AWS Security Blog

How AWS built the Security Guardians program, a mechanism to distribute security ownership

Product security teams play a critical role to help ensure that new services, products, and features are built and shipped securely to customers. However, since security teams are in the product launch path, they can form a bottleneck if organizations struggle to scale their security teams to support their growing product development teams. In this post, we will share how Amazon Web Services (AWS) developed a mechanism to scale security processes and expertise by distributing security ownership between security teams and development teams. This mechanism has many names in the industry — Security Champions, Security Advocates, and others — and it’s often part of a shift-left approach to security. At AWS, we call this mechanism Security Guardians.

In many organizations, there are fewer security professionals than product developers. Our experience is that it takes much more time to hire a security professional than other technical job roles, and research conducted by (ISC)2 shows that the cybersecurity industry is short 3.4 million workers. When product development teams continue to grow at a faster rate than security teams, the disparity between security professionals and product developers continues to increase as well. Although most businesses understand the importance of security, frustration and tensions can arise when it becomes a bottleneck for the business and its ability to serve customers.

At AWS, we require the teams that build products to undergo an independent security review with an AWS application security engineer before launching. This is a mechanism to verify that new services, features, solutions, vendor applications, and hardware meet our high security bar. This intensive process impacts how quickly product teams can ship to customers. As shown in Figure 1, we found that as the product teams scaled, so did the problem: there were more products being built than the security teams could review and approve for launch. Because security reviews are required and non-negotiable, this could potentially lead to delays in the shipping of products and features.

Figure 1: More products are being developed than can be reviewed and shipped

Figure 1: More products are being developed than can be reviewed and shipped

How AWS builds a culture of security

Because of its size and scale, many customers look to AWS to understand how we scale our own security teams. To tell our story and provide insight, let’s take a look at the culture of security at AWS.

Security is a business priority

At AWS, security is a business priority. Business leaders prioritize building products and services that are designed to be secure, and they consider security to be an enabler of the business rather than an obstacle.

Leaders also strive to create a safe environment by encouraging employees to identify and escalate potential security issues. Escalation is the process of making sure that the right people know about the problem at the right time. Escalation encompasses “Dive Deep”, which is one of our corporate values at Amazon, because it requires owners and leaders to dive into the details of the issue. If you don’t know the details, you can’t make good decisions about what’s going on and how to run your business effectively.

This aspect of the culture goes beyond intention — it’s embedded in our organizational structure:

CISOs and IT leaders play a key role in demystifying what security and compliance represent for the business. At AWS, we made an intentional choice for the security team to report directly to the CEO. The goal was to build security into the structural fabric of how AWS makes decisions, and every week our security team spends time with AWS leadership to ensure we’re making the right choices on tactical and strategic security issues.

– Stephen Schmidt, Chief Security Officer, Amazon, on Building a Culture of Security

Everyone owns security

Because our leadership supports security, it’s understood within AWS that security is everyone’s job. Security teams and product development teams work together to help ensure that products are built and shipped securely. Despite this collaboration, the product teams own the security of their product. They are responsible for making sure that security controls are built into the product and that customers have the tools they need to use the product securely.

On the other hand, central security teams are responsible for helping developers to build securely and verifying that security requirements are met before launch. They provide guidance to help developers understand what security controls to build, provide tools to make it simpler for developers to implement and test controls, provide support in threat modeling activities, use mechanisms to help ensure that customers’ security expectations are met before launch, and so on.

This responsibility model highlights how security ownership is distributed between the security and product development teams. At AWS, we learned that without this distribution, security doesn’t scale. Regardless of the number of security experts we hire, product teams always grow faster. Although the culture around security and the need to distribute ownership is now well understood, without the right mechanisms in place, this model would have collapsed.

Mechanisms compared to good intentions

Mechanisms are the final pillar of AWS culture that has allowed us to successfully distribute security across our organization. A mechanism is a complete process, or virtuous cycle, that reinforces and improves itself as it operates. As shown in Figure 2, a mechanism takes controllable inputs and transforms them into ongoing outputs to address a recurring business challenge. At AWS, the business challenge that we’re facing is that security teams create bottlenecks for the business. The culture of security at AWS provides support to help address this challenge, but we needed a mechanism to actually do it.

Figure 2: AWS sees mechanisms as a complete process, or virtuous cycle

Figure 2: AWS sees mechanisms as a complete process, or virtuous cycle

“Often, when we find a recurring problem, something that happens over and over again, we pull the team together, ask them to try harder, do better – essentially, we ask for good intentions. This rarely works… When you are asking for good intentions, you are not asking for a change… because people already had good intentions. But if good intentions don’t work, what does? Mechanisms work.

