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How to secure SaaS applications: Risks & best practices
Countless businesses around the globe use software as a service (SaaS) tools in their daily operations. SaaS applications can fulfill many use cases: office automation, cloud infrastructure, IT support, HR, project management, etc. Organizations lean on these third-party managed services to support their most critical operations for several reasons, including support, scalability, compatibility with other tools, and ease of use.
Along with all of the benefits of SaaS come security concerns, for both the vendor and the customer. If you’re a customer, introducing a third party into your organization can bring risk and unknowns. Vendors also feel pressure to produce secure software for their users or face consequences.
In this blog post, we’ll discuss what it looks like to secure a SaaS application, including:
What is SaaS security?
SaaS security protects the sensitive assets used within third-party cloud applications. SaaS security must respond to the unique challenges of using a widely accessible cloud application to process and store sensitive data. Vendors and customers share the ownership of securing these applications with SaaS security best practices.
SaaS applications process and store sensitive assets such as customer data, employee information, proprietary source code, and company secrets, making SaaS security essential to businesses.
Securing SaaS applications also enables users and vendors to keep up with general best practices for cybersecurity. An insecure SaaS application can hurt an organization’s security posture, even if its first-party resources are secure.
In addition, SaaS applications are complex and have lots of moving parts. A single program might support dozens of employees performing several functions. A high volume of end users means lots of potential risks. SaaS security ensures that the applications can safely support many users.
From a vendor perspective, prioritizing security helps to gain customer trust and win more enterprise deals. By establishing SaaS security controls and meeting compliance requirements, you prove that your product will keep a large company’s assets safe in the long run.
SaaS vendors need to balance functionality and security as they build and maintain their applications. First, they must respond to customer needs and requests and create functionality that works well for their users. In addition, they must enable integration with other tools, which involves working with third parties and their potential risks.
Part of this process is ensuring that the security that they’ve put in place actually works, for instance ensuring that private data is actually private, and if a user is logged in to one account they can't access data from another (even by creative means.) This can be achieved through a combination of traditional testing, application security testing, and external testing by penetration testers or ethical hackers.
From a security standpoint, vendors must comply with standards such as SOC 2 and any data regulations that apply to their users’ industries (HIPAA, PCI, CCPA, etc.). They face the challenge of managing this risk while maintaining efficiency and usability and avoiding downtime.
While it’s up to the vendor to create a secure product, SaaS customers must manage who accesses this product, uphold the principle of least privilege, and encourage users to follow login best practices. But, it’s often difficult for an enterprise security team to meet these responsibilities. Often, there’s a lack of communication between the security teams implementing SaaS security controls and the business administrators who choose the tools and manage their everyday use. It can be too much for a small security team to keep up with — especially in a large enterprise that uses several SaaS products.
First, security teams should train SaaS users to follow best practices for their authentication methods. This includes creating strong, unique passwords for each of their accounts, leveraging single sign-on (SSO) to store these secure passwords, enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA), and avoiding phishing schemes that could put their account at risk. These identity and access management practices (IAM) can be challenging to implement across several departments at once.
In addition, security teams need to implement company-wide role-based access control (RBAC). It’s also up to them to keep user provisioning up-to-date and audit everyday activities within the SaaS application — a challenging feat at a large company with many moving parts.
To respond to these challenges, enterprise security teams should consider a partnership with a vendor who would improve their SaaS application security across the board. While SaaS providers should provide some baseline security features, businesses can strengthen their overall security posture by adopting a security solution for managing encryption keys, ensuring compliance with corporate policies, analyzing vulnerabilities, enhancing encryption, and tracking data usage for all SaaS offerings in one place.
To create and maintain secure products, SaaS vendors should consider the following best practices:
Encryption & key management- keeping customer data safe on the back end.
IAM controls- empowering customers to set up best practices for their users.
Security monitoring features- making it easier for security teams to find irregular activities and take action.
Incident response- alerting customers if anything goes wrong and empowering them to take initial security measures when an incident happens.
Endpoint protection- minimizing the chance that a malicious actor can log in to a user account.
Software supply chain security- regulating the third-party components used throughout the development of the SaaS application, then providing a regularly updated SBOM to customers and other external stakeholders.
Vendors also need to be aware of security differences between different application models. Some SaaS applications are completely on-prem or hybrid, while others are SaaS-hosted and customer-managed or SaaS-hosted and SaaS-managed. Each setup requires a different level of shared responsibility between the customer and the vendor. Vendors that offer multiple models should consider which security measures are most relevant for each offering.
As prospective SaaS customers evaluate different software options, they should keep the following considerations in mind:
integration with existing environments and tools
security controls offered by providers, such as IAM features and auditing functionality
proof that the vendor meets compliance standards in the right industry
several options for deployment models, such as on-prem, fully managed, etc.
easy deployment with reasonable costs and low complexity
Snyk provides solutions that enable vendors and customers to secure their SaaS applications.
We enable organizations to strengthen their application security posture and shift left with functions such as Insights risk prioritization and developer-friendly code security.
Discover more about Snyk’s upcoming ASPM solutions and learn how we help SaaS vendors and customers who build applications secure their entire software supply chain.
How do you ensure SaaS security?
As a SaaS user, you can secure your applications by enabling company-wide role-based access control (RBAC), educating users on risks and best practices, and auditing activity within the applications.
What security issues affect SaaS applications?
SaaS applications are prone to cyber risk because of their high end-user volume and complexity. In addition, it can be difficult for organizations to identify and secure all their SaaS applications due to tech sprawl and siloed departments.
Who is responsible for security in SaaS?
SaaS vendors and users should both take ownership of securing their applications. Vendors must implement code and supply chain security during development. They must also make security controls such as identity and access management, incident response, monitoring, endpoint protection, and encryption/key management available to their customers. These customers, in turn, must take steps to leverage these security controls and educate their users on SaaS security best practices.
What should be included in a SaaS security policy?
When setting up a policy for using SaaS within your organization, you should consider the following best practices:
strengthening IAM with techniques such as MFA, secure password generation, and SSO
tracking and auditing all SaaS application activity
updating user provisioning as soon as a role changes
choosing vendors that enable these security controls
What is SaaS security testing?
SaaS security testing means a SaaS vendor runs tests throughout the software development lifecycle and fixes vulnerabilities as early as possible. A few of these security techniques include code security tests such as static application security testing (SAST) and supply chain security best practices such as conducting software composition analysis (SCA) and creating a software bill of materials (SBOM).
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