Techniques for writing least privilege IAM policies
December 4, 2020: We’ve updated this post to use s3:CreateBucket to simplify the intro example, replaced figure 8 removing the IfExists reference, and clarified qualifier information in the example.
In this post, I’m going to share two techniques I’ve used to write least privilege AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) policies. If you’re not familiar with IAM policy structure, I highly recommend you read understanding how IAM works and policies and permissions.
Least privilege is a principle of granting only the permissions required to complete a task. Least privilege is also one of many Amazon Web Services (AWS) Well-Architected best practices that can help you build securely in the cloud. For example, if you have an Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instance that needs to access an Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) bucket to get configuration data, you should only allow read access to the specific S3 bucket that contains the relevant data.
There are a number of ways to grant access to different types of resources, as some resources support both resource-based policies and IAM policies. This blog post will focus on demonstrating how you can use IAM policies to grant restrictive permissions to IAM principals to meet least privilege standards.
In AWS, an IAM principal can be a user, role, or group. These identities start with no permissions and you add permissions using a policy. In AWS, there are different types of policies that are used for different reasons. In this blog, I only give examples for identity-based policies that attach to IAM principals to grant permissions to an identity. You can create and attach multiple identity-based policies to your IAM principals, and you can reuse them across your AWS accounts. There are two types of managed policies. Customer managed policies are created and managed by you, the customer. AWS managed policies are provided as examples, cannot be modified, but can be copied, enhanced, and saved as Customer managed policies. The main elements of a policy statement are:
- Effect: Specifies whether the statement will Allow or Deny an action.
- Action: Describes a specific action or actions that will either be allowed or denied to run based on the Effect entered. API actions are unique to each service. For example, s3:CreateBucket is an Amazon S3 service API action and IAM action that enables an IAM Principal to create an S3 bucket.
- NotAction: Can be used as an alternative to using Action. This element will allow an IAM principal to invoke all API actions to a specific AWS service except those actions specified in this list.
- Resource: Specifies the resources—for example, an S3 bucket or objects—that the policy applies to in Amazon Resource Name (ARN) format.
- NotResource: Can be used instead of the Resource element to explicitly match every AWS resource except those specified.
- Condition: Allows you to build expressions to match the condition keys and values in the policy against keys and values in the request context sent by the IAM principal. Condition keys can be service-specific or global. A global condition key can be used with any service. For example, a key of aws:CurrentTime can be used to allow access based on date and time.
Starting with the visual editor
The visual editor is my default starting place for building policies as I like the wizard and seeing all available services, actions, and conditions without looking at the documentation. If there is a complex policy with many services, I often look at the AWS managed policies as a starting place for the actions that are required, then use the visual editor to fine tune and check the resources and conditions.
The policy I’m going to walk you through creating is to grant an AWS Lambda function permission to get specific objects from Amazon S3, and put items in a specific table in Amazon DynamoDB. You can access the visual editor when you choose Create policy under policies in the IAM console, or add policies when viewing a role, group, or user as shown in Figure 1. If you’re not familiar with creating policies, you can follow the full instructions in the IAM documentation.
Begin by choosing the first service—S3—to grant access to as shown in Figure 2. You can only choose one service at a time, so you’ll need to add DynamoDB after.
Now you will see a list of access levels with the option to manually add actions. Expand the read access level to show all read actions that are supported by the Amazon S3 service. You can now see all read access level actions. For getting an object, check the box for GetObject. Selecting the ? next to an action expands information including a description, supported resource types, and supported condition keys as shown in Figure 3.
Expand Resources, you will see that the visual editor has listed object as that is the only resource supported by the GetObject action as shown in Figure 4.
Select Add ARN, which opens a dialogue to help you specify the ARN for the objects. Enter a bucket name—such as doc-example-bucket—and then the object name. For the object name you can use a wildcard (*) as a suffix. For example, to allow objects beginning with alpha you would enter alpha*. This is an important step. For this least privileged policy, you are restricting to a specific bucket, and an object prefix. You could even specify an individual object depending on your use case.
If you have multiple ARNs (bucket and objects) to allow, you can repeat the step.
