What Is Cloud Computing Forensics? 

Cloud forensics is a branch of digital forensic, a science concerned with monitoring and investigating issues related to cloud computing. This field has emerged in response to the growing prevalence of cloud-based services and the challenges they pose in terms of data security, privacy, and legal jurisdiction.

Amit Sheps
March 20, 2024

Cloud forensics involves the gathering, processing, and interpretation of data generated by cloud computing environments for security purposes. Typically, the purpose is to identify and investigate cyber incidents, from anomalous access requests to complex cybercrimes. The information gleaned from these investigations can then be used to strengthen security protocols and provide evidence in legal cases.

Cloud forensics is multifaceted—in addition to technical skills and knowledge of cybersecurity, it requires understanding the legal and ethical implications of handling data. This is especially important in a globally distributed cloud, where data is stored and transferred across national boundaries.

In this article:

Cloud Forensics vs. Digital Forensics 

While cloud forensics is a subset of digital forensics, several distinctive features set the two fields apart: 

Digital forensics typically involves the investigation of data stored on physical devices such as computers, smartphones, or external hard drives. Investigators can directly access these devices to retrieve data, making the process relatively straightforward.

Cloud forensics deals with data stored on remote servers owned and operated by third-party companies. Investigators don’t have direct access to these servers, making data retrieval a more complex process. This complexity increases when considering issues like multi-tenancy, where multiple users share the same physical server, or data dispersion, where a single user’s data may be spread across several servers or even countries.

Another important distinction is the dynamic nature of cloud data. Unlike data on physical devices, which remains relatively static unless deliberately altered, data in the cloud can change rapidly due to the actions of other users or automated processes. This dynamism can make it more challenging to retrieve accurate and reliable data for forensic investigations.

How Cloud Forensics Impacts User Security and Privacy 

By investigating breaches and cybercrimes, cloud forensics helps identify vulnerabilities in cloud systems and develop measures to address them. It’s also instrumental in holding perpetrators accountable, providing critical evidence in legal proceedings.

However, investigating the cloud can also raise privacy concerns. Given the sensitive nature of data stored in the cloud, forensic investigations must strike a careful balance between the need for security and the right to privacy. This is particularly true in cases where investigators need to access data belonging to third parties in the course of their investigations.

The issue of jurisdiction further complicates things because cloud data can be stored and transferred across national boundaries. This means that investigations may involve navigating different legal systems and privacy laws.

What Tools and Technologies are Used in Cloud Forensics? 

Investigators rely on a variety of specialized tools to gather, process, and interpret data. These tools can range from software that facilitates data extraction to platforms that support data analysis and visualization:

  • Cloud APIs: Cloud provider APIs allow investigators to directly interact with cloud services, facilitating the extraction and analysis of data, or gain access to centrally controlled logs and metrics for an organization’s cloud resources.
  • Cloud data brokers: This software helps manage and control data across different servers and geographical locations. It can be helpful in dealing with issues of multi-tenancy and data dispersion.
  • Data visualization: Given the large volumes of data involved in cloud investigations, visualization tools can also be useful. They help investigators make sense of the data by presenting it in a more accessible and understandable format.
  • Dedicated cloud security platforms: In recent years, cloud security solutions have emerged, some of which provide cloud forensics capabilities. These include cloud security posture management (CSPM) and cloud workload protection platforms (CWPP). These platforms can eliminate the need to directly interact with cloud APIs and data, automating many aspects of the cloud forensics process.

The Process of Cloud Forensics in Incident Response 

When a security incident occurs in a cloud environment, here are the main steps investigators take to collect forensics and investigate the incident.

Identifying and Confirming a Security Incident in Cloud Infrastructure

The incident detection process can be challenging due to the distributed nature of cloud environments. Anomalies might occur in one part of your infrastructure while appearing normal in others.

There are various tools and techniques that can be used to detect security incidents in cloud environments. These include intrusion detection systems (IDS), log analysis, network traffic monitoring, and platforms like CSPM or CWPP. Additionally, cloud service providers often offer their own security tools and services, which can be leveraged to enhance your detection capabilities.

