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What is Cloud Application Security? A Complete Guide

Cloud with key inserted in the middle, a visual concept of cloud application security systems.

As cloud-based applications become an ever-present part of businesses across industries, security leaders struggle to ensure sensitive company, customer and employee data remains protected. The rise of remote and hybrid work further illuminated the need for sophisticated tools, processes and policies to mitigate potential risks. 

Enter cloud application security, which aims to protect a company’s applications and data that live in the cloud – from sales lists to source code to product roadmaps. Successful implementation enhances data visibility and maintains a secure workplace.

Here, we’ll dive into cloud application security to discover why it’s essential, different types of cloud security threats you should look out for, available solutions and best practices for getting it right.

What is cloud application security?

Cloud application security is the set of people, processes, tools and policies that an organization uses to safeguard its data and applications. To properly leverage cloud app security, businesses must take a holistic approach. This means establishing and maintaining an ecosystem grounded in proven best practices and bolstered by intelligent technology.

It’s no surprise that 48% of tech companies invest in cloud computing technology innovations, as they enable faster, more seamless scaling without a hefty financial commitment. Businesses across every industry also take advantage of cloud computing’s promise for greater flexibility  and reduced maintenance — a distinct leg up against traditional server models. 

But despite those benefits, cloud computing presents some clear challenges; the most concerning of which include decreased privacy and security. As employees share, access and store data in-and-between various cloud applications; network security risks, vulnerability against attacks and the possibility for data breaches and loss all increase. 

Why is cloud app security necessary? 

Businesses can’t afford to ignore the risks associated with a multi-cloud environment (i.e., cloud computing services from at least two different providers), as the average cost of a data breach in 2022 was $9.44 million in the U.S. and $4.35 million globally. Since the majority of organizations use several different types of cloud applications — like communication and collaboration apps, online backup apps and cloud-based accounting software — they need a modern cloud app security practice that ensures visibility and control over the different types of data in each of those apps. 

Third-party providers like Google and Amazon Web Services (AWS) often host the multi-cloud environment. This environment, coupled with employee use of myriad apps, contribute to an increased attack surface. This makes cloud app security a non-negotiable aspect for any organization’s security protocol. 

While cloud service providers typically have security measures in place for their own applications, those services do not extend to the other cloud computing services that a business utilizes. So, each application might have different levels of controls, alerting or remediation options. For this reason, security-driven organizations choose to implement enterprise-to-enterprise solutions, which help security teams view, understand and control the flow of data through all cloud-based applications. 

Types of cloud security threats

There are several types of cloud security threats that pose a risk to a company’s data. Depending on the organization’s cloud applications, multi-cloud environment and level of protection, these threats can result in compromised data:

  • Oversharing of data – When collaborating on projects, employees often accidentally overshare company documents via public links. Whether it’s saving work files to a personal drive or leaving sensitive document access as “Public”, these unnecessary risks easily lead to data winding up in the wrong hands. 
  • Complexity and lack of visibility – Many companies don’t have the right strategies or tools to understand where their data lives and how it flows. If you combine this lack of visibility with the complexities of a growing organization, you’ll run into issues with understanding your security gaps, identifying high-priority data leaks and responding to incidents swiftly.
  • Misconfigurations – Security misconfigurations are a significant cause of data leaks in the cloud, as various cloud environments and vendor-specific security tools often lead to overlooked or improperly configured security settings.
  • Insecure APIs – Insiders use Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to share data both internally and externally. Without adequate security precautions, broken access control, authentication issues and other API vulnerabilities put them in danger for malicious attacks.
  • Account hijacking – In 2022, 50% of all confirmed data breaches involved weak or stolen passwords. Insufficient password policies increase exposure, which allows hackers to gain access and control to sensitive data and cloud-based assets.
  • Credential exposure – Stolen credentials were a factor in 40% of attacks in 2022, and credential thefts (including brute force attacks, credential stuffing and social engineering) continue to gain popularity. While possible to prevent with the right tools and strategies, credential exposure is highly prevalent in today’s broad, cloud-based digital landscape.
  • Bots and automated attacks – Malicious bots carry out automated attacks in a faster, more widespread manner than formerly possible through traditional cyberattack methods. Cloud apps are at risk for bots and automated attacks because — unlike server applications — they’re not hosted on-prem.
  • DDoS attacks – Distributed Denial of Service (Dos) attacks shut down machines or even entire networks, which makes them impossible to access by legitimate users. They’ve become more rampant as IoT-connected devices have increased in popularity for businesses. 
  • Phishing and social engineering – Social engineering schemes like phishing enable hackers to steal credentials from employees with privileged access to cloud applications.
  • Shadow IT – Shadow IT refers to any information technology that employees use without company knowledge or approval — like productivity tools, messaging apps or sharing tools. In fact, 32% of workers use unapproved apps, which causes security gaps and loss of data access. 

While companies need a robust security strategy to reduce risks, many fail to implement a strong approach. There’s no one-size-fits-all magic recipe to instantly address every cloud app security challenge, but security teams should still prioritize, build, tweak and maintain a strategy that grows alongside their business. 

