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AWS IAM

How to Monitor AWS Root Users at Scale: Best Practices

CloudYali Team
February 10, 2024
5 min read
I

n today's cloud-centric world, managing identities and access plays a vital role in maintaining the security and efficiency of AWS environments. AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) is the cornerstone for controlling access to AWS resources. However, as organizations scale and adopt multi-account environments, managing a large number of IAM users becomes increasingly challenging. In this first part blog post of this series, we will explore best practices and effective strategies for managing IAM users at scale while ensuring robust security. We will delve into IAM user monitoring, the significance of the root user, and essential IAM security practices. To understand IAM monitoring for non root users read our blog post.

IAM User Monitoring: The Key to Enhanced Security

To maintain a secure AWS environment, it is important to proactively monitor IAM user activities. This helps organizations identify and mitigate potential security risks promptly. By following best practices for IAM user monitoring, such as centralizing logging and monitoring, implementing real-time alerts, establishing baseline behavior, and regularly reviewing and rotating access keys, organizations can enhance the overall security posture of their AWS infrastructure. Leveraging the following best practices for IAM user monitoring helps enhance the overall security posture of your AWS infrastructure:

  1. Centralize Logging and Monitoring: Consolidate logs and monitoring data from multiple AWS accounts into a centralized logging solution, such as AWS CloudTrail, CloudYali or a dedicated security information and event management (SIEM) system. This ensures comprehensive visibility and simplifies the analysis of IAM user activities.
  2. Implement Real-Time Alerts: Set up alerts and notifications for critical IAM events, such as changes in user permissions, failed authentication attempts, or suspicious API calls. Real-time alerts enable timely response to potential security incidents, reducing the risk of unauthorized access or data breaches.
  3. Establish Baseline Behavior: Understand the typical behavior of IAM users within your organization. By establishing a baseline for normal activities, you can easily identify deviations and anomalies that may indicate potential security threats. Leveraging user behavior analytics tools can help automate this process and provide actionable insights.
  4. Regularly Review and Rotate Access Keys: Access keys, used for programmatic access, should be regularly reviewed and rotated to minimize the impact of compromised credentials. Additionally, enforcing strong password policies and encouraging the use of AWS Identity Federation and temporary credentials can help ensure secure access to AWS resources.

Root User: Protecting the Keys to the Kingdom

The AWS root user has unrestricted access to all resources and is often a prime target for attackers. Securing the root user account is crucial to prevent unauthorized access and protect sensitive data. Consider the following best practices to enhance the security of your root user account:

  1. Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Enable MFA for the root user to provide an additional layer of security during authentication. MFA helps prevent unauthorized access even if the root user's credentials are compromised.
  2. Limit Root User Access: Restrict the use of the root user account to essential administrative tasks only. Create individual IAM users for daily operations and grant them the necessary permissions based on the principle of least privilege.
  3. Monitor Root User Activities: Implement robust monitoring and logging for the root user account. Regularly review logs to detect any suspicious activities or policy changes that could indicate a security breach.

IAM Security Best Practices: Safeguarding IAM Users

Implementing security best practices is crucial to protect IAM users from potential threats. Consider the following recommendations to ensure the security and integrity of IAM user accounts:

  1. Enforce Strong Password Policies: Enforce strong password requirements and enable password rotation policies for IAM users. Encourage the use of password managers and avoid reusing passwords across accounts.
  2. Regularly Review and Audit IAM Users: Conduct regular reviews to identify and remove inactive or unnecessary IAM users. Implement an automated process to detect and disable unused access keys, reducing the risk of unauthorized access.
  3. Employ Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Implement RBAC to assign granular permissions based on job roles and responsibilities.

IAM Credential Report: An Invaluable Resource for IAM User Management

The IAM credential report is a powerful tool that provides comprehensive information about all IAM users within an AWS account. This report, which can be generated every four hours using the AWS CLI command aws iam generate-credential-report, offers valuable insights into IAM user activities and configurations. It is important to note that the report is reused between generation intervals, which means it may not immediately reflect the most recent changes in the AWS environment. To ensure effective IAM management, it is recommended to generate the IAM report continuously and leverage the gathered information for each AWS account.

