Whether you’re looking for a cloud-based storage app to upload and organize your personal photos or you’re seeking a platform where you can manage user data on behalf of your tech company, you’ve likely heard promises that cloud-hosted apps are inherently more secure than storing data on your own local servers.
Cloud computing certainly has a lot of benefits, but is this claim really true? And if it is true, is it universally true, to the point where you can depend on all cloud-hosted data being more secure than locally hosted data?
What Makes the Cloud the Cloud?
Let’s start by explaining what makes the cloud the cloud. Cloud computing evolved to become a bit of a buzzword, and one that doesn’t accurately convey the nature of the arrangement. For example, some users believe the “cloud” refers to data that’s somehow stored in and retrieved from the air around us.
In reality, “cloud computing” just refers to stored data or computing operations that are hosted at a different location, and generally, are accessible using any device with an internet connection. This stands in contrast to hosting data or relying on computing power from your own local servers.
This definition is very broad, allowing it to cover a wide range of different tech companies and applications. Understandably, this makes cloud security a complex and multifaceted topic.
Inherent Security Advantages of the Cloud
Cloud computing does have some general advantages, which apply to the majority of cloud computing providers:
- Built-in redundancy. Your data isn’t literally stored in a cloud; it’s stored at a physical data center. More accurately, it’s probably stored across multiple data centers. That’s because most cloud providers protect their users’ data by backing it up in more than one location. This protects your data in the event of a physical failure, which could occur due to a flaw in the hardware, or a natural disaster like a fire or an earthquake. Naturally, if your local servers don’t have adequate backup, this makes cloud storage inherently more secure.
- Ongoing updates. Cloud apps function as a service, rather than a product, giving you ongoing access to an ever-evolving product. To retain their users, cloud developers are constantly working to improve the security of their infrastructure. Accordingly, your data has the advantage of constantly benefitting from new updates and higher security standards. If you have a talented internal IT team, you may be able to accomplish this, but it probably won’t be as efficient.
- Account management. Most of the time, your cloud app will allow you to establish multiple user roles with varying levels of access and permission. This is especially advantageous for big companies, which may not be willing to risk universal access to the company’s internal data to all employees, clients, and other potential users.
- Specialty expertise. If you store data internally, you’ll likely have a small team of generalists overseeing that storage (unless you have tremendous access to funds). Cloud providers invest heavily in security, making sure they have the most talented, educated, and experienced people possible managing data storage. By subscribing to a cloud app, you’ll gain access to the powerful infrastructure developed by these experts—and usually at a discount, once you tally up all the costs.
Vulnerabilities the Cloud Can’t Eliminate
However, there are some security vulnerabilities that most cloud apps can’t account for or directly control, such as:
- Hardware issues. A fault in a specific device can compromise your cloud account if you leave it logged in, or if your actions are being monitored while you’re logged in. Some security flaws are unique to processors and other hardware components, and there’s always the risk that an employee will fail to secure a device.
- User malware. Malware is always a problem, no matter how well you prepare for it. A rogue flash drive, a phishing scheme, or a malicious email could be all it takes for one of your business’s devices to become infected. Once the malware is installed, it could monitor all your actions—including logging the data you enter in your cloud app and any login information you have.
- Unprotected networks. Businesses should always rely on encrypted networks, and secure those networks with a strong, regularly changing password. If someone gets access to your private network, or if you use your device on a public network, your device could be compromised. Again, if your device is compromised, it won’t matter how secure your cloud storage platform is.
- Bad passwords. All your cloud-hosted data is protected by your login credentials. If those login credentials are stolen, guessed, or brute-forced, your account will be compromised. Unfortunately, people still use painfully common passwords like “password,” and fall for basic phishing scams on a regular basis. Unfortunately, this is a problem regardless of whether you rely on local servers or cloud-hosted apps.
- Poor user management and bad actors. It’s also possible that the universal accessibility of your cloud app will work against you. If there’s a bad actor within your organization, they may deliberately steal or misuse the data available to them. If you make the mistake of assigning the wrong user levels or administrative permissions, you could also create problems for your organization. These responsibilities fall on the end user, and can’t necessarily be handled by a cloud developer.
It’s also worth noting that it’s impossible to make a blanket statement about the security of all cloud apps beyond some introductory advantages of the model. This is because different cloud computing companies can execute their security strategies in very different ways. One company might invest heavily in the security of their infrastructure, while another prioritizes speed and accessibility. A software development bug that leaves a platform’s API vulnerable to infiltration might be completely nonexistent in a rival platform.
Accordingly, it’s not reasonable to say that all cloud-hosted apps are inherently more secure than locally hosted systems. You’ll need to be prudent when choosing a cloud services provider.
Other Advantages of the Cloud
It’s worth noting that there are several advantages to cloud storage and cloud computing, beyond a marginal increase in security:
- Universal access. Subscribing to a cloud app means you’ll have access to all your data, usually across all devices. That means your software isn’t going to be tied to a single device. Assuming you keep your password secure, you’ll be able to access your data anywhere and at any time, and even if one of your devices are lost or stolen, your password can prevent someone from gaining access to your account.
- Inexpensiveness. Cloud computing is usually less expensive as well. The general idea is that a cloud company buys and manages computing and storage resources in bulk, splitting the costs among many different buyers simultaneously. Accordingly, each business that buys into a piece of the pie will get the benefits of storage at a deep discount.
- Management simplicity. Building and maintaining your own local servers is extensively time-consuming—and complicated, unless you’re already an expert. For the most part, signing up for a cloud service is much simpler and easier to manage, especially if you don’t have an internal IT team to lean on.
The Bottom Line
So is cloud-hosted data more secure than a local setup? In many cases, assuming you’re talking about responsible, experienced cloud developers, the answer is yes. There are a handful of key advantages in cloud computing that will likely provide you with more security than you can put together on your own. That said, there are many variables to consider in your cloud security strategy, and there’s no such thing as a platform that’s 100 percent impossible to infiltrate. Choose your cloud providers carefully, and always spend the extra time and money to reinforce your strategy with internal cybersecurity policies of your own.