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storage security

What is storage security?

Storage security is the group of parameters and settings that make storage resources available to authorized users and trusted networks -- and unavailable to other entities. Storage security can encompass hardware management, application development, network security controls, communications protocols, organizational policy, physical security and user behavior.

Storage security also includes a range of issues, including network security and cyberthreats. Protection must be provided against online threats such as viruses, worms, Trojans and other malicious code.

Why is storage security important?

Storage is where data resides. It is also where users and applications interact with data either directly or indirectly. An effective storage security strategy is essential in preventing unauthorized access to data and underlying storage systems. It is also important in ensuring authorized users have the access they need for their jobs.

Most organizations use multiple security measures to prevent hackers or unauthorized users from accessing data. Even so, when an organization is attacked, storage security is often the last layer of defense against that attack. That makes it even more important for IT teams to protect their storage systems.

However, storage security isn't an isolated effort. It must be part of a larger, organization-wide strategy to prevent sensitive data from being compromised no matter where it resides.

Many enterprises use storage area networks (SANs) for data storage. When planning SAN security, IT teams should consider the following:

  • The storage network should be easily accessible to authorized users and applications but difficult for hackers to compromise.
  • The network should remain reliable and stable under a range of environmental conditions and patterns of use, without compromising security.
  • Security mechanisms should protect against online threats, including viruses, worms and other malicious code, without disrupting the network's stability and reliability.

Storage security management and methodology

Storage security management is the process of ensuring an organization's storage systems and its data are fully protected in accordance with the organization's security requirements. This includes data that resides within the storage systems, as well as data in transit to and from those systems. Storage security management is broader in scope than simply safeguarding the drives themselves. It must consider every attack vector that could lead to compromised storage systems and their data.

IT teams responsible for storage security must carry out several tasks to protect data resources.

  • Encrypt sensitive data at rest and in motion and implement a secure key management system.
  • Disable unnecessary services to minimize the number of potential security holes.
  • Apply updates and security patches to the OS and other software regularly.
  • Deploy network security that prevents unauthorized users from accessing storage systems and their data.
  • Implement storage and data redundancy to prevent data loss in the event of hardware failure, malicious activity or natural disaster.
  • Inform users of the principles and policies that govern data, storage and network use.

The following criteria can help determine the effectiveness of a storage security methodology.

  1. The cost of implementing the system should be a small fraction of the value of the protected data.
  2. The cost to a hacker, in terms of money and time, to compromise the system should be more than the protected data is worth.

What are common data security threats and vulnerabilities?

There are many threats to an organization's data, ranging from malicious attacks to accidental data loss. Some of the more common threats include the following:

  • Ransomware attacks. Ransomware is now one of the biggest threats to an organization's data. These attacks typically encrypt the target data to prevent a victim from accessing it. The victim must then pay a ransom for an encryption key to unlock the data. Ransomware infections can occur as a result of clicking on a malicious link or opening an infected email attachment, but hackers have also been known to plant ransomware on storage devices. More recently, attackers have started to steal sensitive data as well as encrypt it, threating to make the data public if the ransom isn't paid.
  • Unauthorized access. Unauthorized data access typically involves a data breach in which a hacker or a rogue user gains access to an organization's sensitive data. An attacker might go after the data to sell it, disrupt operations, seek revenge or use it for political or competitive advantage.
  • Unintentional access. Unintentional access can occur when poorly constructed access control lists accidentally grant users access to data they shouldn't be able to access. For example, this might happen as a result of overlapping group memberships.
  • Data leakage. At its simplest, data leakage refers to sensitive data leaving an organization and making its way into the outside world. There are several ways in which data leakage can occur. A user might copy data to a USB storage device and walk out the door with that data. Similarly, a user might email the data to someone inside or outside the company or even to himself or herself. Data leakage can also occur as a result of a user copying sensitive files to a consumer file-sharing service such as Dropbox.
  • Accidental deletion or modification. Data can be lost if a user accidentally deletes or overwrites data that hasn't been properly backed up.

