UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | Nov 14, 2023

Cloud computing isn’t new: 66 percent of small tech companies and 74 percent of enterprises have readily embraced it because of its obvious benefits, including scalability, accessibility and reliability. Unfortunately, cloud platform providers — meaning the organizations that supply the infrastructure, services, and resources needed to use cloud computing — aren’t quite Fort Knox. These platforms can still fall prey to security risks like insider threats, confusing data storage regulations, and targeted malware attacks, to name a few. 

So, what are some of the most notable risks companies face when using cloud computing? And what can they do to mitigate these hazards?

7 Security Risks of Cloud Computing

  1. Malicious malware
  2. Limited visibility into network operations
  3. Compliance issues
  4. Data loss
  5. Data breaches
  6. Account hijacking
  7. Insider threats

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Security Risks of Cloud Computing

The transition to cloud platforms means malicious actors will continue to seek ways to penetrate companies’ cloud defenses. Below are some of the biggest security risks businesses face when trying to protect their data on the cloud.

 

1. Malicious Malware

Often, when companies implement cloud computing, they erroneously believe that they’re now safe from traditional malware attacks. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Although cloud malware’s intended target is the cloud platform provider, end users can still experience repercussions. 

For example, one type of cloud malware attack is hyperjacking, in which a cybercriminal exchanges a virtual machine’s (VMs) hypervisor for a corrupted version. This switch is detrimental as hypervisors are the foundation of VMs — digital versions of physical computers — and one of the building blocks of cloud computing. Hyperjacking affects end users as it can result in the theft of sensitive data, including identity details and financial information, while also enabling cybercriminals to use an end user’s accounts to distribute more malware and execute phishing scams.

In 2022, Google-owned security firm Mandiant and virtualization firm VMware published warnings that a hacker group had been installing malicious hypervisors within their servers, allowing them to monitor and take control of an entire VM network. This type of attack is rare and, in this case, appears to have targeted fewer than 10 networks globally. Still, Alex Marvi, a Mandiant consultant, told Wired, “The idea that you can compromise one machine and from there have the ability to control virtual machines en masse is huge.”

 

2. Limited Visibility Into Network Operations

When businesses use a mix of cloud platforms and environments as well as on-premises servers, this infrastructure can become complex and cause limited visibility within a network. Although complex networks can cause inefficient operations and network downtime, leading to overspending, the main security issue is the unintentional creation of network “dark spots.” This term refers to areas within a cloud network or infrastructure that monitoring tools frequently miss, leaving those segments open and exposed to a security breach.   

Managing a network incorrectly equates to waving a welcome sign to all potential hackers as cybercriminals can use automated tools to scan for vulnerabilities in cloud applications, servers, and infrastructure, leading to security breaches. Worse, businesses often won’t realize they’ve been breached in real time due to network darkness, leading to significant data loss and remediation costs.

 

3. Compliance Issues

The regulations you have to comply with depend on your industry or the service you provide. Two of the most widespread and relevant pieces of legislation regarding cloud computing are the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).  

Issues surrounding compliance can occur when companies don’t abide by the principle of least privilege (PoLP) or are following several compliance regulations simultaneously, causing overlap or ambiguity on how they should keep information. Breaking compliance laws can result in hefty fines and legal fees for the guilty parties. 

 

4. Data Loss

Although one of the major reasons to use cloud computing is to safeguard data and assets, it is not immune to data loss. 

One significant cause of data loss is insufficient data backup and recovery. Many startup owners and entrepreneurs place too much faith in the cloud, meaning they don’t have adequate planning and resources for data recovery. In the event of physical damage, cyber attacks or insider threats, data can be permanently lost if regular backups and contingency plans are not in place.  

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5. Data Breaches

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the largest cause of data breaches is human error. According to Verizon’s 2023 Data Breaches Investigations Report, 74 percent of data breaches involved a human element, whether intentional or not.

Furthermore, the number one cause of human data breaches is weak or stolen credentials. A survey from GoodFirms, which questioned IT experts and cybersecurity personnel, found that 30 percent of respondents had experienced a data breach due to weak credentials, 36 percent write their passwords down on paper, and 53 percent share their passwords with colleagues, family and friends. All of these practices are a recipe for a breach.

