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AWS Penetration Testing: A Complete Guide for Beginners [with Infographic]

Updated on: September 20, 2021

AWS Penetration Testing: A Complete Guide for Beginners [with Infographic]

Having over 1 million active users in 190 countries, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a widely adopted cloud infrastructure platform that offers a wide range of cloud solutions and services to companies across every industry. The portfolio of AWS’s solutions includes solutions & services such as global computing, storage, database, analytics, application, and deployment services that assist companies with moving quicker, lower IT expenses, and scaling applications. Through this article, we will discuss what is AWS penetration testing and how to perform it.

AWS has its own automated as well as manual security controls for applications and platforms, but considering the increasing complexity of today’s compliance mandates, data processing, uses cases, and so on, companies are struggling to understand how they can strengthen the security of their data and the data of their customers before moving to (or while scaling on) AWS. A detailed vulnerability assessment and penetration testing (pen-testing) for their implemented AWS infrastructure solutions can help them in tackling this problem and ensure a robust security framework for protecting their online assets from cybercriminals. 

What is Penetration Testing in AWS?

Pentesting methodologies for AWS are completely different from traditional pentesting procedures. The first and most important difference is system ownership. AWS is a subsidiary of Amazon who is the owner of AWS’s core infrastructure. Since the traditional ‘ethical hacking’ used in the process of pentesting would violate the acceptable policies of AWS, the security response team of AWS involves specific procedures.

There are broadly four key areas to focus on for penetration testing of AWS:

  • External Infrastructure of your AWS cloud
  • Application(s) you are hosting/building on your platform
  • Internal Infrastructure of your AWS cloud
  • AWS configuration review

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with our detailed and specially curated AWS security checklist.
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Does AWS allow penetration testing?

Yes, AWS allows penetration testing, however, there are specific boundaries to what an ethical hacker can play with while the rest remains out of bounds for pen-testing.

For User-Operated services that include cloud offerings and are configured by users, AWS permits an organization to fully test their AWS EC2 instance while excluding tasks related to disruption of continuity. 

For Vendor Operated services (cloud offerings that are managed and configured by 1 third-party), AWS restricts the pen testing to configuration and implementation of cloud environment excluding the underlying infrastructure.

More details are in the section below.

What Pen-Testing can be performed in AWS?

AWS allows the pen testing of specific areas of EC2 (Elastic Cloud Computing), they are:

  • API, i.e; Application Programming Interface
  • Web applications hosted by your organization
  • Programming languages
  • Virtual machines and Operating systems

What are the off-limits for AWS penetration testing?

The parts of AWS cloud that can not undergo pentest because of legal restrictions are as follows:

  • Servers belonging to AWS
  • Physical hardware, facility, or underlying infrastructure that belongs to AWS
  • EC2 belonging to other vendors
  • Amazon’s small Relational Database Service (RDS)
  • Security appliances managed by other vendors

Related blog – Detailed Sample Penetration Testing Report

Types of AWS Penetration Testing

The security testing of an AWS platform can be categorized into two parts:

1. Security of Cloud

The Security of the Cloud is the security responsibility of Amazon (AWS) to make sure their cloud platform is secured against any possible vulnerabilities and cyber attacks for the companies that are using any AWS services. The security of the cloud includes all the zero days and logic flaws that can be exploited at any step to disrupt the performance of an AWS server/s.

2. Security in Cloud

Security in the cloud is the responsibility of the user/company to make sure their deployed applications/assets on AWS infrastructure are secured against any kind of cyberattacks. A user/company can enhance the security of their applications on the AWS cloud by implementing necessary security practices.

Difference between traditional penetration testing and AWS penetration testing

AWS Penetration testing differs from traditional penetration testing in its approach due to its association with Amazon. The typical penetration testing procedure can clash with AWS policies and might even be prohibited altogether.

Related Guide – How to conduct Website Penetration testing

In a traditional pentest for a web application that you own, you can have a free hand. Not so much the case when you’re performing pentesting for AWS cloud. Like we discussed above, you can do only so much in an AWS pentest. The internal and external infrastructure of the AWS cloud, Identity, and access management, and AWS configuration and permissions are some of the key areas to focus on when doing AWS penetration testing.

List of AWS controls to be tested for security

a. Governance:

  • Understand AWS usage/implementation
  • Identify assets & define AWS boundaries
  • Access policies
  • Identify, review & evaluate risks
  • Documentation and Inventory
  • Add AWS to risk assessment
  • IT security & program policy

b. Network Management

  • Network Security Controls
  • Physical links
  • Granting & revoking accesses
  • Environment Isolation
  • Documentation and Inventory
  • DDoS layered defence
  • Malicious code controls

c. Encryption Control

  • AWS Console access
  • AWS API access
  • IPSec Tunnels
  • SSL Key Mangement
  • Protect PINs at rest

d. Logging and Monitoring

  • Centralized log storage
  • Review policies for ‘adequacy’
  • Review Identity and Access Management (IAM) credentials report
  • Aggregate from multiple sources
  • Intrusion detection & response

Steps to take before performing AWS Penetration Testing

  1. Define the scope of the penetration test including the target systems.
  2. Run your own preliminary.
  3. Define the type of security test you will conduct.
  4. Outline the expectations for both the stakeholders and the pen testing. company (if outsourced).
  5. Establish a timeline to manage the technical assessment.
  6. Define a set of protocols in case the test reveals that security has already been breached.
  7. Obtain the written approval of the related parties to perform a pen test.

