5-Step Cloud Security Checklist to Secure Your Startup

A security checklist is a great way to make your startup more secure. Check out our concise cloud security checklist for startups.

Public clouds enable thousands of startups in multiple industries to get up and running quickly. However, many startup founders and teams may not have a good understanding of the cloud's security risks, and that can prove disastrous to their fledgling businesses. That's why startups like you should look into cloud security and cybersecurity aspects more. And we think a simple cloud security checklist is the best way to kickstart your startup's security improvements.

In this article, we explain what makes for a good security checklist, provide you with a simple cloud security checklist fine-tuned for startups, and share information about more comprehensive checklists you should use once you've set up the basics.

What Makes for a Good Cloud Security Checklist?

Engineers and architects at a construction site

Cybersecurity is a broad area covering a huge number of security concerns. Cyberthreats can arise from any one of them and impact your startup badly. A security checklist is good only if it acknowledges this vastness and addresses every area of concern in both breadth and depth.

The vastness makes us particularly worried about startups that are outside the information technology industry, in areas like health care, biotechnology, education, manufacturing, and others. Their founding teams and employees may not be aware of the disastrous impacts of cyberthreats and get blindsided.

The security checklist below is distilled from comprehensive security checklists prepared by experienced security professionals and committees (listed later in this article). We have prioritized five broad areas a startup like you should pay special attention to, especially if you're outside the IT industry. We have tuned it for startups that are heavily dependent on the cloud and third-party services for their business functions.

1. Governance

Governance establishes the organizational structures and management policies necessary to effectively implement any security policy. The steps here should be done first before starting any of the other items in this cloud security checklist.

1a. Establish Risk Management in Your Organization

Your startup faces a variety of enterprise risks from your market, the economic environment, the legal system, and elsewhere. Among them, security risks to your cybersecurity are one of the top enterprise risks.

Deal with all these risks systematically by establishing enterprise risk management and cyber risk management in your organization. They'll help you clarify your security requirements, design your security policies, and assign security responsibilities to minimize the impacts of security risks.

1b. Set Up Security Assessments and Audits

By setting up security assessments and security audits, your security teams will have a clear understanding of your organization's critical assets, their vulnerabilities, potential cyber threats, and crucially, the impacts — financial, operational, and legal — of such threats.

Security assessments help you design the security controls — the safeguards and techniques to minimize impacts of cyber threats — following security best practices.

2. Data Security

Cloud security checklist: electric safe on a shelf

These steps in your cloud security checklist provide information security and data protection for your sensitive data. They help with data breach prevention and data loss prevention for your sensitive information. The governance steps described above ensure that the measures here are prioritized by risk levels.

2a. Configure and Monitor Cloud Storage Access Control

Cloud data services like Amazon S3 or Google Drive follow a variety of access control models. Every subscription to a cloud or third-party service introduces new security risks to your organization.

For example, your operations team may have wrongly configured the access control policies of your sensitive research data in S3. Or your sales team may have enabled public access to important business documents on Google Drive.

Set up automated security workflows and cloud security posture management services to detect and remediate these risks.

2b. Set Up Data Encryption

Your data at rest — the data that's stored in the cloud or endpoint devices like laptops and smartphones — face a variety of cyber threats like data breaches and physical thefts. Data encryption ensures that unauthorized or malicious parties can't read or understand the information inside your breached or stolen data.

2b-1. Configure Data Encryption for Your Cloud Data

All cloud service providers provide settings to store your data in encrypted form on the storage disks backing their infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) services.

However, that's not sufficient against insider threats and data dumps. You should configure data encryption at the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) levels too.

For example, you should configure encryption for your data stored in cloud-managed databases like Amazon RDS and S3.

Deploy a cloud access security broker (CASB) product to ensure all the data going out to any cloud is encrypted at the source.

Configure key management and secret management to protect your encryption keys from theft or misuse using services like Amazon KMS and HashiCorp Vault.

2b-2. Set Up Data Encryption on Your Endpoints

Endpoints are end-user devices like laptops and smartphones that may be company-issued or personal. Employees bringing their personal unauthorized devices into your company's network leads to a security risk called "shadow IT". Data transferred to personal devices for convenience is vulnerable to theft and breaches.

If the stolen data is sensitive, your company faces penalties for not complying with regulations like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Enable disk-level and OS-level encryption on all your company-issued devices to avoid such risks. Educate your employees and enforce security policies to minimize the risks of connecting personal devices to your company's network.