The final step is to expand the request conditions, and choose Add condition. The Add request condition dialogue will open. Select the drop down next to Condition key to list the global condition keys, then the service level condition keys are listed after. You’ll see that there’s an s3:ExistingObjectTag condition that—as the name suggests—matches an existing object tag. You can use this condition key to allow the GetObject request only when the object tag meets your condition. That means you can tag your objects with a specific tag key and value pair, and your policy condition must match this key-value pair to allow the action to execute. When you’re using condition keys with multiple keys or values, you can use condition operators and evaluation logic. As shown in Figure 7, tag-key is entered directly below the condition key. This is the key of the tag to match. To match at least one value in the request to the tag key, for Qualifier, select For any value in request. Note that in this example, you have only one value in the request. To match the tag exactly, for Operator, select StringEquals. To specify the key value pair, make sure that If Exists is unchecked. For Value, enter the actual tag value: tag-value as shown in figure 7.
That’s it for adding the S3 action, as shown in figure 8.
Now you need to add the DynamoDB permissions by selecting Add additional permissions. Select Choose a service and then select DynamoDB. For actions, expand the Write access level, then choose PutItem.
Expand Resources and then select Add ARN. The dialogue that appears will help you build the ARN just like it did for the Amazon S3 service. Enter the Region, for example the ap-southeast-2 (Sydney) Region, the account ID, and the table name. Choosing Add will add the resource ARN to your policy.
Now it’s time to add conditions. Expand Request conditions and then choose Add condition.
There are many DynamoDB conditions that you could use, however you can choose dynamodb:LeadingKeys to represent the first key, or partition keys in a table. You can see from the documentation that a qualifier of For all values in request is recommend. For the Operator you can use StringEquals as your string is going to exactly match, then a Value can use a prefix with wildcard, such as alpha* as shown in figure 11.
Choosing Add will take you back to the main visual editor where you can choose Review policy to continue. Enter a name and description for the policy, and then choose Create policy.
You can now attach it to a role to test.
You can see in this example that a policy can use least privilege by using specific resources and conditions. Note that sometimes when you use the AWS Management Console, it requires additional permissions to provide information for the console experience.
Starting with AWS managed policies
AWS managed policies can be a good starting place to see the actions typically associated with a particular service or job function. For example, you can attach the AmazonS3ReadOnlyAccess policy to a role used by an Amazon EC2 instance that allows read-only access to all Amazon S3 buckets in your account. It has an effect of Allow to allow access, and there are two actions that use wildcards (*) to allow all Get and List actions for S3—for example, s3:GetObject and s3:ListAllMyBuckets. The resource is a wildcard to allow all S3 buckets the account has access to. A useful feature of this policy is that it only allows read and list access to S3, but not to any other services or types of actions.
Let’s make our own custom IAM policy to make it least privilege. Starting with the action element, you can use the reference for Amazon S3 to see all actions, a description of what each action does, the resource type for each action, and condition keys for each action. Now let’s imagine this policy is used by an Amazon EC2 instance to fetch an application configuration object from within an S3 bucket. Looking at the descriptions for actions starting with Get you can see that the only action that we really need is GetObject. You can then use the resource element to restrict an action to a set of objects prefixed with config within a specific bucket.
Now that you’ve reduced the scope of what this policy can do for service actions and resources, you can add a condition element that uses attribute based access control (ABAC) to define conditions based on attributes—in this case, a resource tag. In this example, when you’re reading objects from a single bucket, you can set specific conditions to further reduce the scope of permissions given to an IAM principal. There’s an s3:ExistingObjectTag condition that you can use to allow the GetObject request only when the object tag meets your condition. That means you can tag your objects with a specific tag key and value pair, and your IAM policy condition must match this key-value pair to allow the API action to successfully run. When you’re using condition keys with multiple keys or values, you can use condition operators and evaluation logic. You can see that ForAnyValue tests at least one member of the set of request values, and at least one member of the set of condition key values. Alternatively, you can use global condition keys that apply to all services:
In the preceding policy example, the condition element only allows s3:GetObject permissions if the object is tagged with a key of tag-key and a value of tag-value. While you’re experimenting, you can identify errors in your custom policies by using the IAM policy simulator or reviewing the errors messages recorded in AWS CloudTrail logs.
In this post, I’ve shown two different techniques that you can use to create least privilege policies for IAM. You can adapt these methods to create AWS Single Sign-On permission sets and AWS Organizations service control policies (SCPs). Starting with managed policies is a useful strategy when an AWS supplied managed policy already exists for your use case, and then to reduce the scope of what it can do through permissions. I tend to use the visual editor the most for editing policies because it saves looking up the resource and conditions for each action. I suggest that you start by reviewing the policies you’re already using. Start with policies that grant excessive permissions—like the example Administrator policy—and tie them back to the use case of the users or things that need the access. Use the last accessed information, IAM best practices, and look at the AWS Well-Architected best practices and AWS Well-Architected tool.
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