Data security vs. data protection

The terms data security and data protection are often used interchangeably, but they refer to two different data management strategies.

  1. Data security is focused on preventing unauthorized access to an organization's data using mechanisms such as access control lists, storage encryption and multifactor authentication.
  2. Data protection is concerned with disaster recovery and putting into place mechanisms for backing up and recovering data. In this scenario, administrators create data copies that can be used to recover an organization's data following a storage infrastructure failure or other types of data loss events.
Data security vs. privacy
Data security refers to measures taken to protect the integrity of the data against manipulation and malware, while privacy refers to controlling access to the data.

Although data security and data protection are two different concepts, they are related. For instance, if an organization is targeted by a ransomware attack, the organization's data security might be able to stop the attack. If the attack succeeds, the organization's data protection mechanisms -- its backup and restore processes -- can get the data back without paying the ransom, assuming the backups have not also fallen victim to the ransomware.

If data protection is poorly implemented, it can create additional security risks. For example, an organization might back up its data to tape without encrypting the backups. An insider could steal the backup tape to gain access to the data.

Compliance considerations

Organizations in regulated industries must examine any applicable compliance requirements when deciding how best to secure their data. Regulations such as the following four focus heavily on data security and privacy:

  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard
  • California Consumer Privacy Act
  • European Union's General Data Protection Regulation

Requirements vary among regulations, sometimes significantly. Nevertheless, they commonly establish mandates that govern how data should be stored. For instance, most regulations require all sensitive data to be encrypted. Many specify retention requirements.

Although the various regulations establish storage security requirements, they usually leave it up to the individual organization to choose which methods and mechanisms they use to meet those requirements.

What are best practices for securing data?

Entire books have been written on keeping data secure. Even so, there are several best practices that organizations should follow when protecting their storage systems and data.

  • Identify where data is stored. The first step in any data security initiative should be to locate the organization's data. Organizations often have data that is stored both on premises and in cloud storage. This might include cloud-based object storage such as AWS Simple Storage Service and Azure Blob storage or cloud services such as Dropbox Business and Microsoft OneDrive. Administrators should also consider data on servers and desktops, in edge environments and locked away in other data silos.
  • Classify the data. After locating the organization's data, administrators should categorize it based on sensitivity and application requirements. Some organizations skip this step and treat all data as highly sensitive, whether it is or not. Although this model makes data security easier, it can also lead to higher costs, degrade application performance and complicate data analytics.
  • Protect sensitive data against leakage. IT teams should adopt a data loss prevention (DLP) system to guard against leakage. Although DLP products vary in scope, most can detect sensitive data in outbound email messages. Such messages can then be intercepted -- and even silently forwarded to the appropriate department -- before being sent to the outside world. DLP products might also offer protections such as blocking access to USB storage devices.
  • Audit access control lists. Access control lists determine who has access to which resources. IT and security teams should periodically audit these lists to ensure no one has tampered with them. They should also check that users can access the data they need to do their jobs, without being able to access any other data.
  • Implement multifactor authentication. Access control lists do little good if a user's account is compromised. One of the best ways to keep users from falling victim to stolen passwords is to implement multifactor authentication.
  • Segregate administrative responsibilities. Allowing a single administrator to have full access to all IT systems is dangerous. If that administrator's account is compromised, an attacker can gain access to everything. This includes the storage environment, cloud computing resources and administrative controls. IT teams should use role-based access controls to delegate administrative responsibilities as-needed rather than granting blanket administrative privileges.
  • Encrypt data at rest and in motion. All sensitive data -- whether on premises, in the cloud or in transit -- should be encrypted. Encryption keys must be carefully managed and protected.
  • Practice good patch management. One of the best ways to prevent a data breach is to install software patches and firmware updates as they become available. These patches often address known vulnerabilities.

Learn about the top five cloud storage security issues and how to keep them in check.

This was last updated in January 2022

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