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AWS Security Best Practices

10 essential AWS security best practices every organization should start with

Wiz Experts Team
8 minutes read

AWS security: A refresher

As a leading cloud service provider, AWS plays a pivotal role in the software development lifecycle. From the inception of an idea to its deployment, organizations must prioritize AWS security—or risk the financial and reputational consequences that go hand in hand with data breaches.

By integrating AWS security measures from the start, businesses can mitigate these risks and ensure that applications are protected from evolving threats, vulnerabilities are addressed promptly, and data remains confidential and intact. Let's start by exploring the vital components of AWS services and the best practices for safeguarding them.

Safeguarding key components of AWS architecture

AWS offers a wide range of services, but some are foundational to cloud architectures. As such, these components require special attention when forming security strategies:

  • Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2): Virtual servers in the cloud where applications run

  • Simple Storage Service (S3): An object storage service, often used for backups, data lakes, and static web content

  • Relational Database Service (RDS): A managed relational database service that supports multiple database engines such as MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQL Server, ensuring scalability and automated backups

  • Lambda: A computing solution that enables users to execute code without the need to set up or oversee servers, dynamically adapting to workload demands

If not properly secured, each of these components could be a potential entry point for malicious actors. For instance, an unsecured S3 bucket can expose sensitive data, while vulnerabilities in EC2 instances can allow unauthorized access to the system.

Understanding the shared responsibility model

One of the foundational principles of AWS security is the shared responsibility model. In this model, AWS is responsible for the security of the cloud, and customers are responsible for security in the cloud.

In other words, AWS ensures the infrastructure and services they provide are secure, including physical data centers, network architecture, and the managed services they offer. On the other hand, customers are responsible for securing the data they store in AWS, managing access controls, and ensuring their applications are free from vulnerabilities.

The shared responsibility model is only as effective as an organization’s grasp of their designated tasks. By understanding and adhering to this model, businesses can ensure they do their part in maintaining a secure cloud environment.

Challenges to implementing AWS security

While AWS provides the tools and services to secure cloud environments, businesses often face the following challenges to effective implementation:

  • Managing IAM roles: AWS's identity access management (IAM) allows organizations to configure granular access controls. However, managing these roles, ensuring the principle of least privilege, and regularly auditing them can prove complex.

  • Data security:

    • Encryption: While AWS offers encryption solutions, it can be difficult to know when and how to use them, especially for data in transit and at rest.

    • Identifying and protecting sensitive data: Businesses often struggle to pinpoint the exact location of all their sensitive data, making it a challenge to adequately protect it.

  • Ensuring visibility across all AWS resources: As businesses scale, their AWS environment can become more complex, making it challenging to maintain a clear view of all resources and their security posture.

  • Exposure in the cloud:

    • Accidental exposure: It is not uncommon for resources to be accidentally exposed in the cloud, making it essential to have tools and strategies in place to rectify such exposures promptly.

    • Identifying exposed resources: Even with the best precautions, it can be hard to identify all instances of exposed resources in an environment, necessitating regular checks and audits.

  • Identifying misconfigurations and vulnerabilities:

    • Misconfigurations: Misconfigured settings can be a gateway for security breaches, requiring businesses to continuously monitor for them.

    • Vulnerabilities: Regular vulnerability assessments are crucial to identify potential weak points in the system and to ensure that they are addressed before they can be exploited.

The role of compliance in AWS security

Cloud compliance isn't just about checking boxes. Adhering to industry standards and regulations can significantly bolster AWS security. Whether it's PCI DSS for payment data, HIPAA for health information, or GDPR for data protection, these standards provide a framework for best practices. By ensuring compliance, businesses not only avoid potential legal ramifications but also ensure they're following tried-and-tested security protocols.

Let’s delve further into security best practices for key insights and impacts, as well as actionable steps to bolster AWS security posture.

