AWS Security Blog

Top 10 security items to improve in your AWS account

August 10, 2022: This blog post has been updated to reflect the new name of AWS Single Sign-On (SSO) – AWS IAM Identity Center. Read more about the name change here.

If you’re looking to improve your cloud security, a good place to start is to follow the top 10 most important cloud security tips that Stephen Schmidt, Chief Information Security Officer for AWS, laid out at AWS re:Invent 2019. Below are the tips, expanded to help you take action.

10 most important security tips

1) Accurate account information

When AWS needs to contact you about your AWS account, we use the contact information defined in the AWS Management Console, including the email address used to create the account and those listed under Alternate Contacts. All email addresses should be set up to go to aliases that are not dependent on a single person. You should also have a process for regularly checking that these email addresses work, and that you are responding to emails—especially security notifications you might receive from Learn how to set the alternate contacts to help ensure someone is receiving important messages, even when you are unavailable.

Alternative Contacts user interface

2) Use multi-factor authentication (MFA)

MFA is the best way to protect accounts from inappropriate access. Always set up MFA on your Root user and AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) users. If you use AWS IAM Identity Center to control access to AWS or to federate your corporate identity store, you can enforce MFA there. Implementing MFA at the federated identity provider (IdP) means that you can take advantage of existing MFA processes in your organization. To get started, see Using Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) in AWS.

3) No hard-coding secrets

When you build applications on AWS, you can use AWS IAM roles to deliver temporary, short-lived credentials for calling AWS services. However, some applications require longer-lived credentials, such as database passwords or other API keys. If this is the case, you should never hard code these secrets in the application or store them in source code.

You can use AWS Secrets Manager to control the information in your application. Secrets Manager allows you to rotate, manage, and retrieve database credentials, API keys, and other secrets through their lifecycle. Users and applications can retrieve secrets with a call to Secrets Manager APIs, eliminating the need to hard code sensitive information in plain text.

You should also learn how to use AWS IAM roles for applications running on Amazon EC2. Also, for best results, learn how to securely provide database credentials to AWS Lambda functions by using AWS Secrets Manager.

4) Limit security groups

Security groups are a key way that you can enable network access to resources you have provisioned on AWS. Ensuring that only the required ports are open and the connection is enabled from known network ranges is a foundational approach to security. You can use services such as AWS Config or AWS Firewall Manager to programmatically ensure that the virtual private cloud (VPC) security group configuration is what you intended. The Network Reachability rules package analyzes your Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC) network configuration to determine whether your Amazon EC2 instances can be reached from external networks, such as the Internet, a virtual private gateway, or AWS Direct Connect. AWS Firewall Manager can also be used to automatically apply AWS WAF rules to internet-facing resources across your AWS accounts. Learn more about detecting and responding to changes in VPC Security Groups.

5) Intentional data policies

Not all data is created equal, which means classifying data properly is crucial to its security. It’s important to accommodate the complex tradeoffs between a strict security posture and a flexible agile environment. A strict security posture, which requires lengthy access-control procedures, creates stronger guarantees about data security. However, such a security posture can work counter to agile and fast-paced development environments, where developers require self-service access to data stores. Design your approach to data classification to meet a broad range of access requirements.

How you classify data doesn’t have to be as binary as public or private. Data comes in various degrees of sensitivity and you might have data that falls in all of the different levels of sensitivity and confidentiality. Design your data security controls with an appropriate mix of preventative and detective controls to match data sensitivity appropriately. In the suggestions below, we deal mostly with the difference between public and private data. If you have no classification policy currently, public versus private is a good place to start.

To protect your data once it has been classified, or while you are classifying it:

  1. If you have Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets that are for public usage, move all of that data into a separate AWS account set aside for public access. Set up policies to allow only processes — not humans — to move data into those buckets. This lets you block the ability to make a public Amazon S3 bucket in any other AWS account.
  2. Use Amazon S3 to block public access in any account that should not be able to share data through Amazon S3.
  3. Use two different IAM roles for encryption and decryption with KMS. This lets you separate the data entry (encryption) and data review (decryption), and it allows you to do threat detection on the failed decryption attempts by analyzing that role.

6) Centralize CloudTrail logs

Logging and monitoring are important parts of a robust security plan. Being able to investigate unexpected changes in your environment or perform analysis to iterate on your security posture relies on having access to data. AWS recommends that you write logs, especially AWS CloudTrail, to an S3 bucket in an AWS account designated for logging (Log Archive). The permissions on the bucket should prevent deletion of the logs, and they should also be encrypted at rest. Once the logs are centralized, you can integrate with SIEM solutions or use AWS services to analyze them. Learn how to use AWS services to visualize AWS CloudTrail logs. Once you have CloudTrail logs centralized, you can also use the same Log Archive account to centralize logs from other sources, such as CloudWatch Logs and AWS load balancers.

7) Validate IAM roles

As you operate your AWS accounts to iterate and build capability, you may end up creating multiple IAM roles that you discover later you don’t need. Use AWS IAM Access Analyzer to review access to your internal AWS resources and determine where you have shared access outside your AWS accounts. Routinely reevaluating AWS IAM roles and permissions with Security Hub or open source products such as Prowler will give you the visibility needed to validate compliance with your Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) policies. If you’re already past this point, and have already created multiple roles, you can search for unused IAM roles and remove them.

8) Take actions on findings (This isn’t just GuardDuty anymore!)

AWS Security Hub, Amazon GuardDuty, and AWS Identity and Access Management Access Analyzer are managed AWS services that provide you with actionable findings in your AWS accounts. They are easy to turn on and can integrate across multiple accounts. Turning them on is the first step. You also need to take action when you see findings. The action(s) to take are determined by your own incident response policy. For each finding, ensure that you have determined what your required response actions should be.

Action can be notifying a human to respond, but as you get more experienced in AWS services, you will want to automate the response to the findings generated by Security Hub or GuardDuty. Learn more about how to automate your response and remediation from Security Hub findings.

9) Rotate keys

One of the things that Security Hub provides is a view of the compliance posture of your AWS accounts using the CIS Benchmarks. One of these checks is to look for IAM users with access keys more than 90 days old. If you need to use access keys rather than roles, you should rotate them regularly. Review best practices for managing AWS access keys for more guidance. If your users access AWS via federation, then you can remove the need to issue AWS access keys for your users. Users authenticate to the IdP and assume an IAM role in the target AWS account. The result is that long-term credentials are not needed, and your user will have short-term credentials associated with an IAM role.

10) Be involved in the dev cycle

All of the guidance to this point has been focused on the technology configuration that you can implement. The last piece of advice, “be involved in the dev cycle,” is about people, and can be broadly summarized as “raise the security culture of your organization.” The role of people in all parts of the organization is to help the business launch their solutions securely. As people focused on security, we can guide and educate the rest of our organization to understand what they need to do to raise the bar for security in everything they build. Security is everyone’s job — not just for those folks with it in their job title.

What the security people in every organization can do is to make security easier, by shifting the process to make the easiest and most desirable action one that is almost the most secure. For example, each team should not build their own identity federation or logging solution. We are stronger when we work together, and this applies to securing the cloud as well. The goal is to make security more approachable so that co-workers want to talk to the security team because they know it is the place to get help. For more about creating this type of security team, read Cultivating Security Leadership.

Now that you’ve revisited the top 10 things to make your cloud more secure, make sure you have them set up in your AWS accounts — and go build securely!

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Nathan Case

Nathan Case

Nathan is a Security Strategist, Geek. He joined AWS in 2016. You can learn more about him here.