2c. Configure Continuous Data Backups for Your Cloud Data

Continuous data backups in real-time are necessary to recover from a variety of risks like ransomware extortion, natural disasters, operational failures, and cloud provider failures. They are essential for your business continuity and disaster recovery policies.

You should configure data redundancy and data backups at every level of the cloud stack — infrastructure, platform, and application software.

The data backups should be stored encrypted. Because backups can outlast the period of employment of many employees, institute a formal process for storage and transfer of encryption keys rather than entrusting them to individual employees.

3. Identity and Access Management

Person using his key access card

Identity and access management (IAM) governs your startup's identity lifecycle, authentication, authorization, and access control policies.

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3a. Deploy Identity Management for Employees, Contractors, and Users

Each employee, contractor, or user is represented by an identity in your systems. It enables that person to interact with your systems. For example, an employee can use their email address to log in to your internal software — the email address is their identity.

When an employee or contractor leaves your company, their identity should be removed or marked as unauthorized in your systems. This process is called identity lifecycle management. A similar process is necessary if you have users.

You should deploy identity management for all the people who interact with your startup — employees, vendors, contractors, or users. Such systems provide centralized management of employee credentials, authentication policies, access control policies like role-based access control, and other aspects of IAM.

3b. Use 2-Factor and Multi-Factor Authentication

2-factor authentication (2FA) and multi-factor authentication (MFA) are more secure and resilient compared to using a single credential like a password. Wherever possible and practical, configure them and train your employees and contractors to use them. MFA or 2FA should be applied at all levels — from operating systems and infrastructure to application software.

Privileged users are users who have the highest levels of authorization to your systems. Typically, senior management and security roles get privileged roles, but it's not uncommon to delegate that to other roles. MFA should be mandatory for all privileged users at all times because the financial and reputation impacts of a compromised privileged account can be astronomical.

3c. Plan Your Cloud Access Management and Access Control

Cloud environments are particularly challenging for access management and access control. On average, every organization uses 80-110 SaaS cloud applications. Every SaaS has unique entities, concepts, actions, permissions, and access control models. Managing that diversity through a centralized system in your security operations center is just not a practical model for any startup. Instead, we recommend you rely on two strategies:

  • Allow decentralized access control where centralized is impractical. Educate your employees about security fundamentals like the principle of least privilege and separation of responsibilities.
  • Make security workflows, like requesting temporary permission to a cloud resource, frictionless. Use automated security workflows and security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) tools that integrate with your internal communication tools for this.

4. Infrastructure Security

Cloud security checklist: man looking at multiple CCTV monitors

Under infrastructure security, we cover a wide range of security concerns, especially the security of daily operations of your systems while they support all your business functions. Although infrastructure in the context of cloud computing often refers to cloud infrastructure services like Amazon EC2, we are using the term "infrastructure security" to refer more broadly to all cloud platforms and third-party services that impact your daily operations.

4a. Set Up Security Monitoring and Logging Infrastructure

Continuous security monitoring and logging is a cornerstone of an effective security policy. It brings visibility into every aspect of your infrastructure and operations. It provides a shared communication bus that all other security systems can use to alert you about their particular security concerns. 

This infrastructure is the first thing you have to set up before addressing any other infrastructure security concern. These systems are called security incident and event management (SIEM) systems.

4b. Plan Your Network Security

Network security is the policing of network traffic in your internal networks, your virtual networks in the cloud, and their inter-connections to detect and prevent malicious intruders or insiders.

4b-1. Deploy Intrusion Detection System

An intrusion detection system (IDS) looks for suspicious anomalies in the network traffic — and sometimes in the data that's flowing — using rules, heuristics, or machine learning models. When it detects anything suspicious, it alerts your security team through your security monitoring infrastructure. An IDS is an example of a detective security control.

4b-2. Configure Network Firewalls

Network firewalls allow network access to only authorized sources and destinations at the network traffic level. The cloud's shared responsibility model and lack of visibility into your cloud provider's infrastructure make cloud networking and firewalls more complex than on-premises networking. Your security team should understand your provider's cloud networking and its behavior. All cloud providers offer network firewall capabilities for their virtual networks.

The network connections from your office network to the cloud are vulnerable to attacks. They should be protected using on-premises firewall software.

4c. Configure Compute and Workload Security

A workload is some application processing logic that runs on a compute resource like a virtual machine or container. Workload security is a shared responsibility. Depending on the nature of the platforms and apps you're using, you may need to configure some aspects too. For example, if you're deploying a Kubernetes cluster or high-performance computing (HPC) cluster on a cloud, your operations and security teams need to understand their security aspects.