Once a suspicious security event has been detected, analysts need to triage and confirm it is a real security incident. This is typically done through a process of validation, which involves analyzing the collected data and correlating it with known indicators of compromise (IoCs) and threat intelligence. 

Isolating Affected Systems to Prevent Further Compromise

Isolation is intended to contain the security incident and prevent it from spreading to other parts of your cloud environment. This involves disconnecting the affected systems from the network, stopping certain services, or activating specific security controls. Isolating systems in a cloud environment can be challenging, due to the interconnected nature of cloud services.

Securely Collecting and Preserving Digital Evidence

Digital evidence collection requires careful handling to ensure the integrity of the data and maintain the chain of custody. This process involves identifying, collecting, and preserving the data that will be used to analyze the security incident.

In a cloud environment, digital evidence can take many forms, including logs, network traffic data, and user activity records. The collected evidence should be stored securely to prevent tampering or loss. It is also important to document the collection process, noting the time and date of collection, who collected the data, and how it was preserved.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that the collected evidence is admissible in court if necessary, and provide a solid foundation for further investigation.

Analyzing Collected Data to Investigate the Incident

The examination phase involves analyzing the evidence to determine the nature of the security incident, understand its scope, and assess its impact. Forensic experts or security analysts  interpret the data, performing tasks such as timeline analysis, file system analysis, and malware analysis

The goal is to understand as much as possible about the incident, including how it happened, who was involved, and what was affected. The findings from this examination will guide your remediation efforts.

Post-Incident Activities

After the incident is resolved, it’s important to review the incident and your response to it, identifying lessons learned and making improvements to your incident response plan and capabilities. Forensic data collected during the incident can provide important information that can help improve security protocols. 

Other post-incident activities might involve informing customers about a data breach, reporting the incident to regulatory bodies, or working with law enforcement in the case of criminal activity.

Cloud Native Security with Aqua

The Aqua Cloud Native Security Platform empowers you to unleash the full potential of your cloud native transformation and accelerate innovation with the confidence that your cloud native applications are secured from start to finish, at any scale.

Aqua’s platform provides prevention, detection, and response automation across the entire application lifecycle to secure the build, secure cloud infrastructure and secure running workloads across VMs, containers, and serverless functions wherever they are deployed, on any cloud.

Secure the cloud native buildshift left security to nip threats and vulnerabilities in the bud, empowering DevOps to detect issues early and fix them fast. Aqua scans artifacts for vulnerabilities, malware, secrets and other risks during development and staging. It allows you to set flexible, dynamic policies to control deployment into your runtime environments.

Secure cloud native infrastructure – Automate compliance and security posture of your public cloud IaaS and Kubernetes infrastructure according to best practices. Aqua checks your cloud services, Infrastructure-as-Code templates, and Kubernetes setup against best practices and standards, to ensure the infrastructure you run your applications on is securely configured and in compliance. 

Secure cloud native workloads – protect VM, container and serverless workloads using granular controls that provide real-time detection and granular response, only blocking the specific processes that violate police. Aqua leverages modern micro-services concepts to enforce immutability of your applications in runtime, establishing zero-trust networking, and detecting and stopping suspicious activities, including zero-day attacks.

Secure hybrid cloud infrastructure – apply cloud native security over hybrid-cloud and multi-cloud deployments, with persistent controls that follow your workloads wherever they run.

Amit Sheps
Amit is the Director of Technical Product Marketing at Aqua. With an illustrious career spanning renowned companies such as CyberX (acquired by Microsoft) and F5, he has played an instrumental role in fortifying manufacturing floors and telecom networks. Focused on product management and marketing, Amit's expertise lies in the art of transforming applications into cloud-native powerhouses. Amit is an avid runner who relishes the tranquility of early morning runs. You may very well spot him traversing the urban landscape, reveling in the quietude of the city streets before the world awakes.