Security Audit

Cloud Penetration Testing: A Complete Guide

Updated on: February 28, 2023

Cloud Penetration Testing: A Complete Guide

Building a cloud-based business or migrating information assets to the cloud makes a lot of sense in terms of operational efficiency as well as cost-effectiveness. Most of the third-party applications or plugins you are using may also be operating off of the cloud. Cloud providers are bound by certain security regulations and have some policies in place to protect your data privacy, but it isn’t enough by any stretch of the imagination. Hence, we are going to talk about Cloud Penetration Testing.

What is Cloud Penetration Testing?

Cloud Penetration Testing is the process of detecting and exploiting security vulnerabilities in your cloud infrastructure by simulating a controlled cyber attack. Cloud pentest is performed under strict guidelines from the cloud service providers like AWS, and GCP.

How Does Cloud Penetration Testing Differ from Penetration Testing?

In layman’s terms, penetration testing is the process of performing offensive security tests on a system, service, or network to find security weaknesses in it. So, when it comes to cloud penetration testing, it is just performing a simulated attack on your cloud services to test their security.

What is the Purpose of Cloud Penetration Testing?

The prime purpose of this is to find security issues in your cloud service before hackers do. Different types of manual methods and cloud penetration testing tools may be used depending on the type of your cloud service and the provider. However, since you do not own the cloud infrastructure/platform/software as an entity but rather as a service, there are several legal and technical challenges to performing cloud penetration tests. We shall read about them later in this article.

Why Astra is the best in pentesting?

  • We’re the only company that combines automated & manual pentest to create a one-of-a-kind pentest platform
  • Vetted scans ensure zero false positives
  • Our intelligent vulnerability scanner emulates hacker behavior & evolves with every pentest
  • Astra’s scanner helps you shift left by integrating with your CI/CD
  • Our platform helps you uncover, manage & fix vulnerabilities in one place
  • Trusted by the brands you trust like Agora, Spicejet, Muthoot, Dream11, etc.

Most Common Cloud Vulnerabilities

There are quite a few vulnerabilities that can lead to a compromised cloud account. Mentioning each one is beyond the scope of this article so, the most prominent ones are mentioned below:

1. Insecure APIs

APIs are widely used in cloud services to share information across various applications. However, insecure APIs can also lead to a large-scale data leak as was seen in the case of Venmo, Airtel, etc. Sometimes using HTTP methods like PUT, POST, DELETE in APIs improperly can allow hackers to upload malware on your server or delete data. Improper access control and lack of input sanitization are also the main causes of APIs getting compromised which can be uncovered during cloud penetration testing.

2. Server misconfigurations

Cloud service misconfigurations are the most common cloud vulnerability today (misconfigured S3 Buckets, in particular ). The most famous case was that of the Capital One data leak which led to the compromise of the data of roughly 100 million Americans and 6 million Canadians. The most common cloud server misconfigurations are improper permissions, not encrypting the data and differentiation between private and public data.

3. Weak credentials

Using common or weak passwords can make your cloud accounts vulnerable to brute force attacks. The attacker can use automated tools to make guesses thereby making way into your account using those credentials. The results could be disastrous leading to a complete account takeover. Since people tend to reuse passwords and use easily rememberable passwords, these attacks are fairly common. This fact can be verified during cloud penetration testing.

Also Read: API Penetration Testing: What You Need To Know

4. Outdated software

Outdated software contains critical security vulnerabilities that can compromise your cloud services. Most of the software vendors do not use a streamlined update procedure or the users disable automatic updates themselves. This makes the cloud services outdated which hackers identify using automated scanners. As a result, cloud services using outdated software are compromised by a large number.

5. Insecure coding practices

Most businesses try to get their cloud infrastructure built for as cheaply as possible. So, due to poor coding practices, such software often contains bugs like SQLi, XSS, CSRF. The ones which are most common among them are labeled as OWASP top 10. It is these vulnerabilities that are the root cause for the majority of cloud web services being compromised.

Also Read: Cloud Security Audit: Everything You Need to Know | Top 6 Web Pentest Tools You Should Not Miss

The Shared Responsibility Model of Cloud Security Testing

Type of Cloud ServiceSecurity Responsibilities of Cloud ProvidersSecurity Responsibilities of Clients
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)Virtualization. Network, Infrastructure, PhysicalUser Access, Data, Application, Operating System
Platform as as Service (PaaS)Operating System, Virtualization, Network, Infrastructure, PhysicalUser Access, Data, Application
Software as a Service (SaaS)Application, Operating System, Virtualization, Network, Infrastructure, PhysicalUser Access, Data

Based on the Service Level Agreement (SLA) between the client and the cloud service provider certain aspects of cloud security are controlled and handled by the cloud provider and the client is responsible for the others. For instance, the cloud provider will not be held responsible for security errors related to user identity.

