The growing adoption of cloud services by small businesses has brought numerous benefits, including increased efficiency, cost savings when compared to the on-premises server and network setup, and improved collaboration (particularly involving workers who are operating remotely). However, it has also introduced new cloud security challenges. Ensuring that your cloud service provider’s cybersecurity is sufficient to meet modern threats is critical to safeguarding your business’s data, reputation, and operations.

Understanding the Shared Responsibility Model

When it comes to cloud security, it is essential to understand the shared responsibility model. This model outlines the division of security responsibilities between the cloud service provider (CSP) and the customer (i.e., your small business).

In general, CSPs are responsible for securing the underlying infrastructure and services that they provide, while customers are responsible for securing their own data, applications, and user access.

Cloud Service Provider Responsibilities

CSPs will bear a significant portion of the responsibilities, including the following:

  • Physical security of data centers
  • Infrastructure and network security
  • Security of the cloud platform and services
  • Compliance with industry regulations and certifications
  • Regular security updates and vulnerability management

Customer Responsibilities

On the other hand, several key tasks will be left to the users, such as:

  • Data security, encryption, and backups
  • Secure configuration of cloud services
  • Identity and access management
  • Application security
  • Security monitoring and incident response

By understanding the shared responsibility model, you can ensure that both your business and your CSP are doing their part to protect your cloud environment.

Selecting a Secure Cloud Service Provider

Choosing a secure and reliable cloud service provider is critical for the security of your small business. Consider the following factors when evaluating potential CSPs:

Security Certifications and Compliance

Ensure that the CSP has relevant security certifications, such as ISO 27001, SOC 2, or PCI-DSS. These certifications demonstrate that the provider adheres to industry-standard security practices and usually indicate that the vendor has undergone independent audits to verify their security controls. Bear in mind, however, that many of these standards are voluntary or industry-led, so be certain you understand the standards being applied.

Data Privacy and Compliance

Ensure that the CSP complies with applicable data privacy regulations, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), or any other state, federal, or international data privacy laws. This is particularly important if your business processes or stores sensitive data, such as personally identifiable information (PII) or payment card information.

As a side note, there are a lot of industries, like law firms for example, that have their own unique, binding obligations related to the confidentiality of stored data. Oftentimes vendors who cater to the specific industry group will have special protections specifically designed for that industry. If such a provision applies to your business, make sure your vendor complies!

Data Encryption

Choose a CSP that offers robust data encryption options, both in transit and at rest. This will help protect your data from unauthorized access, even if it is intercepted or accessed by malicious actors.

Keep in mind, for this part, that actually enabling the encryption will be on you.

Data Location and Sovereignty

Consider the physical location of the CSP’s data centers and the implications for data sovereignty. Some jurisdictions have strict data residency requirements, which may necessitate the use of local data centers or the implementation of additional data protection measures.

Also, in certain circumstances, the location where you are allowed to store the information applicable to individuals and businesses domiciled in one country may not be legally transmitted or stored in another. Don’t get caught accidentally violating the law because you didn’t know your European customers’ data was being stored on servers in the U.S. without complying with GDPR.

Incident Response and Disaster Recovery

Evaluate the CSP’s incident response and disaster recovery capabilities. A reputable provider should have a well-documented plan for detecting, responding to, and recovering from security incidents, as well as measures in place to ensure the availability and integrity of your data in the event of a disaster.

As a side note, make sure the contract addresses notification and apportionment of liability in the event of a data breach!

Cloud Security Best Practices for Small Businesses

Once you have selected a secure cloud service provider, it is essential to implement best practices to enhance the security of your cloud environment further. Here are some key recommendations:

1. Implement Strong Identity and Access Management

Just as with any other part of your business, your access management and authorized use policies must play an important role. To add an extra layer of security, make sure that your employees use strong passwords and multi-factor authentication (MFA) for all user accounts.

Enforce the principle of least privilege, granting users only the permissions necessary for their roles, which helps limit risks from both outside threats and internal bad actors. Regularly review and update user access permissions, revoking access for employees who no longer require it or have left the organization.

2. Encrypt Data at Rest and in Transit

Continuing with our theme of relatively obvious but still worthy of discussion recommendations, ensure that all sensitive data stored in the cloud is encrypted, using strong encryption algorithms and secure key management practices. The best way to ensure that this happens is by confirming the level of security that your vendor provides with whatever third party audit option is available.