Essential AWS cloud security best practices

  1. Foster continuous learning

  2. Make an ironclad architectural plan

  3. Leverage AWS's organizational design tool

  4. Enforce least privilege

  5. Promote visibility

  6. Simplify threat detection with centralized logging and monitoring

  7. Bolster AWS data security

  8. Embrace automation

  9. Limit external exposure

  10. Conduct regular audits

1. Foster continuous learning: AWS security training and awareness

As cyber threats become more sophisticated, it’s critical for teams to stay up to date on the latest security protocols and potential vulnerabilities. By integrating recurrent AWS security webinars and workshops into training plans, organizations can keep their teams a step ahead, equipped with the knowledge to proactively identify and mitigate potential security risks.

Continuous education aids the development of security protocols that evolve to counter emerging threats. Regular training sessions keep teams informed about the latest threats and also reinforce the importance of security in their daily tasks.

AWS Security Learning Path (Source: AWS Security)

An informed team is the first line of defense against potential security breaches, making AWS security training an investment that yields invaluable returns.

2. Make an ironclad plan for AWS cloud security

In AWS, where countless services intermingle, a comprehensive security strategy is a requirement for organizations. The AWS Well-Architected Tool is an invaluable ally, allowing organizations to review workloads and measure them against the gold standard of AWS architectural best practices.

AWS Well-Architected Tool workflow (Source: AWS)

Planning isn't just about benchmarking against best practices, though. It's also about anticipating potential vulnerabilities and utilizing protocols to address them. Through meticulous planning, organizations can stop merely reacting to AWS security threats and start preemptively neutralizing them.

3. Leverage AWS’s organizational design tool

Every business should plan for the complexity that accompanies growth. AWS Organizations offers a solution for managing resources and access, enabling businesses to manage policies across multiple AWS accounts from a centralized point. This streamlines administration and fortifies security by ensuring that only relevant personnel can access specific resources, no matter how quickly a business grows.

The beauty of AWS Organizations lies in its ability to separate duties. Creating distinct silos for business teams and resources lets organizations implement granular access controls.

AWS Organizations example (Source: AWS Blog)

Separation of teams and roles minimizes the risk of unauthorized access and allows each team to operate independently—without inadvertently stepping on each other's toes. In short, a well-structured organizational design is the foundation for secure and efficient AWS environments.

4. Enforce the least privilege approach in AWS

When it comes to AWS security, less is often more. Granting users more permissions than they require is like leaving the doors of a fortress wide open. That’s why the principle of least privilege is a cornerstone of AWS security. The least privilege approach encourages businesses to grant users only the permissions they need. Organizations can drastically reduce the window of opportunity for malicious actors by implementing IAM security policies that adhere to this principle.

However, the least privilege approach involves more than restricting access. At its heart, this approach is about striking a balance between security and functionality. While users shouldn’t have excessive permissions, it's crucial they do have all the permissions they need to perform tasks efficiently. Regularly reviewing and updating IAM policies ensures this balance is maintained, making the least privilege approach a dynamic process that changes alongside an organization's needs.

5. Promote visibility in AWS

Blind spots are any security team's worst nightmare. AWS CloudTrail shines a light on potential blind spots, offering a granular view of API calls and enabling organizations to detect unauthorized or suspicious activities.

AWS CloudTrail workflow (Source: AWS)

With diverse AWS resources interacting in complex ways, it's easy for vital information to get lost in the noise. That’s why comprehensive visibility tools don't just highlight potential threats; they contextualize them, allowing security teams to understand the broader implications of each event. By taking a holistic view of AWS environments, organizations can detect threats in real time and understand and address the root causes, fortifying their defenses for the future.

6. Simplify threat detection with centralized logging and monitoring

Amazon CloudWatch offers real-time monitoring and aggregates logs from all AWS resources into a unified dashboard.

