What is cloud encryption?
Cloud encryption is the process of transforming data from its original plain text format to an unreadable format, such as ciphertext, before it is transferred to and stored in the cloud.
As with any form of data encryption, cloud encryption renders the information indecipherable and therefore useless without the encryption keys. This applies even if the data is lost, stolen or shared with an unauthorized user.
Encryption is regarded as one of the most effective components within the organization’s cybersecurity strategy. In addition to protecting the data itself from misuse, cloud encryption also addresses other important security issues, including:
- Compliance with regulatory standards regarding data privacy and protection
- Enhanced protection against unauthorized data access from other public cloud tenants
- In select cases, absolving the organization of the need to disclose breaches or other security events
How Does Cloud Encryption Work?
Encryption leverages advanced algorithms to encode the data, making it meaningless to any user who does not have the key. Authorized users leverage the key to decode the data, transforming the concealed information back into a readable format. Keys are generated and shared only with trusted parties whose identity is established and verified through some form of multi-factor authentication.
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Cloud encryption is meant to protect data as it moves to and from cloud-based applications, as well as when it is stored on the cloud network. This is known as data in transit and data at rest, respectively.
Encrypting data in transit
A significant portion of data in motion is encrypted automatically through the HTTPS protocol, which adds a security sockets layer (SSL) to the standard IP protocol. The SSL encodes all activity, ensuring that only authorized users can access the session details. As such, if an unauthorized user intercepts data transmitted during the session, the content would be meaningless. Decoding is completed at the user-level through a digital key.
Encrypting data at rest
Data encryption for information stored on the cloud network ensures that even if the data is lost, stolen or mistakenly shared, the contents are virtually useless without the encryption key. Again, keys are only made available to authorized users. Similar to data in transit, encryption/decryption for data at rest is managed by the software application.
There are two basic encryption algorithms for cloud-based data:
Symmetric encryption: The encryption and decryption keys are the same. This method is most commonly used for bulk data encryption. While implementation is generally simpler and faster than the asymmetric option, it is somewhat less secure in that anyone with access to the encryption key can decode the data.
Asymmetric encryption: Leverages two keys—a public and private authentication token—to encode or decode data. While the keys are linked, they are not the same. This method provides enhanced security in that the data cannot be accessed unless users have both a public, sharable key and a personal token.
Which Cloud Platforms are Encrypted?
Every reputable cloud service provider (CSP)—the business or entity that owns and operates the cloud— offers basic security, including encryption. However, cloud users should implement additional measures to ensure data security.
Cloud security often follows what is known as the “shared responsibility model.” This means that the cloud provider must monitor and respond to security threats related to the cloud’s underlying infrastructure. However, end users, including individuals and companies, are responsible for protecting the data and other assets they store in the cloud environment.
For organizations that use a cloud-based model or are beginning the shift to the cloud, it is important to develop and deploy a comprehensive data security strategy that is specifically designed to protect and defend cloud-based assets. Encryption is one of the key elements of an effective cybersecurity strategy. Other components include:
- Multi-factor authentication: Confirming the user’s identity through two or more pieces of evidence
- Microsegmentation: Dividing the cloud network into small zones to maintain separate access to every part of the network and minimize damage in the event of a breach
- Real-time, advanced monitoring, detection and response capabilities: Leverage data, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to generate a more precise view of network activity, better detect anomalies and respond to threats more quickly
The benefits of cloud encryption
Encryption is one of the primary defenses organizations can take to secure their data, intellectual property (IP) and other sensitive information, as well as their customer’s data. It also serves to address privacy and protection standards and regulations.
Benefits of cloud encryption include:
- Security: Encryption offers end-to-end protection of sensitive information, including customer data, while it is in motion or at rest across any device or between users
- Compliance: Data privacy and protection regulations and standards such as FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) and HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) require organizations to encrypt all sensitive customer data
- Integrity: While encrypted data can be altered or manipulated by malicious actors, such activity is relatively easy to detect by authorized users
- Reduced risk: In select cases, organizations may be exempt from disclosing a data breach if the data was encrypted, which significantly reduces the risk of both reputational harm and lawsuits or other legal action associated with a security event
Cloud encryption challenges
Cloud encryption is a relatively simple, but highly effective security technique. Unfortunately, many organizations overlook this aspect of the cybersecurity strategy, likely because they are unaware of the shared responsibility model associated with the public cloud. As discussed above, while the cloud provider must maintain security within the cloud infrastructure, private users are responsible for securing the data and assets stored in the cloud and ensuring its safe transmission to and from the cloud.
Additional challenges may include:
Time and cost: Encryption is an added step, and therefore an added cost for organizations. Users that wish to encrypt their data must not only purchase an encryption tool, but also ensure that their existing assets, such as computers and servers, can manage the added processing power of encryption. Encryption can take time and therefore the organization might experience increased latency.
Data loss: Encrypted data is virtually useless without the key. If the organization loses or destroys the access key, the data may not be able to be recovered.
Key management: No cloud security measure is foolproof, and encryption is no exception. It is possible for advanced adversaries to crack an encryption key, particularly if the program allows the key to be chosen by the user. This is why it’s important to require two or more keys to access sensitive content.
Should I encrypt my cloud storage?
Cloud encryption is one of the most practical steps organizations can take to protect their data, as well as sensitive customer information. Organizations should consult their cybersecurity partner to select an optimal third-party encryption tool and integrate it within the existing security tech stack.
Topics to discuss with your cybersecurity partner about cloud storage encryption may include:
- How to identify data that requires encryption, either due to its sensitive nature or as a matter of compliance with regulatory standards
- When and where data will be encrypted and the process it will follow
- How to supplement the cloud provider or CSP’s existing cloud security protocols
- How access keys will be generated and shared to reduce the risk associated with weak passwords
- Who will oversee key management and storage (the CSP or the organization)
- How and where encrypted data will be backed up in the event there is a breach with the CSP
- How a cloud access security broker (CASB) can coordinate data access throughout the organization and improve visibility