Leveraging the IAM Credential Report: Simplifying Data Analysis

While the IAM credential report provides a wealth of information, consuming and analyzing the data directly can be complex. However, there are simpler approaches to utilize the generated report for actionable insights. One method involves using the report in CSV format and employing SQL queries to fetch specific information. This enables cloud teams to extract relevant details about IAM users, such as their access patterns, usage statistics, and security configurations.

By leveraging the IAM credential report and employing SQL queries, organizations can gain valuable insights into their IAM user landscape. These insights can help identify potential security risks, unused access keys, and inactive users, enabling proactive measures to ensure a robust IAM environment.

Automating IAM Credential Report Generation at Scale

Generating and consuming the IAM credential report at scale can be a labor-intensive task. Recognizing this challenge, AWS has provided solutions to automate the IAM credential generation process. These solutions streamline the collection of IAM user information, making it easier for cloud teams to monitor and manage their IAM users effectively.

IAM Users

In AWS we have two kinds of IAM users: root and non root users. It is important to know both kinds of users thoroughly.

IAM users across all AWS accounts
IAM Users Across All AWS Accounts

Protecting Root Users: Best Practices for Enhanced AWS Account Security

Root users hold the highest level of privileges within an AWS account and should be treated with utmost caution. Root users are special users with name <root_user>. As a best practice, it is recommended to disable the root user using Service Control Policies (SCPs) to minimize the risk of unauthorized access and maintain a secure AWS environment. Instead of relying on the root account for day-to-day activities, it is advised to create an administrator account immediately after setting up your AWS account. This administrator account should be used for all routine tasks and operational activities.

Implementing a multi-person access control approach is vital to ensure continuity in case of absences or unforeseen circumstances. By granting permissions to at least two individuals who can create users and manage permissions, you can prevent disruptions to critical operations if one person is unavailable.

Protecting the root account's associated email box is equally important. Unauthorized access to the email associated with the root account could lead to a compromised AWS environment. To mitigate this risk, it is advisable not to use a personal email account when creating an AWS account. Instead, create a separate corporate email ID dedicated to each AWS account. Additionally, maintaining control over the AWS root account's email address, domain registration, and associated email DNS records adds an extra layer of security.

Instant Visibility into Root Users and Their Configurations

Having comprehensive knowledge of all your account's root users and their configurations is invaluable for maintaining a secure AWS environment. Instant access to this information allows cloud teams to promptly identify any unauthorized or suspicious activities associated with root accounts. This visibility enables timely responses to potential security breaches and aids in enforcing proper security measures.

AWS root users

Utilizing AWS Root Users: Necessity

While minimizing the usage of AWS root users is recommended for daily activities, there are specific circumstances that may require their utilization. AWS documentation provides a comprehensive list of tasks that necessitate the use of root user credentials. Let's explore these scenarios and discuss best practices for managing AWS root users:

  1. Recovery from a locked-out or compromised AWS Account: If you find yourself unable to access or recover your AWS account due to reasons such as a lost password, compromised credentials, or similar issues, leveraging the root account becomes essential to regain control and execute necessary recovery actions.
  2. Billing and payment issues: With full administrative privileges, the root account can access and manage all billing-related information. In cases where you encounter problems with billing, payment, or account balances, the root account may be required to effectively address these issues.
  3. Troubleshooting access issues: If you experience difficulties accessing specific AWS services or features, particularly when related to IAM permissions or misconfigurations, the root account serves as a valuable resource for investigating and resolving access-related problems.
  4. Limited console access during maintenance or configuration changes: In rare instances during maintenance or configuration changes, temporary loss of access to AWS resources or the AWS Management Console might occur. During such situations, the root account can be utilized to troubleshoot and rectify the issues at hand.

The root user credentials should be kept safe and never be used for daily activity. All activities related root accounts should be managed with multiple users and via a formal change management process. No single user should ever have complete access to your entire AWS Account.

Monitoring Root User Console Access

One of the crucial controls for managing the AWS root user is monitoring its console access. It is essential to track whether the root user has been accessed recently and, if so, to determine whether the access was for a legitimate purpose. Given the root user's complete control over the AWS account, it is imperative to refrain from using it for daily activities.

