NordLayer - Network Security

SaaS security best practices & checklist


By NordLayer
10 May 2022
9 min read
SaaS Security Best Practices

SaaS adoption is accelerating worldwide, and cyberattackers are responding. In 2020 alone, threats targeting Cloud services rose by 630%. Poor SaaS security puts sensitive data at risk, with grave implications for corporate operations. But as this blog explains, by following SaaS security best practices, you can make SaaS a safe, efficient solution for your business.

What is SaaS Security?

SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) is a way of delivering applications and data storage without the need for on-premises infrastructure. Instead, SaaS provides the tools businesses need on Cloud-based servers – resulting in lower costs, versatility, and the capability to scale up operations quickly.

The global SaaS market is vast, having expanded from around $60 billion in 2017 to $180 billion in 2022. The sector has spawned household names like Zoom, Shopify, and Salesforce – brands that power everything from eCommerce start-ups to public utilities. However, SaaS can lead to serious security weaknesses.

According to Verizon's 2021 DBIR Master's Guide, 73% of worldwide data breaches involve Cloud assets. And companies are failing to take basic measures to mitigate this risk. For instance, according to Tech Target's Enterprise Strategy Group, 60% of SalesForce users neglect to back up their Cloud data.

Failures like that put data at risk, compromise disaster recovery and show how poor security posture management is among SaaS users. In reality, vendors and clients are both responsible for data protection. Saas clients are responsible when breaches occur, making it vital to maintain strong security measures. That's what we mean when we talk about SaaS security.

What are the Main SaaS Security Concerns?

SaaS brings multiple benefits but can also birth security vulnerabilities. Companies often fail to take account of these threats when switching to Cloud services, but hazards could include:

  • Poor vendor security practices – Companies must trust their vendors when sourcing Saas solutions. Inadequate analysis of SaaS partners can lead to insecure collaborations and lax data protection policies, while some providers fail to offer attentive customer support.

  • Accountability – Generally speaking, Saas divides responsibility between vendors and clients. However, service level agreements can sometimes conceal discrepancies between the two parties, with diminished accountability for vendors.

  • Data security – Data breaches via SaaS resources have occurred on numerous occasions. That isn't a surprise in a situation where 40% of SaaS data access is completely unmanaged. Poor security puts sensitive data at risk, which all compliant companies need to avoid.

  • Cross-site Scripting – XSS is among the most prevalent specific SaaS security risks and can derive from as little as a single poorly configured text form. The result can be an epidemic of stolen session cookies, leading to colossal data integrity breaches – so it's a weakness every security strategy needs to consider.

  • Configuration – Misconfiguration is another critical SaaS vulnerability that arises from the gap between vendors and clients. For instance, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reports that migrations to Office365 have weakened security postures. Poor Saas implementations have resulted in lax authentication, poor auditing, and management confusion.

  • Account hijacking – Single or multi-account hijacks are always possible when migrating to Saas, especially when multiple services are involved and employees work remotely. Phishers can take advantage of chaotic access policies and poor monitoring, leading to catastrophic breaches.

  • Poor identity management – SaaS usage adds a new level of complexity to account management. Security teams can experience problems removing orphaned accounts or assigning privileges across diverse environments, making clear sign-on and authentication procedures essential.

  • API security – Saas services generally have their own API to interact with existing resources and provide core functionality. But this API can be a source of cybersecurity threats. Data exposure, authentication problems, and mass assignment without granular management can make APIs an easy target for attackers.

  • Compliance – From GDPR and PCI-DSS to HIPAA, regulations now demand tight data protection policies. Saas implementations can disrupt compliance strategies, which need to adapt dynamically as Cloud resources come online.

  • Lack of Cloud security strategy – In a broader sense, companies can implement Saas without considering core risks, losing control and visibility.

SaaS Security Best Practices

1. Authentication

Access is always a core vulnerability when users or clients log onto SaaS resources. However, companies can minimize the risk of illegitimate intrusions by implementing thorough authentication and access control systems.