4d. Plan for Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Tests

Vulnerability scanning continuously monitors all your systems and software for the latest vulnerabilities that have been reported in global databases. When one is found, you can patch or update the vulnerable software.

Penetration tests involve experienced ethical hackers looking for complex chains of vulnerabilities across your software and systems. If they can find such weaknesses, chances are the bad guys can too. You should plan for regular penetration testing to uncover all your security weaknesses and actively close them.

5. Incident Response

Chicago Fire Department fire truck

Despite all your best preventive measures, malicious attacks can still find their way to some vulnerability in your systems. New threats emerge every day, making it impossible for preventive security to be 100% successful 24x7. That's why you need to plan a robust incident response policy and include it in your cloud security checklist.

5a. Prepare Your Organization and Systems for Incident Response

Incidents are security events like phishing attempts, malware attacks, hackers attempting to exploit vulnerabilities, and other such cyberattacks and cyberthreats. If your startup is involved in sensitive research or cutting-edge technologies, you are more likely to face serious attacks.

Each of these requires specialized systems to detect them and specialized skills to handle them. Build your security organization with sufficient skills in all these areas to make them effective. Procure the specialized detection and analysis systems they need (explained in the next section) to handle these threats.

5b. Set Up Detection and Analysis

There are a wide variety of detection and analysis systems. We've already explained SIEM for event monitoring, storing, and alerting. It's a basic necessity for any kind of security detection and analysis. Other systems come with higher-level capabilities:

  • Threat intelligence systems enable the detection of the latest threats and their indicators of compromise, as well as dissemination of that knowledge across the security industry for collective protection.
  • Security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) systems enable automated responses to incidents. They can also orchestrate responses, i.e., coordinate the workflows and actions of different teams to deal with an incident.
  • Extended detection and response (XDR) are smart systems able to correlate events from a wide variety of other security systems to help your security team understand the nature of an incident.

5c. Plan for Containment and Recovery

What if an incident severely impacts your business despite all your efforts? That’s why you should have a plan ready for the worst-case scenario.

Plan for incident containment measures like taking your critical systems offline till the threat is over. Such measures may have financial implications like lost revenue due to downtime. They may impact your company's reputation if your communication about the incidents is not perceived as honest. They may have legal implications due to contractual obligations and service level agreements with your customers or partners.

Plan for managing these secondary consequences too. Create a standard operating procedure that can be activated at short notice and every relevant department and employee knows exactly what to do and what to say.

Purchase insurance policies to offload residual risks, i.e., the unpredictable improbable risks that exist despite all your planning and may impact you badly if you are unlucky.

Comprehensive Security Checklists

Cloud security checklist: person using a magnifying glass

The cloud security checklist above will help you kickstart your cybersecurity practices gently. But as we mentioned before, a good security checklist has to be comprehensive to prevent you from leaving any gaping holes in your security. Here are three such comprehensive security guidelines and checklists:

We strongly recommend that you review all of them and follow their guidelines to help your security policies mature.

Plus, every cloud services provider like Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure provides security best practices and checklists for their cloud environments.

Follow the collective wisdom of all these cloud security checklists and you ensure your business always works in a secure cloud environment.

ThreatKey's Contributions to Your Cloud Security Checklist

ThreatKey is a cloud security posture management service that monitors your use of cloud and third-party services for any security risks and for any possible threats that have left a trail in your cloud logs.

ThreatKey can help in many areas of your cloud security checklist:

  • Vulnerability scanning: ThreatKey secures your subscriptions to cloud services like AWS and third-party services like Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, Box, GitHub, Okta, and Slack. It actively looks for vulnerabilities that arise due to changed configuration settings and alerts you. It can remediate them with your permission. 
  • Automated asset management: ThreatKey provides automated cloud asset discovery. We use our system-of-record technology with API-based agentless scanning and log ingestion to ensure full discovery of your cloud and third-party service assets. 
  • Configuration change control: ThreatKey records your configurations for these services, detects changes made to them, and finds potential security issues arising from them.

Use a Security Checklist to Get Your Cybersecurity Up and Running

Runner at a starting position

By covering a wide range of security concerns, a good cloud security checklist is an invaluable tool to ensure you haven't left gaping holes in your company's security. Startups and mid-market businesses without deep security experience are especially vulnerable to cyberattacks and their disastrous financial impacts. Using a starter checklist like the one above and the comprehensive ones we've linked, you can make sure your cybersecurity is water-tight.

Services like ThreatKey help you accomplish several guidelines in such checklists. Try ThreatKey for free today.

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