SaaS Application Security - ATC’s Guide For Startups

Business

SaaS Application Security – ATC’s Guide For Startups

Arul Raju

Published April 6, 2022

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As we are moving toward doing most of our work online, Software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools are proving to come in handy. These software solutions allow us to work on the cloud and have made remote work possible to a large extent. But as SaaS applications become commonplace, we might often ignore one critical aspect: security. When you conduct most of your business on such software tools, it’s important to ensure that your data and work are safe. 

What are SaaS Applications?

Also known as cloud-based software, web-based software, or hosted software, SaaS applications provide different software tools as a service. This means that they are more than just an application that helps you accomplish a task—it’s a full-fledged service, including customer support and training. 

Whether it’s mobile or desktop, SaaS applications can be accessed via the Internet, which means you don’t have to install or download them. However, we often get carried away by the ease and convenience of using these tools and forget about the glue that keeps all our data and processes together: security. 

SaaS user startups are concerned with security

As more and more work is done online, SaaS tools are becoming ubiquitous. Cloud-based services were projected to account for a spending of $332.3 billion in 2021—a growth of over 23.1% from the previous year. 

As this happens, security is equally on top of fledgling startups’ minds as it is for enterprises. Securing user privacy and corporate data in subscription-based cloud applications is important to prevent the misuse of sensitive data. Remember, since SaaS apps can be accessed anywhere, on any device, and by anyone in an organization, the risk to privacy and sensitive information is profound. For a startup working on a new/innovative product, the threat to their intellectual property can be immense. 

For this reason, usually, a SaaS provider also prioritizes securing the platform, network, applications, etc. Therefore, SaaS Application Security is a concern for all businesses and stakeholders, especially SaaS entrepreneurs.  

Questions about security range from potential vulnerabilities, plan of action (in case of security breaches), and the creation of a SaaS application security management tool. Strengthening the security of SaaS applications is critical to the success of the product. 

After all, no one wants a repeat of the infamous Equifax data breach from 2017—one of the most high-profile data security breaches that exposed the personal identifying data of hundreds of millions of people. This included their names, addresses, dates of birth, social security numbers, and drivers' licenses numbers. Some of them even had their credit card numbers leaked. The Equifax breach is a cautionary tale in all respects: reportedly, the attackers had been in the Equifax system for 76 days before they were discovered. 

The cost of a data breach, on average, is millions of dollars. There’s no reason to go lax on the security side. Thankfully, strengthening the security of SaaS applications isn’t difficult. We need to adopt the SaaS security best practices and fortify against potential challenges. 

Let’s look at some of these challenges and the combative best practices in detail. 

Why are SaaS applications risky?

1. Network Virtualization

SaaS applications offer cloud-based services, and cloud computing systems run on virtual servers for the storage and management of machines. This virtualization of the networking systems poses many vulnerabilities. Therefore, strict security protocols are required for protection from grave threats. 

2. Identity Management

The Single Sign-on feature allows for a lot of ease when using a wide variety of SaaS apps. But securing the data access systems, in this case, can also prove to be difficult when the number of applications increases. This is why your SaaS security agenda should include plans for fortifying data access systems. 

3. Standards and Certifications for Cloud Services

SaaS security is not a novel concept. This is why we have some globally accepted SaaS security standards and certifications to denote compliance. Certain standards such as the ISO 21001 can assure quality, so it’s important to ensure that the SaaS products being used are compliant. 

4. Lack of Clear Information

SaaS providers don’t often advertise handling processes and the backend details about data storage. This can be a sign that your data isn’t secure. Not all SaaS providers will share their security protocols, so external efforts have to be made to ensure your safety. These include Service Level Agreements (SLAs) as a measure to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place. 

5. Data Location

In distributed organizations, your data might be stored in a different geographical region than your own, impacting the legal ramifications of any breach or access. The location of your data also determines how safe your information is. 

6. Access from Anywhere

The best part about SaaS applications running on cloud-based systems is that you can access them from anywhere. However, this can quickly become a risk if someone from the team accesses the application from a public network or an unsecured location.

SaaS Application Security Requirement

To safeguard your product and organization from a potential security breach, you need to have the right ammunition in your bag. Before that, it’s important to understand the enemy you’re up against. We first look at the potential security issues and then take stock of the best security practices—from a security checklist to the right isolation scheme. 

SaaS Application Security issues

Threats: The foremost challenge to SaaS application security is in the form of threats, which are defined as any potential harm to your asset, application, or data. Threats to your application include data breaches, account hijacking, absence of cloud security architecture, lack of identity, credential or access management, nefarious use of cloud services, and so on. 

Risk: As opposed to more active threats, risks are the potential harms your SaaS application might be exposed to. These include phishing emails or account takeovers that aim to compromise the credentials of employee(s) and data access risk when information gets leaked to a third party, etc. Identity theft and data theft are also associated risks if cybercriminal attacks exfiltrate such data. There could also be risks associated with the security service being provided. These include concerns regarding the lack of strong service level agreements (SLAs), vendor lock-in due to lack of interoperability, 

Vulnerability: And then there are vulnerabilities in the system. These can be the weakness through which your application or asset can be harmed: a security patch not being password-protected; not having a secure login; or login credentials being compromised. All of these vulnerabilities can leave an opening for risks and threats to act. 

How to Secure SaaS Applications?