Similarly, the client is not responsible for the physical security of the data centers managed by the cloud providers. This shared model of cloud security is termed ‘security in the cloud’ and not ‘security of the cloud’. The scope of the cloud pentest is dictated by this shared model.

Let experts find security gaps in your cloud infrastructure

Pen-testing results that comes without a 100 emails, 250 google searches and painstaking PDFs.

Also Read: Third-Party Penetration Testing And Why You Should Consider It

What are the Challenges in cloud penetrating testing?

1. Lack of transparency

In the case of some of the not-so-well-known cloud services, the data centers are managed by third parties. As a result, the user may be unaware of where the data is stored and what hardware or software configuration is being used. This lack of transparency exposes the user data to security risks on a cloud service. For instance, the cloud service provider may be hoarding sensitive data without the knowledge of the user. Moreover, popular CSPs like AWS, Azure, GCP, etc are known to conduct in-house security audits.

However, a lack of transparency in these services means that these resources cannot be audited by the security auditor of your choice. As a result, you may be unable to respond if those underlying resources are hacked.

Also Read: 11 Best Penetration Testing Tools & Platforms of 2022 | 5 Best Cloud Security Companies: Features Offered And Factors To Consider

2. Resource sharing

It is a well-known fact that cloud services share resources across multiple accounts. However, this resource sharing can prove to be challenging during cloud penetration testing. Sometimes the service providers do not take adequate steps for segmentation of all the users.

In those cases, if your business needs to be PCI DSS compliant, the standard says that all the other accounts sharing the resource and the cloud service provider should be PCI DSS compliant too. Such complex scenarios are present because there are multiple ways to implement the cloud infrastructure. This complexity hinders the process of cloud penetration testing.

3. Policy restrictions

Each cloud service provider has its own policy regarding conducting cloud penetration testing. This defines the endpoints and types of tests that can be conducted. Also, some require you to submit an advance notice before conducting the tests. This disparity in policies poses a significant challenge and limits the scope of conducting cloud penetration testing. Now let us take a brief overview of the cloud pentesting policy of the 3 most popular cloud service providers:

Cloud ProviderProhibited Attacks
AWSDenial of Service (DOS) and Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS), DNS zone walking, Port, Protocol, or Request flooding attacks
AzureDOS and DDoS attacks, intensive network fuzzing attacks, Phishing or any other social engineering attacks,
GCPPiracy or any other illegal activity, Phishing, Distributing trojans, ransomware, Interfering

3.1. AWS

There are 8 permitted services for Amazon web services on which cloud pen testing can be performed without giving prior notice. Those are mentioned in the Permitted Services of the policy. Also, while penetration testing, the following attacks are not permitted:

  • Denial of Service (DOS) and Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDOS).
  • DNS zone walking.
  • Port, Protocol, or Request flooding attacks.

However, if you wish to perform a network stress test, there is a separate policy for that. What constitutes DOS attacks and what does not is later explained in more detail at the end of this article.

Also read: Learning AWS Security Audit is Not Difficult at All!

3.2. Azure

Azure allows cloud pentesting on eight Microsoft products which are mentioned in its policy. Anything beyond that is out of scope. Moreover, the following types of tests are prohibited:

  • Conducting cloud pen testing on other azure customers or data other than yours.
  • DOS and DDoS attacks or tests create a huge amount of traffic.
  • Performing intensive network fuzzing attacks on Azure VMs
  • Phishing or any other social engineering attacks against Microsoft’s employees.
  • Violating Acceptable Use Policy.

Also read: Azure Penetration Testing Guide – Policies, Tools & Tips

3.3. GCP

For Google Cloud Platform, there is no special cloud penetration testing policy as such, you just need to follow their Acceptable Use Policy and Terms of Service. Moreover, there is no need to inform Google before conducting tests. However, the Acceptable Use Policy mentions a few things that you should not perform which are as follows:

  • Piracy or any other illegal activity.
  • Phishing.
  • Spamming.
  • Distributing trojans, ransomware, etc during the tests.
  • Violating the rights of other GCP users or conducting penetration tests on them.
  • Violating or trying to circumvent terms of service.
  • Interfering with the equipment supporting GCP.

Also read: Google Cloud Penetration Testing: A Complete Guide

4. Other factors

Due to the sheer scale of cloud services, one machine can host multiple VMs, this adds to the scale of cloud penetration testing. Also, the scope for such tests can vary from user software (CMS, Database, etc.) to service provider software (VM Software, etc). Both these factors combined further add to the complexity of cloud penetration testing. When encryption is added to this list, it can further worsen the situation for auditors as the company being audited may not be willing to share encryption keys.

Performing Step-by-Step Cloud Penetration Testing

Step 1: Understand the cloud service provider’s policies

Before beginning with the tests, it is important to formulate a testing plan based on the policy of the cloud service provider. This is because each CSP has its own policy regarding:

  • Types of cloud pentest that can be performed.
  • Endpoints that can be tested.
  • Permissions to perform the tests.
  • Scope of the tests.

