Safeguarding Data in the Cloud: Proven Practices for SaaS Security
Drawn by their convenience, scalability, and cost-effectiveness, today’s businesses are taking advantage of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications more and more often. The global SaaS market is forecast to see an impressive 18% compound annual growth rate over the next four years, with more than 99% of organizations already relying on at least one SaaS app to support key operational processes.
The more heavily organizations rely on SaaS solutions, though, the more important it becomes for stakeholders to understand how to secure their data in the cloud. By learning about and implementing SaaS security best practices, organizations can take advantage of all the benefits of SaaS adoption without creating cybersecurity vulnerabilities that pose major risks to the business.
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In this article, we’ll outline key policies, processes, and technologies that you can implement to protect your data in the cloud. Following these SaaS security best practices will make it possible for your organization to leverage cloud applications with greater confidence.
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Security Threats and Risks in SaaS Application Ecosystems
As SaaS adoption grows by leaps and bounds, cybercriminals—who are, in the main, opportunists by nature—are increasingly turning their attention to exploiting vulnerabilities in SaaS apps. In recent years, the number of breaches and security incidents involving SaaS applications has increased significantly. According to a recent survey conducted by the Cloud Security Alliance, most organizations (55%) have experienced one or more incidents involving a SaaS application within the last two years.
The fact that SaaS-based risks continue to grow underscores the importance of adopting a comprehensive SaaS security strategy. One issue is that SaaS applications are inherently vulnerable to misconfiguration if the right safeguards are not put in place; another is that reliance on SaaS apps demands a robust identity management strategy, which many organizations have not yet implemented. Yet another challenge is that targeting SaaS solutions is a way for cybercriminals to gain access to the data or IT ecosystems of the many customers of a single SaaS vendor. This represents an attractive opportunity for threat actors to increase the “blast radius” from compromising just one application.
We’ve seen a growing number of attacks exploiting SaaS platforms to target the applications’ end customers within the past one to two years. For instance:
- The continuous integration and continuous delivery platform CircleCI announced in January 2023 that bad actors had leveraged malware installed on an employee’s laptop to gain access to production systems and potentially compromise CircleCI customers’ data.
- In June 2023, it was announced that a critical vulnerability in MOVEit file transfer software had been exploited to steal customer data.
- A successful social engineering attack on communication and customer data platform Twilio resulted in illegitimate access to its customers’ data in August 2022.
Such incidents can have major consequences for the operations and reputations of businesses. SaaS customers’ data can be exposed when access controls are weak, and once unauthorized access occurs, sensitive information, proprietary data, or trade secrets can be stolen if encryption isn’t adequate. The ultimate consequences for victims can be severe, ranging from lasting reputational damage to regulatory penalties and financial losses.
As these threats continue to evolve, organizations must build and implement the right SaaS security strategy—one that can effectively mitigate today’s real-world risks—if they’re to protect themselves successfully.
Such a strategy should include:
- Careful vendor assessment and due diligence
- Robust access controls and a strong identity management strategy
- Data loss prevention (DLP) controls
Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.
Exercising Due Diligence in SaaS Vendor Assessment
Relying on external partners (including SaaS vendors) can expose an organization to third-party risk. Thoroughly assessing the security posture of all prospective SaaS application providers should be a key element of the due diligence process you engage in before selecting a software solution.
Ensure that any SaaS vendor whose solution you are evaluating maintains security policies and data management practices that are in alignment with your organization’s own cybersecurity requirements. You can validate a prospective vendor’s cybersecurity posture by examining third party audit reports and formal certifications.
In particular, seek out the following documents. Reviewing these reports can provided detailed information about a company’s cybersecurity practices:
- The Consensus Assessment Initiative Questionnaire (CAIQ). CAIQ Version 4 is now part of the Cloud Security Alliance’s Cloud Controls Matrix.
- ISO 27001 audit report
- SOC 2 Type 2 Compliance report
Keep in mind that each of these documents provides nothing more than a point-in-time snapshot of the SaaS vendor’s security posture. To maintain ongoing visibility into your partner’s cybersecurity practices, you’ll need to continuously evaluate new versions of these documents—and engage in ongoing discussion with the SaaS vendor—to ensure that their cybersecurity practices continue to evolve as the threat landscape changes over time.
In today’s business world, strong partnerships are critical for success. Transparency on the SaaS vendor’s part is a must-have for creating the longstanding trust upon which strong partnerships are built.
Maintaining Robust Access Controls within a Strong Identity Management Strategy
Enforcing appropriate access controls is all-important within the cloud, where user accounts—rather than the corporate network—are the primary means by which information assets can be accessed. This makes it critical to shift towards a Zero Trust-based approach to cybersecurity as the business migrates key applications to the cloud. By developing and maintaining a strong identity management strategy, the business can defend against unauthorized data access, and thereby reduce the likelihood of breaches.
The three core elements in a strong identity management strategy are:
- User authentication. User identities should be managed by a trusted identity provider, and multi-factor authentication (MFA) should be enforced.
- Role-based access controls (RBAC). These controls define and enforce users’ access permissions on the basis of what’s required for their jobs. Users should only be able to access the resources and data that are needed for their role within the organization, and nothing more. This is known as the least privilege principle.
- Ongoing access review. Regularly or continuously reviewing access makes it possible for security teams to keep track of user permissions over time, so that they can ensure the least privilege principle is being adhered to and that unneeded permissions are revoked promptly.
Adhering to a robust identity management strategy can offer significant protection against modern-day cyber threats. Many of today’s SaaS breaches occur because the threat actors were able to exploit vulnerabilities at the access layer, so fortifying this aspect of your environment mitigates a great deal of risk.
Defending Against Data Leakage with Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Controls
DLP controls make it possible to enforce policies restricting the movement of sensitive data by blocking actions such as the copying, sharing, or transferring of files. Implementing a DLP solution that works across your SaaS ecosystem is critical for safeguarding your data within SaaS applications.
Choose a DLP technology solution that includes the following four capabilities:
- Content inspection. This makes it possible to analyze data within SaaS apps in real time to identify sensitive data on the basis of specific keywords, patterns, or document labels. Whenever confidential or sensitive information is detected, the DLP solution can then enforce controls such as blocking or alerting on access or file movement attempts.
- User and Entity Behavior Analytics (UEBA). By monitoring users’ behaviors to identify anomalous activities, this technology can find patterns that may indicate that unauthorized data sharing or access is taking place. This can reveal insider threats, or show that account compromise has occurred.
- Security monitoring integration. When ongoing security monitoring is in place, an organization can quickly and effectively respond if suspicious activities are detected by the DLP technology. This will allow the organization to investigate and remediate incidents involving sensitive data in a way that’s consistent and effective.
- Data encryption. Enforcing organization-wide data encryption adds an extra layer of data security by making it so that unauthorized parties cannot access sensitive information even if they exfiltrate or otherwise gain access to the data.
These core capabilities make it possible for a DLP solution to protect high-value information assets in the cloud, including within SaaS applications.
Maturing Your SaaS Security Strategy
Protecting your cloud data and SaaS applications is best thought of as a journey, rather than a destination. Building a mature SaaS security strategy requires making progress through multiple stages, each of which involves implementing technologies, deploying controls, and taking the right approach to governance.
By following the best practices we’ve outlined above, an organization can take advantage of the full value of the cloud, and leverage SaaS apps with confidence, knowing that the greatest risks to its information assets have been mitigated.
If you’d like to speak to me or the team about a SaaS security strategy that is tailored to your needs, contact us!