So, non-IT employees can’t take all the blame regarding data breaches when some IT professionals don’t even follow their own cybersecurity protocols.  

 

6. Account Hijacking

This won’t be news to you but, if users write down their cloud account password or share it with others, the chance of their cloud accounts being hijacked increases. As a result of this type of negligence, hackers can gain access to employees’ emails and, from there, can easily access their whole cloud accounts.

Account hijacking is particularly attractive to cybercriminals since 33 percent of all company folders are open to everyone, and it’s made even easier when mixed with network visibility weak spots and poorly chosen passwords. Therefore, cybercriminals can hijack accounts easily and find valuable data readily available even on entry-level employee accounts. 

 

7. Insider Threats

Now it’s time for the snakes in the grass, the true rogues: insider threats. These can be current or former employees, workers who have been reckless or negligent with their actions, or threat actors who’ve gained the trust of naïve employees. 

Proofpoint’s 2022 Cost of Insider Threats Global Report found that criminal insiders were behind 26 percent of insider threats — and the number of incidents has increased by a staggering 44 percent in just two years. This increase could be due to the rise of remote workers, bring your own device (BYOD) policies or former employees whose job prospects were affected by the pandemic. 

So, while cloud computing is at risk from various threats, some accidental and some not, all is not lost as businesses can still follow some best practices to make their cloud computing as secure as possible. 

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How Secure Is the Cloud?

Storing data in the cloud is typically a safer option than more traditional methods, like storing data on a computer. With data saved in the cloud, businesses’ data isn’t confined to a single device, making attacks like ransomware ineffective. In addition, cloud data can only be accessed with a digital key, is monitored around the clock and comes with end-to-end encryption through cloud platform providers.  

However, cloud platforms aren’t impenetrable. Malicious actors may use social engineering schemes to gain login credentials, bypassing data encryption precautions. Employees may commit human errors as well, such as someone forgetting to log out of a cloud account when not using it and allowing hackers to penetrate the system through their device.   

And with more than 60 percent of all corporate data stored in the cloud, these platforms are a huge target for cybercriminals, meaning cloud security is an ongoing challenge.

 

How Can You Minimize Risks of Cloud Computing?

Ideally, cybersecurity experts could recommend software that was a one-stop-shop for all cloud computing risks. Unfortunately, that solution doesn’t exist today and likely never will. 

So, what can businesses do to reduce their security risk in cloud computing? Here are a few solutions:

  • Multifactor authentication (MFA): This relatively simple fix of asking for a password and a thumbprint or face scan can block more than 99.9 percent of account compromises, according to Microsoft. 
  • Network segmentation: This practice reduces the all-access approach that many businesses follow. Enabling strict rules for each network segment means only specific actions would be allowed and a select number of approved users would be granted access. 
  • Virtual private networks (VPNs): VPNs hide users’ IP addresses and create a secure tunnel encrypting their online traffic. Their use should be a standard practice within an office and readily available to remote employees when using their cloud accounts and accessing work files and data. 
  • Cloud audits: Not only can this assessment determine the cloud’s computing performance, but it can also check established controls and best practices regarding identity and access management, data backup and recovery, and vendor management. Audits can scan for potential unauthorized access and ensure everyone is following compliance rules. 

If you liken cloud computing to driving a car, you can stick to the speed limit, wear your seatbelt, and drive safely — all of which reduce your risk of an accident — but nothing can eliminate the chance that a crash may still happen. So, the same holds for business leaders and the cloud. You should know about the top risks of cloud computing and establish secure protocols and best practices to protect your business, data and employees and reduce their risk of security incidents. This won’t protect everything from every scenario, but at least you won’t be a reckless driver.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What are security risks of cloud computing?

Data breaches, limited network visibility, data loss and insider threats are a few security risks of cloud computing. 

What are the security vulnerabilities in the cloud?

Security vulnerabilities in the cloud can arise due to issues like misconfigurations, less visible network areas that go unmanaged by security teams and human errors as well.

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