To proactively detect any unauthorized or unexpected sign-ins using root credentials, it is recommended to establish automated monitoring for AWS root account usage. By implementing this monitoring mechanism, organizations can promptly identify and respond to potential security breaches, mitigating any risks associated with unauthorized access.

IAM Root user accessed with console
Root user accessed with console

Best Practices for Console Access

As a general best practice, organizations should avoid granting console access to IAM users directly. Instead, it is advisable to leverage federated login mechanisms such as Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) or single sign-on (SSO). These technologies allow for a centralized and more secure approach to user authentication and access control, reducing the reliance on root user console access.

Securing Root Users with Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA) for root users is a crucial step in enhancing the security of your AWS environment. During the initial creation of your AWS account, which serves as the root account, it is mandatory to enforce MFA. To further bolster the account's security, consider utilizing a physical hardware MFA device, such as a YubiKey, instead of relying solely on standard authenticator phone apps. Safeguarding the root account credentials becomes paramount; you can write down the password on a piece of paper and print out backup MFA codes, storing them in a secure location such as a fireproof safe.

IAM Root Users without MFA
Root Users without MFA

It is important to note that accounts created through AWS Organizations also require MFA. For root users, the password recovery workflow is the only method available to set up MFA.To simplify MFA management for multiple child accounts, organizations often employ a single mailbox, such as aws@yourcompany.io, by using variations like aws+dev@yourcompany.io and aws+staging@yourcompany.io. This approach simplifies the management of MFA for the child accounts, allowing you to work with a single MFA device. However, it is crucial to apply stringent security measures to protect the mailbox, given its critical role in securing the AWS accounts. For further insights into root user management and MFA practices, we recommend reading Scott Piper's insightful article on the subject.

Disabling Access Keys for Root Users

Enabling programmatic access keys for the root users introduces unnecessary vulnerabilities, providing an additional entry point for potential hackers. Considering that the root user is rarely utilized for API access, there is no justification for granting it API permissions. It is highly recommended to refrain from adding a programmatic access key to the root user and, if one exists, promptly delete any associated API tokens.

IAM Root users with access keys
Root users with access keys

To determine if access keys are enabled for root users, you can employ the AWS Command Line Interface (CLI) command:


aws iam get-account-summary

Additionally, CloudYali offers a convenient solution by displaying all root users for which access keys are enabled.

By proactively disabling access keys for the root user, organizations can significantly reduce the attack surface and enhance the overall security of their AWS environment. Eliminating unnecessary access keys minimizes the risk of unauthorized API access and fortifies the protection of critical resources and sensitive data.

Please refer to documentation for more details.

Conclusion

To ensure adherence to best practices and maintain a secure AWS environment, it is crucial to effectively manage IAM users. Generating credentials reports or utilizing services like CloudYali simplifies the monitoring process, providing ready-to-use insights. By leveraging these tools, cloud teams can save time and effort, allowing them to focus on core business priorities while ensuring robust IAM user management. With streamlined monitoring and efficient practices in place, organizations can strengthen security measures and optimize operational efficiency.

In summary, by prioritizing IAM user management and utilizing appropriate tools, organizations can enhance security, streamline processes, and allocate resources more effectively. Implementing these measures enables proactive identification of vulnerabilities and empowers cloud teams to address security concerns promptly, while maintaining a focus on driving business success.

References

https://docs.aws.amazon.com/accounts/latest/reference/root-user-tasks.html

Recovery from a locked-out or compromised AWS Account

https://docs.aws.amazon.com/IAM/latest/UserGuide/id_credentials_mfa_lost-or-broken.html

https://repost.aws/knowledge-center/s3-accidentally-denied-access

https://expel.com/blog/finding-evil-in-aws/

https://expel.io/blog/behind-the-scenes-expel-soc-alert-aws/

https://cybernews.com/privacy/saudi-social-media-app-leaks-user-info/

https://summitroute.com/blog/2018/06/20/managing_aws_root_passwords_and_mfa/

https://github.com/ramimac/aws-customer-security-incidents

https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/infrastructure-and-automation/automate-iam-credential-reports-at-scale-across-aws/

CloudYali Team

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