead to Faster Security Response 

While the cloud revolution is posing new challenges for security teams, organizations who can pivot to a more mature and streamlined governance model for cloud security can help their security agility and response capabilities.

The survey from IBM Institute for Business Value found that responding organizations who ranked high maturity in both Cloud and Security evolution were able to identify and contain data breaches faster than colleagues who were still in early phases of their cloud adoption journey. In terms of data breach response time, the most mature organizations surveyed were able to identify and contain data breaches twice as fast as the least mature organizations (average threat lifecycle of 125 days vs. 250 days).

As the cloud becomes essential for business operations and an increasingly remote workforce, IBM Security recommends that organizations focus on the following elements to help improve cybersecurity for hybrid, multi-cloud environments:

Establish collaborative governance and culture: Adopt a unified strategy that combines cloud and security operations – across application developers, IT Operations and Security. Designate clear policies and responsibilities for existing cloud resources as well as for the acquisition of new cloud resources.

Take a risk-based view: Assess the kinds of workload and data you plan to move to the cloud and define appropriate security policies. Start with a risk-based assessment for visibility across your environment and create a roadmap for phasing cloud adoption.

Apply strong access management: Leverage access management policies and tools for access to cloud resources, including multi-factor authentication, to prevent infiltration using stolen credentials. Restrict privileged accounts and set all user groups to least-required privileges to minimize damage from account compromise (zero trust model).

Have the right tools: Ensure tools for security monitoring, visibility, and response are effective across all cloud and on-premise resources. Consider shifting to open technologies and standards which allow for greater interoperability between tools.

Automate security processes: Implementing effective security automation in your system can help improve your detection and response capabilities, rather than relying on manual reaction to events. 

Use proactive simulations: Rehearse for various attack scenarios; this can help identify where blind spots may exist, and address any potential forensic issues that may arise during attack investigation. 


[2] [3] [4] To view the X-Force IRIS Cloud Security Landscape Report, download the full report here.