What is cloud security posture management (CSPM)?

Cloud security posture management (CSPM) tools scan cloud deployments for security misconfigurations that could cause a data breach or compliance violation.

Learning Objectives

After reading this article you will be able to:

  • Define cloud security posture management (CSPM)
  • Describe the capabilities of a CSPM solution
  • Understand the threats posed by cloud misconfigurations

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What is cloud security posture management (CSPM)?

Cloud security posture* management (CSPM) is a type of automated software tool that identifies security risks in cloud infrastructure. Think of CSPM as a building inspector who finds potential safety hazards — but CSPM inspects cloud-hosted software, not buildings. The cloud infrastructure that CSPM inspects may include software-as-a-service (SaaS), platform-as-a-service (PaaS), infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), containers, and serverless code.

CSPM is automated. Instead of requiring security teams to manually check their clouds for security risks, it runs in the background, analyzing the cloud for compliance risks and configuration vulnerabilities.

Most CSPM tools are able to scan multi-cloud environments, providing a combined view of the security state across all cloud services. This ability is crucial because many organizations use more than one cloud service, which increases the risk of misconfiguration and can be harder to manage manually.

*"Posture" is a term used in security that means readiness to mitigate attacks. For example, a network that uses browser isolation to stop online attacks has a better security posture than a network without this feature.

Why is CSPM necessary?

Cloud security presents different challenges compared to the risks of previous computing models. First and foremost, cloud infrastructure is connected by necessity to the Internet. Because it allows for the near-instant transfer of any type of data, the Internet exposes anything connected to it to a vast number of threats. Internet connectedness also raises the stakes for data exposure: anyone in the world can see and possibly steal exposed data, unlike when data is kept in private networks.

Second of all, cloud infrastructure is often highly complex, combining multiple types of cloud services, as in a multi-cloud environment. As a business’s needs change, various compute, storage, and software services are added, expanded, and removed. All of this takes place in remote data centers, which makes it difficult to maintain visibility and control, meet compliance requirements, and identify and eliminate risks — just as a property owner may struggle to manage a property from afar as opposed to when they live next door.

Third of all, while other aspects of a cloud service may be managed by the service provider, security configurations usually are not. This forces organizations to implement security for infrastructure that they do not themselves manage.

To combat these problems, CSPM solutions are built to deal with the realities of managing and securing cloud infrastructure. They reduce the manual effort needed to secure highly complex cloud deployments.

How does CSPM work?

CSPM regularly scans and analyzes cloud services — SaaS, PaaS, etc. The frequency of the scans depends on the CSPM solution used. It looks for security misconfigurations, possible compliance violations, and vulnerabilities. It also maps an organization's entire cloud infrastructure to reveal previously unknown risks. It sends alerts for any potential risks to security teams; CSPM products typically have dashboards that display identified issues and send out alerts.

What is a cloud security misconfiguration?

A cloud security misconfiguration is an error that either exposes data or leaves data open to attack. A security misconfiguration is like leaving a front door unlocked or a bank vault ajar. Security misconfigurations most often occur during the setup process for a cloud service.

As an example, a number of large data breaches have taken place because an organization misconfigured their AWS S3 storage bucket, leaving the data within exposed to public view.

How does CSPM help with regulatory compliance?

Many organizations have to comply with strict requirements for protecting data and controlling access to that data. CSPM automatically scans for and detects any potential violations — for instance, if too many people have access to a database. This can help organizations better comply with regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Regulatory compliance is complex, and use of a CSPM tool is just one of the many steps organizations may need to take.

How does CSPM help provide visibility of cloud infrastructure?

Organizations continually expand and change cloud infrastructure as their business grows. In doing so, an organization may migrate certain processes from one cloud to another. Just as a person moving homes may misplace some items in the process, an organization shifting its data and applications to new cloud providers may lose track of some data and assets.

For these reasons, visibility — an awareness of what assets exist and where they are located — is a major challenge for many organizations that use the cloud. The lack of visibility creates security risks, as they may not even know the full extent of their attack surface. Such a problem can be compounded if an organization has shadow IT — cloud services that employees use without authorization.

CSPM scans cloud deployments to identify all cloud assets and provide clear visibility of their status. It also alerts security teams to misconfigurations in any discovered assets.

What else does CSPM do?

Other CSPM capabilities include:

  • Vulnerability identification — a vulnerability is a flaw in software that attackers can exploit
  • Incident response — some CSPM tools can go beyond alerting security teams and can fix certain issues

Cloud security continues to evolve as cloud adoption and migration increase. CSPM is just one of the tools businesses can use to protect their cloud-hosted data and systems.

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