AWS Security Basics

2022-12-10 — 5 min read

I was asked recently what my security recommendations would be for an AWS account. I’m not in infosec personally, so this is definitely not a comprehensive security post - it’s more of an outline to get things at least moving in the right direction.

Update 2022-12-29: Thanks to the helpful folks on Mastodon (especially, I have made a few adjustments to the below recommendations. The archives of that conversation should be available over on Hachyderm.

Also, when I say “team”, I can mean a single person to a full department - the scale all depends on your organization.

Basic guidelines

Use AWS Organizations. Organizations can create multiple accounts and share policies between them. Tightly control who has access to the organization root. Enable CloudTrail at the organization level, too.

Implement Organization SCPs and other permission boundaries. A thoughtful set of SCPs and other permission boundaries can prevent many privilege escalation issues before they occur, and removes the need for active security reviews on each developer change to application permissions.

Keep the production AWS account separate from the sandbox where engineers can test their policies. In my experience, it is difficult to get AWS permissions correct the first time, and engineers need a place to test policies where they can’t accidentally access something they shouldn’t. That said, the sandbox should have no long-running services. All of the following recommendations are for the accounts with long-running services. Note: the organization root account should not be used for any services.

Engineer permissions should be based on groups based on the team they are assigned to. The groups for these should include the basic permissions all engineers should have. These permissions may vary depending on your organization’s needs, but I specifically recommend allowing MFA-authenticated users to manage their own credentials. This has a nice added effect that engineer accounts also cannot be used in automation tasks: MFA would need to be entered each time. Note: orgs should use “AWS IAM Identity Center” for SSO capabilities, so some security credentials should be excluded from self-management.

Applications should have their own roles and permission policies that get created with the application. These are version controlled with the option for review by a security team member - they should be in the CloudFormation stack for each application that is deployed to AWS. (The CloudFormation stack should specify the exact ARNs for the resources they should have permission to, rather than specifying wildcard permissions.) Different policies should be created for read-only access, read-write access, and deployment, but more policies may be applicable depending on the application.

Team groups would be assigned policies based on the applications that that team maintains. Depending on the organization, the groups may only be assigned an sts:AssumeRole permission for some or all of the policies; this ensures users with elevated permissions don’t accidentally copy data from production while intending to use dev instances.

  • For dev versions of their application, engineers should have full read/write permissions to debug.
  • For test versions of their application, engineers should have read permissions to debug, but not write.
  • For production, engineers may have read access where necessary, or no permissions.

Deployment should be able to update policies. Engineers should be able to deploy their own applications in the sandbox by use of a deployment role. This devops technique will allow permissions to be tested by the engineer best suited for the task (they use the roles they updated in dev and test to diagnose applications.) Deployment processes should be able to leverage the same policies as created within the CloudFormation stack after its first deployment.

When production issues require elevated privileges, grant access through a fixed-time policy. The policies for the applications can be assigned to a role, and access to that specific role can be granted based on date and time. Limiting access based on time ensures security does not accidentally become more lax over time, and fits with many organizations’ firefighter policies.

A VPC policy should be established.

  • Should each application get its own VPC?
  • Is there an intentional DMZ VPC, and other applications should create their own?

Each application should have its own security group. Creation of the security groups and rules for access between them should be maintained in the CloudFormation stack.

Some applications need end developers to be able to access a security group directly for local development. Your organization should determine how this is handled. This could include adding a policy in the application’s CloudFormation stack that allows updating of the security group inbound rules, or it could be adding a VPN IP range specifically to certain versions of the application (again, via the CloudFormation stack.)

Secrets Manager should be leveraged under guidance of an organization policy. Your organization should establish a policy for how. Be sure to include:

  • What is the format of secret names? (phase/app/item is common, so dev/messaging/twilio would be an example.)
  • Whose responsibility is it to update them? (Can they be automated? Are there manual processes) Make sure
  • How do Secrets get reused? (Some SAS solutions only provide one API key to an organization; does that key get copied to multiple Secrets for each application that needs it, or can applications share a single Secret inside Secrets Manager?)

My recommendations would be to have a single secret for each unique credential. If secrets can be unique to an application, they get created with that application’s CloudFormation stack. If they are shared, the secret could be created independently or maintained via CloudFormation, but then referenced via the CloudFormation stack of the end application.

Security team touch-points

How does the security team get involved in these processes? The security team could be a reviewer on changes that affect the CloudFormation template before they are deployed to the main account. Alternatively, the security team could audit the accounts with persistent services at regular intervals. At a minimum, the security team should check:

  • Policy changes
  • Security Group changes
  • CloudTrail

So, what did I miss?

As mentioned earlier, I am not an infosec professional, but this should provide a baseline for getting a new AWS account set up… or maybe for starting the process to improve your organization’s existing setup.