Oh, and make sure that the encryption option is actually turned on.

In addition to encrypting the data at rest, you should use encryption for data transmitted between your organization and the cloud and between cloud services to protect it from interception or unauthorized access. However, be aware that there are limits to the actual security provided by these “tunnels,” and plan accordingly.

3.Secure Configuration of Cloud Services

The CSP handles some of the most important things you can do to protect your data in the cloud. Therefore, to ensure that you’re getting the most out of the security that your vendor offers, follow the best practices and guidelines provided by your CSP for securing the configuration of your cloud services.

As your systems and policies change, make sure to regularly review and update your configurations to ensure they remain secure and aligned with your organization’s security policies.

4.Implement Robust Data Backup and Recovery

One of the harshest lessons you may learn when entrusting your data entirely to third parties, particularly when that data is digital, is that data can and does just disappear sometimes. Regularly back up your critical data to a secure, off-site location to protect against data loss in the event of a security incident or disaster.

Whether as part of a larger process, like a disaster recovery plan, you should test your data recovery processes periodically to ensure that you can quickly and effectively restore data if needed.

5. Monitor and Manage Cloud Security

You’re likely to find that using a CSP is really no different than having your data kept locally and requires similar systems of protection. One of the best examples is the need to continuously monitor who is accessing your data in the cloud.

You need to implement continuous monitoring and logging of your cloud environment to detect and respond to potential security threats or anomalies. To do this, you should use cloud-native security tools, such as intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), security information and event management (SIEM), and cloud access security brokers (CASB) to enhance visibility and control over your cloud infrastructure.

You should also take advantage of any tools or options your CSP makes available to you to assist in monitoring your cloud data use and access.

6. Educate Employees on Cloud Security Best Practices

As with any office equipment or software, nothing will be used properly if the people using it haven’t received the right education. Train your employees on how to use any new cloud-based systems to limit mistakes (there are always growing pains, and the last thing you want to deal with in a transition to the cloud is critical data that vanishes into thin air) and to become as efficient as possible with the new tools.

Of course, any training must also emphasize the importance of cloud security and educate them on best practices, such as strong password hygiene, recognizing phishing attempts, and reporting suspicious activity.

7. Audit Your Cloud Service Providers

In addition to securing your cloud infrastructure, it is crucial to consider the security of the third-party vendors and cloud service providers your small business works with in the cloud ecosystem.

Download our Third-Party Vendor Checklist for a more detailed example of how your audit of cloud service providers should look.

8. Conduct Vendor Risk Assessments

So, naturally, the first thing you must do is… conduct an assessment. It never ceases to amaze me how many business owners I’ve dealt with who never even consider this point. If you don’t even check to make sure that a vendor is meeting all your expectations for the security of the data you are entrusting to them, then you rightly bear the blame if it does.

You need to evaluate the security practices and controls of your cloud vendors and service providers through comprehensive risk assessments. Your assessments should consider factors such as their security certifications, data protection policies, and incident response capabilities.

9. Establish Clear Security Expectations

Clearly define and communicate your security expectations to your vendors and cloud service providers, ensuring they understand their responsibilities in protecting your data and systems. This step is particularly important if any of your data, such as confidential data or trade secrets, is expected to be better protected.

Incorporate these expectations into your contractual agreements and service level agreements (SLAs) to hold vendors accountable for maintaining a secure environment.

10. Monitor Vendor Performance and Compliance

It can be easy to assume that your obligations to secure data transmitted to a CSP are complete once the contract is signed. However, you should regularly monitor your vendors’ performance and compliance with your security expectations and policies.

One key area you need to pay attention to is periodic updates to your vendors’ policies and terms of service. Unfortunately, these changes seem to happen quite often these days, and most of us have developed an unfortunate habit of simply clicking the “accept” button without review. You must address any security concerns promptly and collaborate with your vendors to improve their security posture.

Conclusion

Securing your cloud environment is critical to protecting your small business in the digital age. You can effectively safeguard your data, systems, and reputation by understanding the shared responsibility model, selecting a secure cloud service provider, implementing best practices for cloud security, and working with trusted cloud vendors and service providers.

Stay informed about the latest developments in cloud security and invest in ongoing employee training to foster a culture of security awareness and resilience. By proactively addressing cloud security risks, you can ensure that your small business thrives in the rapidly evolving landscape of cloud computing.

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