 – Jeff Bezos, February 1, 2008 All Hands

At AWS, we’ve learned that we can help solve the challenge of scaling security by distributing security ownership with a mechanism we call the Security Guardians program. Like other mechanisms, it has inputs and outputs, and transforms over time.

AWS distributes security ownership with the Security Guardians program

At AWS, the Security Guardians program trains, develops, and empowers developers to be security ambassadors, or Guardians, within the product teams. At a high level, Guardians make sure that security considerations for a product are made earlier and more often, helping their peers build and ship their product faster. They also work closely with the central security team to help ensure that the security bar at AWS is rising and the Security Guardians program is improving over time. As shown in Figure 3, embedding security expertise within the product teams helps products with Guardian involvement move through security review faster.

Figure 3: Security expertise is embedded in the product teams by Guardians

Figure 3: Security expertise is embedded in the product teams by Guardians

Guardians are informed, security-minded product builders who volunteer to be consistent champions of security on their teams and are deeply familiar with the security processes and tools. They provide security guidance throughout the development lifecycle and are stakeholders in the security of the products being shipped, helping their teams make informed decisions that lead to more secure, on-time launches. Guardians are the security points-of-contact for their product teams.

In this distributed security ownership model, accountability for product security sits with the product development teams. However, the Guardians are responsible for performing the first evaluation of a development team’s security review submission. They confirm the quality and completeness of the new service’s resources, design documents, threat model, automated findings, and penetration test readiness. The development teams, supported by the Guardian, submit their security review to AWS Application Security (AppSec) engineers for the final pre-launch review.

In practice, as part of this development journey, Guardians help ensure that security considerations are made early, when teams are assessing customer requests and the feature or product design. This can be done by starting the threat modeling processes. Next, they work to make sure that mitigations identified during threat modeling are developed. Guardians also play an active role in software testing, including security scans such as static application security testing (SAST) and dynamic application security testing (DAST). To close out the security review, security engineers work with Guardians to make sure that findings are resolved and the product is ready to ship.

Figure 4: Expedited security review process supported by Guardians

Figure 4: Expedited security review process supported by Guardians

Guardians are, after all, Amazonians. Therefore, Guardians exemplify a number of the Amazon Leadership Principles and often have the following characteristics:

  • They are exemplary practitioners for security ownership and empower their teams to own the security of their service.
  • They hold a high security bar and exercise strong security judgement, don’t accept quick or easy answers, and drive continuous improvement.
  • They advocate for security needs in internal discussions with the product team.
  • They are thoughtful yet assertive to make customer security a top priority on their team.
  • They maintain and showcase their security knowledge to their peers, continuously building knowledge from many different sources to gain perspective and to stay up to date on the constantly evolving threat landscape.
  • They aren’t afraid to have their work independently validated by the central security team.

Expected outcomes

AWS has benefited greatly from the Security Guardians program. We’ve had 22.5 percent fewer medium and high severity security findings generated during the security review process and have taken about 26.9 percent less time to review a new service or feature. This data demonstrates that with Guardians involved we’re identifying fewer issues late in the process, reducing remediation work, and as a result securely shipping services faster for our customers. To help both builders and Guardians improve over time, our security review tool captures feedback from security engineers on their inputs. This helps ensure that our security ownership mechanism reinforces and improves itself over time.

AWS and other organizations have benefited from this mechanism because it generates specialized security resources and distributes security knowledge that scales without needing to hire additional staff.

A program such as this could help your business build and ship faster, as it has for AWS, while maintaining an appropriately high security bar that rises over time. By training builders to be security practitioners and advocates within your development cycle, you can increase the chances of identifying risks and security findings earlier. These findings, earlier in the development lifecycle, can reduce the likelihood of having to patch security bugs or even start over after the product has already been built. We also believe that a consistent security experience for your product teams is an important aspect of successfully distributing your security ownership. An experience with less confusion and friction will help build trust between the product and security teams.

To learn more about building positive security culture for your business, watch this spotlight interview with Stephen Schmidt, Chief Security Officer, Amazon.

If you’re an AWS customer and want to learn more about how AWS built the Security Guardians program, reach out to your local AWS solutions architect or account manager for more information.

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Ana Malhotra

Ana Malhotra

Ana is a Security Specialist Solutions Architect and the Healthcare and Life Sciences (HCLS) Security Lead for AWS Industry, based in Seattle, Washington. As a former AWS Application Security Engineer, Ana loves talking all things AppSec, including people, process, and technology. In her free time, she enjoys tapping into her creative side with music and dance.

Mitch Beaumont

Mitch Beaumont

Mitch is a Principal Solutions Architect for Amazon Web Services, based in Sydney, Australia. Mitch works with some of Australia’s largest financial services customers, helping them to continually raise the security bar for the products and features that they build and ship. Outside of work, Mitch enjoys spending time with his family, photography, and surfing.