Active Control (AC) combined with Single Sign-On (SSO) is a strong foundation, while users can add third-party Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) providers over the top. This combination should ensure that all sign-ons require multiple credentials. Sign-on portals can be policed and linked to encryption, while AC confirms that access systems correlate effectively with the SaaS software.

2. Encryption

It's essential to encrypt sensitive data in-flight and at rest on SaaS servers. Most of the time, Saas providers will implement a form of Transport Layer Security (TLS) for data in movement between client servers and the Cloud. That's a necessary starting point but isn't enough.

Ensure that employees access SaaS services via reliable VPNs that anonymize connections and add watertight encryption. Smart firewalls calibrated to work with your SaaS setup are also a must-have tool.

3. Monitoring

SaaS services need oversight if companies are to guarantee strong security at all times. Monitoring can be a challenge if organizations employ 6-10 SaaS services, but there is scope to monitor user behavior even with complex setups.

Choose SaaS providers that offer usage pattern monitoring and alerts when attackers breach security protocols. And ensure that teams formulate specific security policies for each service before implementing any solutions.

Automation is often an option and can reduce security workloads. But partial automation is generally the wisest move, giving security teams the fine-grained control required to carry out audits and intervene when needed.

It's also essential to carry out regular inventories of all Cloud resources. SaaS landscapes can change rapidly as new tools come online, and providers can also change their setups. Stay informed with auditing and assessment so that changes don't take you by surprise.

4. CASB

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB) tools have become a gold standard add-on for business SaaS configurations. These tools can be API or proxy-based, depending on the SaaS setup, and provide an extra level of security control.

Many SaaS providers explicitly design their products to include or function with CASB software. These tools act as policy enforcement centers, collating different security functions from access control and authentication to behavior monitoring, encryption, and anti-virus checking.

With a good CASB, you can rapidly and safely extend your security policies from on-premises contexts to the Cloud. Scaling up SaaS implementations will be more accessible, and CASB also boosts security compliance strategies.

5. Awareness and logging

When implementing SaaS (or platform or infrastructure-as-a-service), security never rests. Teams need the capability to log events for monitoring and historical analysis. Choose a Cloud provider with the ability to generate in-depth reports and logs with solid transparency commitments. And be sure to task a security staffer with maintaining full situational awareness at all times.

6. SaaS Security Posture Management (SSPM)

A commitment to situational awareness combines with Posture Management to create a dynamic security backdrop. Posture Management entails configuring SaaS applications to minimize the gaps between security policies and actual day-to-day posture.

SSPM can be fully automated once the correct setup has been achieved and will act as a constant shield against cyberattacks, insider threats, misconfigurations, and changes in vendor security practices. 

7. Staff training

The best practices outlined above mean little without proper staff knowledge and the cultivation of SaaS-relevant business culture.

Before implementing Saas solutions, companies must fully train staff in cybersecurity basics, including avoiding shared accounts, phishing awareness, VPN use, and password security. Transitioning to SaaS can present new threats, especially during periods of organizational flux as more staff migrate from offices to remote or hybrid work.

Training and cultural campaigns within organizations can mitigate SaaS-related threats and ensure that staff takes full advantage of SaaS's benefits.

SaaS Security Checklist: How to Protect your Data

Those SaaS best practices should help to secure confidential data while implementing SaaS, but to guide you through the process, here is a quick checklist of things to consider:

1. Be well informed

Before choosing a Saas vendor, check national guidelines and security bodies for ratings and alerts about rogue providers. Check reviews from clients (but don't use them as your only reference point), and check the information provided by the Saas provider themselves.

Look for crucial information such as: whether the provider logs and stores data (ideally as little as possible), how data is stored and protected in transit, whether the provider offers End-to-end-Encryption, whether they provide single-key encryption to put clients in control of data access, whether third parties are involved.

If this information isn't available, steer clear. Good SaaS providers are transparent and willing to provide complete details.

