Unusable Insecurity

Posted: March 16, 2018 at 1:40 PM

Many people claim that security is hard, and in many cases it is hard, but that isn’t an excuse to make it harder than it needs to be. There are many layers to security, but adding extra layers, or making security controls inscrutable is a great way to ensure insecurity. Security needs to be simple and straightforward to configure, and easy to understand. There may be knobs for advanced users, but defaults need to be simple and correct.

I recently looked at using S3 as a shared store for some data. I was using the account New Context created for me that had limited AWS permissions. Creating the S3 bucket was simple enough, and making it not-public was too, but then I wanted to create a user/API key that only had access to the S3 bucket. Per Amazon IAM Best Practices, you should not share your account, but create new users for access. It turns out that I did not have the CreateUser permission. I involved a co-worker who did have permissions to create the user. Adding another person to the task makes things more complex through communication and their availability to work on it instead of their normal work.

As part of creating a user, you have to figure out what the Policy that you need to assign to the user. Amazon provides some Bucket Policy Examples, but none of them is a simple policy on granting read and write permissions to the bucket. There is an Amazon Policy Generator for helping you to create the policies, but it doesn’t allow you to select buckets from your account (to simplify ARN [Amazon Resource Name] selection), and there are almost 70 actions provided in the selector. After some brief reading, I settled on a simple policy that I thought would allow the new user proper access: 4 permissions: PutObjects, GetObjects, ListObjects and RestoreObjects.

My co-worker created the user and applied the policy, but then I got an error handle code. Amazon does not provide an interface for turning on logging and/or querying why a request failed. Despite the error handle, I had ZERO insight into why the request failed. I could have involved AWS support, but now that would add yet another party in attempting to properly configure S3.

At this stage, I decided to give up, as I had already spent a few hours of my time, some of my co-worker’s time, and a couple weeks due to various delays due to availability and other work. In this case, storing the data in S3 was more of a nicety, and I decided that checking the data into a private git repo was adequate compared to the complexities involved in configuring S3. git was a tried and tested way to store data and restrict access while S3 for this usage was not, and hard to configure.

After I wrote this blog post, a coworker linked me to the blog post titled Writing IAM Policies: How to Grant Access to an Amazon S3 Bucket. It is concerning that this blog post has not been integrated, nor linked to from any of the IAM or S3 documentation. This is a valuable resource that should not be hidden.

I’m clearly not the only one that has had issues configuring S3 buckets. The end of 2017 has shown a large number of organizations fail to properly secure their S3 buckets, leaving many terabytes of data open for public download. It is unacceptable that such a service is so difficult to configure. The site https://s3stupidity.com/ lists the large number of breaches, many of which are by large companies who should have the technical chops (and $$) to properly configure it.

Security controls need to be simple and clear. Their descriptions need to be accurate and concise in what they do, and how they do it. Amazon does have a number of good resources, but they do not have a comprehensive guide for what each permission does. You cannot blame users for security failures when you make it next to impossible to configure properly.

Edited to remove a couple extra words.

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