The Truth About Privileged Access Security On AWS And Other Public Clouds
Bottom Line: Amazon’s Identity and Access Management (IAM) centralizes identity roles, policies and Config Rules yet doesn’t go far enough to provide a Zero Trust-based approach to Privileged Access Management (PAM) that enterprises need today.
AWS provides a baseline level of support for Identity and Access Management at no charge as part of their AWS instances, as do other public cloud providers. Designed to provide customers with the essentials to support IAM, the free version often doesn’t go far enough to support PAM at the enterprise level. To AWS’s credit, they continue to invest in IAM features while fine-tuning how Config Rules in their IAM can create alerts using AWS Lambda. AWS’s native IAM can also integrate at the API level to HR systems and corporate directories, and suspend users who violate access privileges.
In short, native IAM capabilities offered by AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and more provides enough functionality to help an organization get up and running to control access in their respective homogeneous cloud environments. Often they lack the scale to fully address the more challenging, complex areas of IAM and PAM in hybrid or multi-cloud environments.
The Truth about Privileged Access Security on Cloud Providers Like AWS
The essence of the Shared Responsibility Model is assigning responsibility for the security of the cloud itself including the infrastructure, hardware, software, and facilities to AWS and assign the securing of operating systems, platforms, and data to customers. The AWS version of the Shared Responsibility Model, shown below, illustrates how Amazon has defined securing the data itself, management of the platform, applications and how they’re accessed, and various configurations as the customers’ responsibility:
AWS provides basic IAM support that protects its customers against privileged credential abuse in a homogenous AWS-only environment. Forrester estimates that 80% of data breaches involve compromised privileged credentials, and a recent survey by Centrify found that 74% of all breaches involved privileged access abuse.
The following are the four truths about privileged access security on AWS (and, generally, other public cloud providers):
- Customers of AWS and other public cloud providers should not fall for the myth that cloud service providers can completely protect their customized and highly individualized cloud instances. As the Shared Responsibility Model above illustrates, AWS secures the core areas of their cloud platform, including infrastructure and hosting services. AWS customers are responsible for securing operating systems, platforms, and data and most importantly, privileged access credentials. Organizations need to consider the Shared Responsibility Model the starting point on creating an enterprise-wide security strategy with a Zero Trust Security framework being the long-term goal. AWS’s IAM is an interim solution to the long-term challenge of achieving Zero Trust Privilege across an enterprise ecosystem that is going to become more hybrid or multi-cloud as time goes on.
- Despite what many AWS integrators say, adopting a new cloud platform doesn’t require a new Privileged Access Security model. Many organizations who have adopted AWS and other cloud platforms are using the same Privileged Access Security Model they have in place for their existing on-premises systems. The truth is the same Privileged Access Security Model can be used for on-premises and IaaS implementations. Even AWS itself has stated that conventional security and compliance concepts still apply in the cloud. For an overview of the most valuable best practices for securing AWS instances, please see my previous post, 6 Best Practices For Increasing Security In AWS In A Zero Trust World.
- Hybrid cloud architectures that include AWS instances don’t need an entirely new identity infrastructure and can rely on advanced technologies, including Multi-Directory Brokering. Creating duplicate identities increases cost, risk, and overhead and the burden of requiring additional licenses. Existing directories (such as Active Directory) can be extended through various deployment options, each with their strengths and weaknesses. Centrify, for example, offers Multi-Directory Brokering to use whatever preferred directory already exists in an organization to authenticate users in hybrid and multi-cloud environments. And while AWS provides key pairs for access to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances, their security best practices recommend a holistic approach should be used across on-premises and multi-cloud environments, including Active Directory or LDAP in the security architecture.
- It’s possible to scale existing Privileged Access Management systems in use for on-premises systems today to hybrid cloud platforms that include AWS, Google Cloud, Microsoft Azure, and other platforms. There’s a tendency on the part of system integrators specializing in cloud security to oversell cloud service providers’ native IAM and PAM capabilities, saying that a hybrid cloud strategy requires separate systems. Look for system integrators and experienced security solutions providers who can use a common security model already in place to move workloads to new AWS instances.
The truth is that Identity and Access Management solutions built into public cloud offerings such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud are stop-gap solutions to a long-term security challenge many organizations are facing today. Instead of relying only on a public cloud provider’s IAM and security solutions, every organization’s cloud security goals need to include a holistic approach to identity and access management and not create silos for each cloud environment they are using. While AWS continues to invest in their IAM solution, organizations need to prioritize protecting their privileged access credentials – the “keys to the kingdom” – that if ever compromised would allow hackers to walk in the front door of the most valuable systems an organization has. The four truths defined in this article are essential for building a Zero Trust roadmap for any organization that will scale with them as they grow. By taking a “never trust, always verify, enforce least privilege” strategy when it comes to their hybrid- and multi-cloud strategies, organizations can alleviate costly breaches that harm the long-term operations of any business.