How to Manage the Security Risks of SaaS Sprawl

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) sprawl poses a severe security risk to organizations. If their IT and security teams don’t act quickly, they could be subject to data breaches and cyberattacks. How can they secure their workplace against hackers?

What Is SaaS Sprawl? 

SaaS sprawl is the unchecked growth of the number of SaaS apps within a workplace. If organizations have too many underutilized or unmanaged apps, it means they’re experiencing sprawl. Lately, this problem has become more common. 

While some assume SaaS sprawl only affects large enterprises, it can happen to workplaces of any size. The average organization doesn’t utilize 40% of their provisioned SaaS licenses, proving sprawl is possible wherever underutilization occurs, even when there are few apps.

Why SaaS Sprawl Happens

Why does SaaS sprawl happen? One of the main reasons is shadow IT — applications, software and services deployed in an organization that the IT team is unaware of. It occurs when employees secretly use unapproved apps or their personal accounts.

Another driver of SaaS sprawl is the simplicity of deployment. It’s much easier — and more cost-effective — for an organization to adopt these scheduling, communication and office tools than it is for them to rework their entire technology stack. 

For most organizations, SaaS sprawl presents a real issue. In fact, 59% of IT professionals say managing it is challenging. Since it’s their responsibility to prevent cyberattacks and data breaches, many feel pressure to take action. 

The Security Risks of Saas Sprawl

SaaS sprawl isn’t just frustrating for IT teams — it can cause serious security issues.

  1. Man-in-the-Middle Attacks

When workplaces experience sprawl, they have difficulty monitoring the location of sensitive data. For example, the MOVEit SaaS attack — which affected 2,600 organizations — happened because organizations used a file transfer app to store data instead of sending it. In these scenarios, they make themselves vulnerable to breaches and man-in-the-middle attacks.

  1. Data Breaches and Theft

IT and security teams faced with SaaS sprawl have trouble managing configurations. As a result, they misconfigure SaaS settings — meaning they set up permissions or controls incorrectly — which makes them prone to breaches, data theft and various cyberattacks.

  1. Exploitation of Vulnerabilities

Organizations often handle customer, financial or personally identifiable data like credit card numbers or addresses. If their SaaS sprawl prevents them from keeping track of which apps are subject to which regulations, they’ll have a higher chance of being exploited by hackers — and they’ll likely have to pay hefty fines for non-compliance. 

  1. Data Interception and Tampering

The average workplace uses 110 separate SaaS apps, so it’s no wonder IT teams struggle with visibility. When they have too many to manage, they can’t keep track of user activity. Consequently, they’re more likely to miss suspicious behavior or unauthorized access attempts. In other words, hackers can remain undetected while tampering with or viewing sensitive data. 

How to Manage the Security Risks

As of 2022, hackers have exposed 81% of organizations’ sensitive SaaS data. If IT and security teams intend to prevent this issue from continuing, they must strategize accordingly. 

  1. Conduct Risk Assessments

Every SaaS platform comes with unique risks. Even if it has top-of-the-line security built in, adopting it increases organizations’ attack surface, making them more vulnerable. Conducting a pre-deployment risk assessment helps IT and security teams understand whether the app is worth the potential risk, helping them control sprawl.

  1. Periodically Audit Vendors

Even the most reputable SaaS vendors make mistakes that put organizations at risk of data breaches. For instance, Uber experienced a data breach in 2022 after hackers used Amazon’s SaaS platform to infiltrate their systems through a third party. Regularly auditing their security posture and adherence to service agreements can prevent these situations.

  1. Define What Is Approved 

IT and security teams should publish the list of approved SaaS apps and define consequences for non-compliance to minimize shadow IT. They should clarify that installing and using unapproved apps will result in disciplinary action to discourage employees from doing so.

  1. Set an Approval Process

Realistically, some employees will continue using unapproved SaaS apps no matter the consequences. IT teams can get around this by creating an approval process. At the very least, it lets them know what to be on the lookout for because it gives them a glimpse into the shadow IT at their workplace. 

  1. Utilize Access Management

Even if IT and security teams do their best to combat SaaS-sprawl-related security risks, there are bound to be a few that fall through the cracks. In these scenarios, identity and access management tools are essential. Multi-factor authentication, one-time passcodes, biometrics and access keys are excellent defenses against stray attackers. 

Organizations Must Combat SaaS Sprawl

Unless the IT and security teams take action, SaaS sprawl could cost their employers tens of thousands of dollars — maybe even millions — in financial losses related to lost business opportunities, data breach recovery and non-compliance fees. Their proactive, strategic efforts are essential to their organization’s long-term success.

As the Features Editor at ReHack, Zac Amos writes about cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and other tech topics. He is a frequent contributor to Brilliance Security Magazine.

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