AWS CloudWatch workflow (Source: AWS Docs)

In isolation, individual logs might seem innocent. But when viewed in conjunction, patterns emerge, revealing potential vulnerabilities or ongoing attacks. With all logs and monitoring data consolidated into a centralized system, organizations can glean insights that would be impossible to see otherwise. 

7. Bolster AWS data security

Today, data is an organization’s most precious asset. AWS Key Management Service (KMS) offers a robust suite of encryption tools, protecting data from unauthorized access, whether at rest or in transit. 

Encrypting data with AWS KMS is straightforward, as shown by the Java code below:

// Replace the following example key ARN with any valid key identifier

String keyId = 
"arn:aws:kms:us-west-2:111122223333:key/1234abcd-12ab-34cd-56ef-1234567890ab";

ByteBuffer plaintext = ByteBuffer.wrap(new byte[]{1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0});

EncryptRequest req = new 
EncryptRequest().withKeyId(keyId).withPlaintext(plaintext);

ByteBuffer ciphertext = 
kmsClient.encrypt(req).getCiphertextBlob();

Beyond encryption, it’s best practice to leverage a comprehensive data classification strategy. Understanding the data landscape, classifying data based on sensitivity, and implementing appropriate security measures for each data category—alongside the implementation of tools like AWS KMS—keeps data secure, irrespective of where it resides or is transmitted.

8. Embrace automation in AWS

In the fast-paced world of AWS, automation is considerably more efficient than manual processes. AWS Lambda offers a solution that enables organizations to automate repetitive tasks, bolstering productivity, ensuring consistency, and eliminating the risk of human error.

Example of AWS Lambda in a security scan (Source: AWS Blog)

Yet the true power of automation lies in its scalability. As AWS environments grow, tasks that were previously trivial can become challenges. Automation scales seamlessly, ensuring that organizations can maintain the same level of efficiency and security, no matter the size of their AWS environment.

9. Limit external exposure in AWS

Every service exposed to the internet is an open threat, attracting both legitimate users and malicious actors. Luckily, by leveraging tools like AWS Security Groups and network access control lists (ACLs), organizations can exercise granular control over which resources are accessible from the internet.

VPC with two subnets divided by ACLs (Source: AWS Docs)

While exposing certain services might offer operational benefits, it also increases the attack surface if AWS security group best practices are not followed. Be sure to evaluate the implications of each exposure and implement stringent access controls, striking a balance between functionality and security and ensuring that AWS environments remain efficient and secure.

10. Conduct regular AWS security audits

Unfortunately, what's secure today might be vulnerable tomorrow. Regular AWS security audits, facilitated by tools like AWS Inspector, keep organizations one step ahead, able to identify and address vulnerabilities before they can be exploited. Regular AWS security audits, therefore, are more than just a best practice; they're a cornerstone of a proactive security strategy. By staying vigilant and consistently monitoring the AWS environment, businesses can ensure sustained protection against emerging threats.

Going beyond the basics with Wiz 

Wiz helps organizations identify and remediate critical risks in their AWS environments. It integrates with 50+ AWS services to provide complete visibility into your cloud estate and uses machine learning to identify risks that are often missed by traditional security tools.

Here are some of the ways Wiz works with AWS:

  • Visibility and context: Wiz integrates with AWS services to collect logs and other data from your AWS resources. It then uses machine learning to identify patterns that indicate risks. For example, Wiz can integrate with AWS CloudTrail to collect logs from your AWS resources and then use machine learning to identify patterns that indicate suspicious activity.

  • Remediation recommendations: Once Wiz has identified a risk, it will provide recommendations for remediation. These recommendations can be specific, such as "change the password for this user" or "enable two-factor authentication for this resource."

  • Remediation automation: Wiz can automate the remediation of some risks, such as changing passwords or enabling two-factor authentication. This can help organizations to reduce the time and effort required to keep their AWS environments secure.

By integrating with AWS services and using machine learning, Wiz can identify and remediate critical risks that are often missed by traditional security tools.

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