Types of cloud security solutions

Since cloud applications leave businesses vulnerable to data exfiltration and exposure, most organizations started to invest in security solutions that mitigate their risk. Solutions mostly fall into one of the following categories:

  • Cloud access security brokers (CASBs) – CASBs have grown in popularity as hybrid and remote working models continue to gain traction. A CASB acts as a security policy enforcement point – it administers the company’s enterprise security policies whenever a user attempts to access its cloud-based resources. They help guard against both internal and external security risks by automatically screening access requests and flagging any suspicious activity. Visibility, compliance, data security and threat protection are all integral parts of CASB solutions, and each of these factors is crucial for an effective cloud security program. 
  • Web application firewalls (WAFs) – WAF solutions help protect cloud applications by filtering, monitoring and blocking suspicious HTTP/S traffic that travels to the app. They also prevent unauthorized data from leaving cloud apps to mitigate unintentional oversharing and other forms of insider risk
  • Web Application & API Protection (WAAP) – WAAP solutions have emerged as an additional layer of protection in addition to Web Application Firewalls (WAF). WAFs  protect web applications by monitoring site traffic, and while their protection has evolved to include using AI to block attackers, it still doesn’t offer enough protection by itself. That’s why WAAPs  add further protection from network and application layer threats in addition to WAFs. They inspect and analyze incoming traffic in real-time to prevent many different forms of cybercrime.
  • Cloud security posture management (CSPM) – CSPM tools automate both identification and remediation of threats across multi-cloud environments and infrastructure. They help security teams assess risk, detect policy violations and automate provisioning without sacrificing productivity.
  • Insider Risk Management (IRM) – Remote work, proliferating cloud apps and increased employee collaboration have caused the insider threats to grow considerably – and traditional cloud security solutions struggle to contain them all. Insider Risk Management effectively sees and stops data loss from insiders by going beyond the limitations of policy-based defenses. Code42 Incydr™ offers a risk-based approach that detects data theft out-of-the-box, automates response to everyday mistakes and ultimately improves employee security habits.

How is Code42’s Insider Risk Management solution different from a CASB?

Cloud application security best practices

Security teams are often inundated with endless tasks – establishing and executing a successful cloud application security strategy in addition to day-to-day activities can feel like scaling an impossible mountain. But armed with these best practices, security teams can build a program that protects their company, employee and customer data without hindering productivity or output.

  • Utilize identity and access management frameworks – Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a framework of policies and procedures to facilitate the correct access for software and products for employees. IAM allows security teams to set digital identities and access permissions to certain users.IAM software can also help enable security teams to minimize the chance of erroneously granting certain users too much access. 
  •  Implement policies for strong passwords –Strong password policies stand as the first line of cybersecurity defense. Organizations should outline best practices for strong password creation to guide employees on creating the strongest passwords. In addition to strong password policies, Multi-factorAs authentication (MFA) adds an additional layer of protection because it requires users to enter their passwords and then verify their identity with additional information, like biometric data or a code from a personal device. 
  •  Encrypt your data – Data encryption is a vital part of any strong cloud app security program, since it enables companies to transmit data between devices without interception. Though encryption requires quite a bit of system resources, it is well-worth the investment for a well-protected operation.
  •  Identify real risk and data gaps – It’s tough to keep track of all cloud data: not only does cloud data get changed on a daily basis, it also gets downloaded to personal computers and uploaded to new endpoints. When this happens, a CASB can no longer offer any protection. In addition, a CASB policy blocking employees from sharing data will only cause work delays and employee frustration. Other CASB strategies involve constantly fine-tuning policies for changes in information flow, which leads to a disruptive, one-size fits all policy. Instead, try identifying where data gaps are to find underlying data risk. Consider using a tool that can automatically prioritize risky data movement for you, like Incydr
  •  Stop unacceptable data movement – Make sure the technology you leverage offers an immediate response, like blocking data to unacceptable destinations, so security teams can remain as productive as possible.
  • Educate your employees – The best approach to cloud app security is a proactive one, so make sure your processes, policies and tools help educate and empower employees. Your technology should automatically enable better security training through tailored content that informs staff of proper rules and regulations around risk and protection.

Robust cloud application security with Code42

If your organization uses cloud-based applications, a cloud app security program should already be top-of-mind. Whether your team just started safeguarding cloud data and applications or already implemented a cloud app security strategy, ensuring that your sensitive information is well-protected is vital for creating and maintaining a secure workplace. 

While leveraging the right processes and policies is a great start, the complexities of a multi-cloud environment and various types of cloud apps require advanced technologies to prevent data exfiltration and loss. 

90% of companies use a combination of DLP, CASB, UEBA or IRM to protect data exfiltration by insiders. Consolidate your data protection for cloud applications with Code42 Incydr. Incydr is an intelligent data protection solution that automatically detects data leaks to untrusted cloud apps, blocks unacceptable exfiltrations and tailors security’s response based on the offender and the offense. Paired with Code42 Instructor, security can automatically send educational training to correct user behavior and reduce insider risk over time.

How is Code42’s solution different from a CASB?

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