In order to ensure that your data and work are secure in the SaaS apps that you use, you should take some pre-emptive measures and adopt the known best practices related to SaaS security. Below, we enumerate a few of them. 

  • Ensure compliance of audits and certifications

It is important to look at certifications like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). Such certifications help ensure your data—especially sensitive data—is being adequately protected. Compliance with PCI DSS ensures that any sensitive data on the cloud is securely transmitted, processed, and stored. At all stages of use, the data should be protected, and an audit is an actionable way of ensuring this. 

There’s another essential regulatory certification called the System and Organization Controls (SOC 2) Type II. This one helps your cloud service to maintain the highest level of data security.  

As a general checklist, compliance certificates SOC 1 and SOC 2, along with ISO 2700 1, should be on your radar—but don’t forget other relevant certificates. For example, if your operations are in the financial services sector, then AWS offers a Master Controls Set with separate controls for external compliance standards. 

  • Data encryption

In simple words, data encryption is the translation of data into another form or code so that only people with access to a secret key or password can access and/or read it. Encryption is one of the most widely used data security methods. Through coding, the data is protected against unauthorized users. Even if someone manages unauthorized access, they will not be able to read the data without the keys. Encryption can, therefore, help us enforce data confidentiality and authentication. 

For SaaS Application security, you should opt for end-to-end encryption for both transmission and storage. This means that your interactions with the servers will happen over SSL connections, encrypted and, therefore, safe. Data in storage often doesn’t get the same attention for security, so make sure field-level encryption covers that as well. 

  • Isolation and separation across cloud operation activities

An important consideration in your SaaS application security plan should be to understand how easily your SaaS vendor and its cloud service provider can separate their operations. Consider this: if all your SaaS apps operate in the same cloud-based environment, they’re all bound to collapse if one of them runs into a security issue in a kind of a domino effect. How can we prevent this?

In cloud-based IT, there’s a concept called Virtual Private Clouds (VPC). Under VPC, you can launch resources into a virtual network where you operate in your own data center. Each of the SaaS services you use will be made available in its own VPC. A security issue with one of them does not convert into a security issue for all. 

To level up the security, this principle of separation and isolation can also be extended to teams within the SaaS vendor organization. They can have separate accounts in charge of operating the various aspects of the infrastructure and for identifying security breaches, and so on. 

  • Enforce data retention

From a legal standpoint, you’re required to retain data up to a specified period of time. This data—often sensitive in nature—is also required to be deleted when no longer needed. You should make a clear segregation as to the storage timelines of various data sets, so that the backups and storage space can be streamlined and optimized. 

  • Data security at the user level, user privileges and multi-factor authentication

One of the most robust ways of ensuring SaaS application security is by staggering access to the various levels of data. When data access is driven by user-privilege, levels-led permissions, security can be established. Think of this as a document on Google Drive—Only the people you give access to are able to see the document. You can also choose to give only view, suggestion, or edit access to different users, depending on their role. The same happens with the entire data contained in the SaaS software. 

Different categories of users will have different levels of privileges. Admins will have exclusive access to important files and folders, whereas others will have role-based permissions and access, strictly in accordance with the need. Another security measure is the implementation of a multi-factor authentication system. Two-factor authentication is fairly standard these days for logging into apps and websites. 

  • Deployment security

Another security consideration is deployment safety. There are two options available: one is cloud deployment and another is self-hosted deployment. In the case of cloud deployment, your SaaS vendor will be responsible for data security. We suggest you choose this only after ensuring that the vendor follows all globally accepted standards and compliance. 

In case you choose to host the deployment yourself on a public cloud service, test the security thoroughly. Run an audit if you have to, and automate as much as possible. 

  • Develop a detailed SaaS security guide

The security checklist for SaaS apps is quite elaborate. Make sure all employees in the organization know about each of the security measures being undertaken. To that effect, create a SaaS security guide, which should contain the following:

  • SaaS environment evaluation
  • Detection of security vulnerabilities, risks, and threats
  • Strategy to define and eliminate risks
  • All the security standards and certifications like GDPR, PCI DSS, CIS, SOX, and ISO/IEC 27001
  • Onboarding/offboarding checklists for security-related handovers such as passwords and basic information for employees
  • Implement security controls

As part of your security measures, also consider implementing SaaS application security controls. Such measures will help detect, avoid, or reduce security risks to different assets.

Your security controls must include data encryption and tokenization, advanced malware prevention, data loss prevention, password policy creation, two-factor authentication, privileged access management, logging, and monitoring controls.

  • Detect rogue services and compromised accounts

We use so many cloud services, and IT departments, especially in startups, can’t monitor everything manually. We suggest using tools such as cloud access security brokers (CASB) to audit your networks. It can help detect unauthorized cloud services and compromised accounts.

Conclusion

SaaS applications come with heaps of benefits, including lower cost and efficiency in operations. But as your organization relies more and more on such products and tools, it’s also important to take appropriate steps for safeguarding your work. With the right technologies, external tools, and best practices within the organization, SaaS application security can be established. In fact, in a world where remote work and distributed teams are the norms, these measures are indispensable rather than discretionary. 

Interested in becoming a certified SAFe practitioner?

Interested in becoming a SAFe certified? ATC’s SAFe certification and training programs will give you an edge in the job market while putting you in a great position to drive SAFe transformation within your organization.

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