More of us are using cloud storage than ever before (thanks to our new remote working lifestyles) to store and sync our data and to facilitate content collaboration with others. Storing data on remote public or personal servers and accessing that data over a network (such as the internet) from multiple devices now seems like a normal digital habit. In this article, we highlight some of the risks surrounding storing your data on remote servers and explore a few good habits that could help you better secure your cloud storage.
Attention all data hoarders! Time to get organised.
Are you a data hoarder or data minimalist?
Does your cluttered physical space replicate itself in your digital life?
We generate a considerable amount of data every day. Many people have their data footprint spread out across a number of locations including phone storage, computer hard drives, USB thumb drives, portable hard drives, cloud/digital storage locations and more.
Studies show that smartphones have become our primary device. However, despite storage becoming cheaper year-on-year for device manufacturers, our phones only have a finite amount of it. We ultimately fill this up with documents, high-resolution photos, videos, music, apps and more.
Moving your data to removable/portable storage devices such as solid-state drives (SSD) is an option but just like our phones, ultimately, those get filled up as well, leaving us needing more storage. With physical storage devices, there is also the risk of damage, loss or theft.
When adding more physical storage devices becomes unsustainable, many people run to the cloud for additional storage. However, even that also gets filled up eventually despite our best efforts to stay within the free tier provided by most cloud storage providers. You can pile on more gigabytes…at a cost of course.
Whether you choose to store your data on physical devices or in the cloud, if you are a data hoarder, you’ll always find yourself needing more. So, before we dive into talking about improving the security of your cloud storage, take a moment to get organised.
Decide what you need to keep and what needs to get binned. Develop a manageable personal filing system and organise your data by project, event, date and so on. Prioritise your data and decide where your more sensitive data needs to live. If you decide that the cloud is the best place for your data, then this guide on how to secure your cloud storage should help you.
Common types of cloud storage for personal use
For simplicity, we will classify the different consumer cloud storage solutions available in the market into two main categories namely:
Public cloud storage
This refers to internet-based file storage and collaboration capabilities provided by public companies such as Dropbox, Google, Box, iCloud, SpiderOak etc. Providers usually offer a free cloud storage tier and subscription options for additional storage.
Personal cloud storage
If using a public cloud service doesn’t quite satisfy your personal risk appetite but you still want the flexibility of online storage, then building your own personal cloud storage might be the way to go. Many ‘personal cloud’ storage solutions exist but the most common is Network Attached Storage (NAS). This is basically a set of large purpose-built hard drives which you can attach to your local private network and configure all your personal devices to use as their preferred storage. You can also configure your NAS to allow remote access to your data.
Although many of the points we discuss below apply to both public and personal cloud storage, for the purpose of brevity, in this article, we will focus primarily on public cloud storage.
How to secure your cloud storage
Leaving large volumes of data on unsecured physical devices like USB sticks and removable hard drives is risky. However, doing the same with digital storage spaces such as the cloud is an open invitation to anyone with a passing interest in obtaining your information.
So how can you secure your cloud storage? Here are a few good habits to help you get started.
#1: Create an inventory of your cloud storage
If you don’t know what you have, then you don’t know what you need to protect. So, begin with creating an inventory of all the remote places where your files could potentially end up.
A typical daily digital lifestyle relies on multiple technologies e.g., a Samsung smartphone, a laptop running Office 365, an Apple iPad and Google’s G-Suite. In this example, there are at least four different cloud storage services you may need to consider. While this offers flexibility, the more technology you use, the easier it is to lose track of where your data is stored.
Take a moment to go through the digital technologies in your daily life – physical devices, online software, mobile apps – and make a list of cloud-based storage to which you subscribe or which come integrated with other services you use.
#2: Consolidate your digital storage spaces
Now that you’ve created your inventory, do you really need all of those storage locations? Free services make it tempting to store your data in multiple places but streamlining where your data lives is a good digital habit.
Consolidating might be difficult to do when cloud storage comes bundled with an application you use. However, if you can, limit your devices or apps from automatically saving and syncing your data to random cloud-based storage. Stick to a few services – based on your unique requirements – and tighten security on those.
#3: Adopt good password habits.
Do not use the same password on multiple online services, least of all for your cloud storage.
Rather than trying to create and remember multiple unique passwords, invest in a good password manager which allows you to create and manage strong passwords for accessing your different online storage locations. A few password managers even prompt you to change passwords on a regular basis. It’s that simple.
#4: Enable multi-factor authentication
If a cloud storage service does not come with multi-factor (or two-step) authentication capabilities as a basic feature, we recommend looking elsewhere. Multi-factor authentication examples include random code generators or hardware tokens. Note that you may have to pay extra to use more advanced features to secure your cloud storage.
#5: Keep an eye on noisy (and nosy) apps
The inventory you created in step #1 above should include a list of mobile apps and online services that may allow integration with cloud storage services.
Over time, you may have given various apps permission to access your cloud storage e.g., using Facebook to log in. Using your inventory, go to your service provider dashboard or security settings, review the apps which have permission to use your cloud storage and revoke unwanted permissions. Set up email notifications to be informed whenever new apps gain access to your cloud storage.
#6: Secure your physical devices
Cloud storage services such as Google and DropBox provide software agents that integrate with your computer or smartphone operating system and allow you to view and work with your cloud-based files as if they were residing on your physical device.
The risk is that your unsecured physical device could become a backdoor (or front door) to your cloud-based storage leading to unauthorised access. So, protect your physical devices by leveraging strong passwords, multi-factor authentication and biometric authentication where those features are available.
#7: Get your external data sharing under control
One of the benefits of using cloud-based storage is the ease of sharing files with people by simply sending them a link. While this helps to share files without clogging up your email inbox with attachments, a bad habit to be mindful of is giving access to your data without thinking about basic security.
When sharing data from your cloud-storage, think about who needs-to-know that information, what are the minimum permissions they need (e.g., ‘view-only’ instead of ‘editor’) and what could happen if that file or folder link got exposed on the internet and ended up in Google search results. How long do those people need access? Where cloud-storage services allow you to set a time limit for a link to a file or folder, it makes sense to apply those restrictions.
#8: Remove links to old devices
If you frequently upgrade smartphones or computers, remember that your old devices could still have authorised connections to your cloud storage. When you change devices, take a moment to go to your cloud storage service dashboard or security settings, review the list of linked devices and remove any old devices which you no longer use. Set up email notifications to be informed whenever a new device gains access to your cloud storage.
#9: Review web browsers connected to your cloud storage
Another benefit of cloud-based storage is the ability to access and sync your data across multiple devices. If you use multiple browsers e.g., Chrome, Safari, Firefox to log on to your storage, each one of those connections may create a separate session. Keeping an eye on active or recent connections to your cloud storage is a good habit to develop. If you spot any strange connections, that could be a sign of unauthorised access. Go to your cloud storage service provider dashboard or security settings to review this.
#10: Decide whether cloud storage is worth the risk
With all the security features they provide and promises not to sell data to advertisers, a deep dive into the privacy policies of some cloud storage service providers (e.g., DropBox) may reveal that your information could be shared with third parties. For example, if you use Facebook or Google to sign on to your cloud storage, some meta-data (data about your data) could be exchanged with those platforms.
In addition, companies domiciled in certain countries may have obligations to share data with local law enforcement in the public interest. While this is not a frequent occurrence, it is important to be aware of these types of exposures. Ultimately, it is your decision whether to store your sensitive data on remote servers owned by public companies.