So, if your testing plan is not in accordance with that, the cloud provider can penalize you. For example, if you try to test your account for DDOS and the CSP does not allow that, there are automatic systems in place that can detect that. Thereafter, the CSP can lock your account for some time and you will have a lot of explanation to do before you get your account back. The crux of the get matter is to get familiar with your CSP policy.

Step 2: Create a cloud penetration testing plan

Now comes the second part, which is to create a plan for performing cloud penetration testing. There is no set formula for creating a plan as it varies from auditor to auditor. But, some of the steps you can take to formulate a plan are:

  1. Map out all the endpoints like user interface, APIs, subnetworks, etc for which testing is to be done.
  2. Decide which endpoints to exclude based on policy restrictions, user permissions, etc.
  3. Decide the route for performing the pentest i.e. from application or database.
  4. Figure out how well the application server and VMs can take the load of the tests that you wish to perform.
  5. Find out the laws that need to be followed while performing tests.
  6. Figure out which tools to be used and what types of tests will be performed on which endpoints (Automated or Manual).
  7. Finally, get the approval for your plan from the client and inform them when you wish to begin.

Step 3: Execute the plan

Now, it is time to execute your plan. Run the tools as you wished and observe the responses for vulnerability. Although some tools like Nmap, Sqlmap, OpenVAS, etc are well-known, there are some CSP-specific tools too which you can add to your plan. Some of the tools that you can include in your plan for cloud penetration testing are as follows:

  • AWS Inspector: A customized security solution for AWS. It can be used as a basic minimum or preliminary testing tool.
  • S3Scanner: An open-source tool to scan S3 buckets for misconfigurations and dump their data.
  • MicroBurst: A collection of PowerShell scripts to scan Azure services for security issues. So, to use them you need to have PowerShell installed which is present by default on Windows OS.
  • Azucar: This is another popular Azure scanning tool built using PowerShell just like MicroBurst.
  • Cloudsploit: This is a popular open-source tool that can scan multiple types of cloud service providers like Azure, AWS, Google Cloud Platform, OCI, etc.

Also Read: Top 5 Software Security Testing Tools in 2022 [Reviewed]

Cloud penetration testing using cloudsploit
A screenshot of the Cloudsploit tool

Step 4: Detect and fix vulnerabilities

Some of the automated tools may generate false positives. So, it is necessary to verify that each one is exploitable before adding it to the report. Repeat this process for each layer (network, database, application, etc) that you are testing.

Next comes the most underrated activity of cloud penetration testing, the report generation. It is important for the cloud penetration testers to present the vulnerabilities to the client in an understandable manner. The presentation is the difference between the client taking vulnerabilities seriously or not seriously. So, make sure the reports are well organized and categorized based on the type and level of threat.

After the vulnerabilities have been found, get in touch with your developers to patch them. Else what was the use of cloud penetration testing in the first place if you ignore the bugs? Some of the vulnerabilities can be fixed while making minor changes to the code while some may require a significant overhaul. However, if your tests were unable to detect any vulnerability, maybe you need to change your plan and perform more elaborate security tests.

Cloud Penetration Testing with Astra’s Pentest

Astra’s Pentest is a complete penetration testing service for mobile and web applications as well as cloud infrastructure. It combines a vulnerability scanner with manual pentest to offer a well-rounded picture of the security posture of your cloud-hosted application.

With3000+ tests, CI/CD integration, zero false positives, and collaborative remediation, Astra’s pentest suite can be a one-stop solution for your cloud pentest needs.

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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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10 months ago

What are the Benefits of Cloud Penetration Testing?

Nivedita James
10 months ago
Reply to  Avajohnson

Doing a cloud penetration test provides a lot of benefits, mainly through-
1. Finding vulnerabilities to be fixed thereby ensuring the safety of the customer data stored.
2. Helping improve the cloud security system currently in place.
3. Allowing organizations to be compliant with various standards and regulations like ISO 27001, HIPAA, and more.
4. Building trust between cloud providers and customers by establishing the security of data at rest and in transit.
5. Helping maintain reputation and preventing any monetary losses for organizations using it.
Hope this clarifies your doubt.

9 months ago

What is shared responsibility model in cloud?

Nivedita James
9 months ago
Reply to  Daniel

Hey Daniel, shared responsibility model in cloud refers to following a precise set of rules with a clear understanding between both parties i.e. the cloud provider and customers regarding their obligations and areas of accountability.

Psst! Hi there. We’re Astra.

We make security simple and hassle-free for thousands
of websites and businesses worldwide.

Our suite of security products include a vulnerability scanner, firewall, malware scanner and pentests to protect your site from the evil forces on the internet, even when you sleep.

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