2. Compliance matters

When crafting a SaaS security posture, use relevant regulations as a foundation. This applies to your internal compliance strategy and when assessing Cloud providers, who should meet ISO 27000 standards and SOC2 auditing thresholds.

Ensure that data processing meets GDPR standards, and ensure that a Data Processing Agreement is part of the onboarding process.

3. Identity and access management

Make sure that your SaaS provider offers Identity and Access Management tools like secure sign-on and authentication. They should integrate MFA into their products, with the option of third-party MFA interoperability if needed, while vendors should also optimize SSO systems for remote working. They should be easy to use and rigorously encrypted, while security teams also need the ability to define privileges for every single user.

4. Take a Secure Deployment approach

When implementing SaaS, the Secure Deployment model provides a robust basic template. SD-based SaaS monitors changes to the codebase of apps and databases, ensuring that unauthorized changes are detected and remedied quickly.

SaaS services should provide full logging and security alerts when breaches are detected, with the option of customizing disaster recovery procedures to rollback configurations should the need arise.

5. Create a strong backup policy

Clients are usually solely responsible for backing up data during SaaS usage. This process can be automated, but ensure that you properly configure backup operations first. Companies should store data in three copies: 2 stored on-site in different mediums and one stored in a secure offsite location.

6. Bring staff and culture into the picture

Do staff understand how SaaS security works? Make upskilling and cultural changes a priority before incorporating SaaS applications into employee workflows.

Selecting the most suitable SaaS Security Solution for your business

By factoring in the security best practices listed above and considering each stage of our SaaS security checklist, you should be able to select providers with integrity and strong security credentials. But it's still worth reiterating some core factors that make reliable SaaS partners stand out.

  • Customization – Off-the-shelf SaaS applications can often be fully automated and relatively inflexible – both drawbacks from a security perspective. Choose partners that provide maximum freedom to set privileges and access policies and monitoring, reporting, and backup management. The best partners know how to blend the benefits of automation with the desire to provide autonomy for clients.

  • Performance – Poor performance can compromise SaaS security. For example, cumbersome access portals and management consoles can cause admins and users to roll back their security measures. Slow speeds can also lead to compromises, reducing encryption and access protections. That's why it's vital to pick a provider that blends speed and security.

  • Transparency – Data protection is everything in the modern business landscape, with vast regulatory penalties and an average data breach cost of more than $8.6 million. Avoid providers that store more data than is needed or work with third-party processors. Pick providers with clear privacy and data storage policies and a spotless track record with regulators and customers.

  • Edge security – Securing your network edge can become challenging when using multiple SaaS applications. Both vendors and users share responsibility for guarding perimeters, so look for partners who take the issue seriously. Firewalls, authentication, real-time monitoring, and a willingness to tailor security strategies to client needs are all critical.

  • Scale – Sometimes, Cloud services have strong security policies but aren't agile enough to facilitate smooth expansion as client needs develop. If you anticipate growth, look for SaaS partners who are adept at scaling their operations while balancing growth and security.

  • Support – Finally, never choose SaaS partners that neglect the human side of IT. The best providers pour resources into support teams, ensuring that clients can seamlessly onboard and maintain Cloud services. You will probably need to liaise regularly with your Cloud partner, so choose a company you trust. The cheapest solution is rarely the best, so avoid decisions based solely on cost.

How can NordLayer help?

SaaS applications are a necessity for most modern businesses. It offers affordable, efficient storage and app management, alongside cost reductions, the ability to scale up operations, and – if implemented correctly – a secure software solution. However, as we've seen, SaaS and security do not always go together.

If you want to secure SaaS applications, it's advisable to work with reliable security partners. At NordLayer, we are experts in locking down Cloud-based systems, providing solutions to manage access, secure network edges and monitor user behavior across every network location.

Securing SaaS can be complex. Multiple services and storage locations can make inventory management and user monitoring impossible for security teams on their own. But we can solve those problems. Get in touch today, and discover how to combine the benefits of SaaS with rock-solid security.

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