How to perform Penetration Testing on AWS?

1. Identity and Access Management (IAM)

The first and most important step in the process of penetration testing is to identify the assets of data stores and applications. Some important points to keep in mind during asset identification are:

  • Removal of keys from the root account
  • Implement two-factor authentication
  • Do not use the root account for daily task or automation
  • Restrict the permission to service accounts
  • Limit the use of one key per user
  • Regularly change SSH and PGP keys
  • Delete inactive security accounts

2. Logical Access Control

The next step to follow after the identification of assets is to manage the access control on the cloud. It is a process of assigning different actions to the resource. The main process of Logical Access Control involves controlling access to resources, processes, and users of AWS. credentials related to the AWS accounts must be safe and secure.

3. S3 Buckets

S3 is a cloud folder generally known as a “Bucket”. It is a storage server that delivers region exceptions, access logging, versioning, encryption, access logging, etc. The points that maintain the security of the S3 bucket are:

  • Permissions (such as GET, PUT, DELETE, LIST for HTTP methods) should be restricted to certain users
  • The logging and versioning of the bucket should be enabled.

4. Database Service

The database is an important part of most web services. It is important to follow the necessary steps to secure the database of your application as well. The key points to keep in mind while performing a security audit are:

  • Regularly backup your data.
  • Set the time for automatic backup for less than a week.
  • Use the Multi-AZ deployment method.
  • Limit the access to specified IP addresses.

Tools used in AWS Testing

There are many tools that you can use to pen test your AWS integrated services. A different set of tools are available to carry out different types of tests. Here are some of them:

  • Prowler: It is an open-source security testing tool that allows you to scan your AWS account for potential vulnerabilities, IAM permissions and compliance on the basis of a set of standard benchmarks such as AWS Foundations Benchmark.
  • CloudSploit: It is a cloud security auditing and monitoring tool for that allows you to audit the configuration state of services in your AWS account. It checks for publicly exposed servers, unencrypted data storage, lack of least-privilege policies, misconfigured backup and restore settings and data exposure and privilege escalation.
  • Cloudsplaining: It is an open-source tool for AWS IAM security assessment that allows you to identify violations of least privilege and generate a risk-prioritized report for evaluation.
  • CloudJack: It is also an open source Route53/CloudFront/S3 vulnerability assessment utility that checks for subdomain hijacking vulnerabilities in your AWS services.
  • Astra Security Scan: It is a cloud infrastructure security testing tool that allows you to pentest your AWS services and look for potential vulnerabilities. It offers a rich dashboard where you can monitor the audit trail and see detailed analysis for each discovered vulnerability along with the recommended steps to fix those vulnerabilities.
Image: Astra Security Scan Dashboard

AWS Penetration Testing Provider – Astra Security

It is clear from the above-mentioned steps and processes that performing AWS penetration testing is vast and involves knowledge in specific areas. Performing a complete security audit by yourself for the first time can be difficult. But you don’t have to worry. Astra is here to help you out. Astra Security is a cyber-security company that performs a complete security audit of your application at a nominal cost. We are a group of security experts that can provide an in-depth analysis of your AWS system. See our AWS Security Audit Program.

Penetration testing AWS
Image: Astra’s VAPT Process

Make your AWS infra the safest place on the Internet

with our detailed and specially curated AWS security checklist.
Download checklist
free of cost.

Conclusion

Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers various integration opportunities to your application with some in-built security features for the security of the cloud. But the security in the cloud resides completely in your hands. Henceforth, performing penetration testing becomes more and more important every day for your business. You can go through the above guide to do it yourself. Or you can also take professional help from Astra Security.

If you have further queries on AWS penetration testing by Astra Security, chat with us with the chat widget. You can also contact us via dropping comments in the comment box and we will be happy to help you!

Image: AWS security testing infographic

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Jinson Varghese

Jinson Varghese Behanan is an Information Security Analyst at Astra. Passionate about Cybersecurity from a young age, Jinson completed his Bachelor's degree in Computer Security from Northumbria University. When he isn’t glued to a computer screen, he spends his time reading InfoSec materials, playing basketball, learning French and traveling. You can follow him on Medium or visit his Website for more stories about the various Security Audits he does and the crazy vulnerabilities he finds.
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