COVID-19 has introduced many new normals for business, and IT operations are no exception. Despite tighter technology budgets in the wake of the economic recession, companies are moving full steam ahead toward the cloud due to the agility and scale it provides.
According to a recent report from Flexera, 59% of companies surveyed plan on increasing their spending on cloud services in the post-pandemic world, with 30% of companies planning to spend "significantly" more. But cybercriminals and other threat actors are adapting to the technology, too, taking advantage of the fact that organizations are still discovering best practices surrounding cloud security and incident response.
The risk is high — with cloud systems often holding an unprecedented amount of valuable and sensitive data that can put both organizations and their customers in danger if breached. Our team of security incident responders at IBM X-Force IRIS have taken the opportunity to analyze the most common types of cloud compromises we've seen over the past year, how they're being used to cause harm, and where organizations should focus to reduce their risks. Here's what we found.
How Threat Actors Are Compromising Cloud Environments
While there are several ways we've seen cybercriminals target cloud systems, the most common initial infection vector was remote exploitation of cloud applications. In fact, this top attack pathway accounted for 45% of the cloud-related cybersecurity events we examined in our recent "Cloud Threat Landscape Report" (registration required). In many cases, vulnerable applications were present in the environment but remained undetected. Addressing these remote vulnerabilities has been challenging, in part due to the lack of public cataloging of discovered issues.
In addition to vulnerabilities, another core issue is security flaws introduced by users via misconfigurations. We've seen threat actors take advantage of misconfigured cloud servers to siphon over 1 billion records from compromised environments in 2019. The subsequent data leaks remain one of the greatest sources of record loss across the board and can quickly allow access to sensitive information from organizations. Threat actors are often able to take advantage of both these configuration errors and vulnerabilities within the applications due to employees standing up new cloud apps on their own, outside of approved channels, making shadow IT a core concern when it comes to cloud security.
How Threat Actors Use the Cloud to Cause Harm
While we have seen hackers target the cloud for activities like cryptomining and ransomware, data theft is by far the top tactic we see attackers taking once they've breached cloud systems. The cloud is ideal for hosting large amounts of information, and this data can be stolen by threat actors and quickly sold on underground marketplaces. The types of data stolen can vary, but the most common targets are sensitive personally identifiable information and financial data such as credit card numbers. In one case, we found unauthorized access to cloud assets leading to losses of more than $50,000 in less than one hour. While the type of data stolen largely depends on threat actor motivations and sophistication, in cloud environments the amount of data available can be much greater, making the potential impact of a breach that much more damaging to the organization.
4 Takeaways to Enhance Cloud Security
When executing a cloud security strategy, we recommend the following:
1. Have the right tools. Cloud assets should always be included in overall incident response plans. Test your cloud security incident response at a tactical level to ensure the tools you have are working across all cloud environments.
2. Automate incident response. Implement security automation in cloud environments to improve your detection and response capabilities — this has the potential to significantly speed response and reduce damages.
3. Redeploy, don't reimage. Don't terminate your cloud instances. When you do, your team loses potentially valuable forensic artifacts. Instead of destroying this data, isolate affected systems and stand up known clean images to allow forensic investigators to understand what went wrong and how to prevent it in the future.
4. Use threat intelligence. Threat actors are always evolving and augmenting their tactics, techniques, and procedures with new capabilities specifically to target cloud environments. As these capabilities continue to develop, leverage your threat intelligence to monitor changes in targeting and implement effective defense.