Cloud computing’s balancing act: Are we in a mushroom cloud moment?

Groundbreaking innovations, those that shape history, often introduce immeasurable opportunity as well as profound risk. The recent release of the film “Oppenheimer” underscores this truth. The film centers on physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who in 1945 led his team to achieve the detonation of the world’s first nuclear weapon. In what is known as the Manhattan Project’s Trinity test, a distinct mushroom-shaped cloud exploded over the New Mexico desert almost 40,000 feet into the atmosphere, ushering in the nuclear age.

Since then, nuclear energy has driven advancements in power generation, medicine, and various scientific fields, yet humanity has also suffered its catastrophic effects. Thereafter known as the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer grappled with the complexities of his innovation, famously quoting a Hindu scripture in saying, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The mushroom cloud became a symbol of the potential of technological advancements for both great promise and great peril.

The concept of racing for innovation to harness power brings to mind another transformative technology: cloud computing. As the internet began to drastically reshape how businesses operate and scale, we created a new reality in tech, one of rapid consumption, access, and storage of data.

Cloud computing has enabled business transformation and ushered in massive economic growth. It has revolutionized entire computing frameworks—but not without exponentially expanding the attack surface and redefining the front lines of existing and emerging threats.

In many ways, the cloud is the cyber version of the Trinity mushroom cloud. A cloud attack can fracture digital infrastructures, compromising sensitive information and disrupting business operations. The fallout extends beyond data loss; it can have far-reaching impacts on users and customers, eroding trust. The cloud is a weapon of our own creation that we are racing to understand.

The cloud conundrum

Organizations often prioritize growth over security. And truly, we have benefited from the cloud’s capacity to scale our businesses. But without training our people, implementing sufficient controls, or allocating necessary resources, we are leaving our cloud environments vulnerable to intruders. We are competing against resourceful and motivated adversaries who consistently carry out activities such as identity-based attacks and exploitation of trust in enterprise applications.

This is the unfair fight we face: While security capabilities for the cloud have improved and best practices have been defined, the onus is still on organizations to enable the settings that ensure security—settings that are sometimes ignored in the name of efficiency. The choice to accept this risk is often made by those tasked with driving revenue rather than those well-versed in cloud security. What’s more, the latter are in short supply.

Nearly 80 years after the Trinity test, a new form of warfare has emerged: cyber warfare. We have recently seen it in the attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. But in a more general sense, we as defenders, are also in an ongoing battle. Are we witnessing the explosion of technical innovation as Oppenheimer did, without a strategic acknowledgment of the risk?

Frameworks for a secure horizon

Cloud attack tactics and techniques will continue to advance. But attackers needn’t work that hard—in environments with poor cloud hygiene, basic attack techniques persist.

Guidelines and standards such as the Cloud Security Alliance’s (CSA) Cloud Controls Matrix (CCM), the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Cloud Computing Security Reference Architecture, and the Center for Internet Security’s CIS Controls Cloud Computing Guide provide organizations with a systematic approach to aligning their cloud practices with regulatory requirements and security best practices. By offering clear pathways to assess, implement, and monitor security measures, these frameworks can play an important role in helping organizations navigate the cloud landscape.

Just as Oppenheimer grappled with the profound impact of nuclear energy, we are at a crossroads with cloud computing. The cloud, much like the Trinity test, symbolizes both great potential and substantial risk. It is the new frontier for security practitioners to level set, demanding us to elevate the level of cloud security across the board. By leveraging what we already know and advancing our collective understanding of what we don’t, we can take back the cloud and more fully realize its promise.

MacKenzie Brown is vice president of security at Blackpoint Cyber, a supplier of cybsersecurity and real response services to MSPs, SMBs, and enterprise companies.