SaaS Security Tips
Most people and companies are now using a significant amount of SaaS solutions. Companies are running sales support software, they are file sharing, collaborating and using e-mail programs and a lot more in the cloud. However, that usage also leads to concerns about the security of those solutions. How safe are they? What risks do we run?
Here are a couple of tips to increase the security of SaaS applications.
By far, the biggest risks to using SaaS are leaking data and losing control. The top way to control these risks is simple: watch your passwords, and know how to survive a cloud provider exit. If you look at famous data breaches in the past year, of which the iCloud celebrity hack, (However, still may be dangers) is probably the most well-known, you will see that most breaches were caused by weak passwords and weak password reminders.
Improving the protection that passwords offer is often fairly easy. Security experts recommend using so-called two-factor (or two-step) authentication. This means that you use more than one way to prove your identity at log in. Examples include security tokens, dongles, and fingerprint scanners.
This used to be inconvenient for the user, but in the past few years a number of usable scenarios have been developed. It does not have to be a daily hassle, and you don’t have to fear being locked out.
For example, you can configure your Dropbox account to ask you for an SMS confirmation when you access it on a computer you have not used before. Check it out, they have thought this out well, and there is absolutely no excuse not to use it. You will find it under Account -> Settings -> Security.
Gmail too allows you set up security in this way and once set up, it will alert you to suspicious activity on your account. Like Dropbox, the easiest option is to use your mobile phone, but they also support other methods so there is no need to be concerned if you lose your phone. Other SaaS services that you use might have some of these features as well.
If you are the administrator of a cloud service this is even more important because you will be the prime target of any hacker. As a cloud service administrator there’s a few other basic things to do. If feasible you should first create a secondary administrator account for day to day work. If that account gets compromised, you will have the first account to fall back on.
Another basic administrator task is to apply hygiene to your user list. Regularly review if users are still active in your company or project, and that they don’t have more rights than they need to have. (In larger organizations this is better done by identity federation, so you don’t have to do this on a service by service basis.) As an administrator, you don’t want former employees or contractors to still have access to your systems.
I ran into a simple example the other day on a Google Docs document. It was not mine, but I had full editing access. The person who shared it with me did not need to give me this level of access. It would have been much better just to give me Comment or Review access.
Losing the provider or the data that is stored on the service is the other big risk. And preparing for losing all your data can also protect you against losing some of your data. There are so many reasons why a provider may stop servicing you. They could have any number of technological hiccups, they could suffer a disaster, they could go out of business or they could go in a direction that you don’t like. In all cases it makes sense to have an exit plan or a plan B, such as a plan to move to a different provider.
Backup Is Your Friend
If you don’t have an exit plan, you are basically saying that you accept the risk of losing the data that is with that provider, and the capability to use that data. This could be a valid decision. I am not that interested in my Doodle archive for example, so making a backup of that is not a big concern. At its most basic, an exit plan describes how your most valuable data is stored in a secondary place. For example, my Gmail mail archive is also stored on my laptop as it is automatically downloaded by Outlook, my mail program. I have not spent too much time thinking about changing my mail provider. However, because my mail and contacts are safely stored elsewhere, I am confident that a new provider will help me to do the migration and that the process will be fairly simple.
For my customer management system I make regular copies of the entire customer database and contact details. Again, moving to a different provider will be a hassle, but not impossible. If your business really depends on it, you may want to have a cloud system on hot standby. However, most of the time, this is not very easy with SaaS because no two SaaS providers are alike. You are better off to first think about which data to save to a secure location. If and when you want to move, your functional requirements will have changed anyway, and there are likely to be new SaaS providers at that time as well.
For a deeper dive into cloud security issues and controls, have a look at the research that the Cloud Security Alliance is doing.
By Peter HJ van Eijk
Peter HJ van Eijk develops and delivers cloud computing training programs. He has delivered these programs dozens of times in the US, Europe, Middle-East and Asia to a wide variety of participants.
He has worked for Deloitte Consulting, IT supplier EDS, internet providers, and at the University of Twente, where he received his PhD in 1988. He is a board member of the Dutch Cloud Security Alliance Chapter.