Today’s business relies on applications and data analytics. The more business processes an organization can shift toward digital systems, the more data they have to work with.Enterprise cloud platforms power these applications, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) is among the most popular.
As of 2023, Amazon claims millions of customers use AWS (AWS, 2023). While AWS offers each organization a powerful, cost-effective platform, it also raises security concerns. The old cybersecurity methods, such as firewalls and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), do not protect a cloud platform. Securing sensitive corporate data and custom apps on AWS requires a modern approach: AWS penetration testing. Here is a guide to AWS pentesting and the tools to do it effectively.
A Deep Dive into AWS Penetration Testing
AWS penetration testing, much like other forms of pentesting, involves planned and
controlled attempts to exploit weaknesses within a platform or system. Many organizations perform penetration testing and ethical hacking exercises on their systems; it’s an effective practice for finding vulnerabilities before hackers do. Pentesting in the cloud, however, is more complex.
Where AWS pentesting differs from traditional pentesting is its interaction with Amazon’s shared responsibility model. AWS penetration testers must evaluate potential security risks to determine whether Amazon or the customer is ultimately responsible. Since penetration testing activities can resemble a malicious attack, many standard pentesting practices aren’t allowed on the AWS platform.
The good news is that Amazon does encourage security testing and allows a fair number of AWS security testing techniques. Therefore, most tests fall under one of two categories:
- Cloud-native attacks: AWS security testing works with the cloud platform’s native features. For instance, you can test exploiting IAM (Identity and Access Management)
misconfigurations and AWS Lambda function misses or target serverless applications.
- Misconfigured resources: Amazon S3 Buckets, EC2 Instances, KMS (Key Management
Services), and AWS Config are all helpful resources on the AWS platform. However, misconfigurations can create security holes. Configurations should be pen-tested regularly.
Can We Perform Penetration Testing on AWS?
Considering the challenges of the cloud and the limitations Amazon imposes, you may wonder if you can perform penetration testing on AWS. Yes, you can. However, you must look at it differently than traditional pentesting. Allowed AWS pentesting practices include:
- Vulnerability scanning
- Web application scanning
- Port scanning
- Exploiting found vulnerabilities
However, you cannot use the following pentesting techniques:
- DNS (Domain Name System) zone hijacking
- Denial of service (DoS) or distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks
- Simulated DoS and DDoS attacks
- Port flooding
- Protocol flooding
- API request flooding
- Login/authentication request flooding
AWS penetration testing techniques that rely on brute force (or other methods resembling a DoS or DDoS attack) are generally not allowed. Before attempting any AWS security testing, ensure that it falls under Amazon’s terms of service.
Regardless of any limitations or difficulties associated with AWS security testing, it’s still an essential practice for all organizations that use the platform. Any security breach can have severe consequences, including millions of dollars in loss per incident. AWS pentesting is one of the most critical cybersecurity defenses available, given the risks involved.
AWS pentesting helps uncover the security flaws that go unnoticed — until a malicious actor exploits them. Most businesses today have legal or regulatory requirements to follow, including securing employee and customer data. Penetration testing helps safeguard this sensitive information while providing proof of compliance with laws and regulations.
Conducting Penetration Testing on AWS: Steps and Prerequisites
Before getting started with AWS pentesting, you should complete a few prerequisites.
Understand Amazon’s shared responsibility model: Read and learn the shared
responsibility guidelines. In short, Amazon’s responsibility is to secure the infrastructure that powers AWS services. Customers are responsible for the security of guest operating systems installed in their AWS clouds.
Secure your AWS environment: Apply any outstanding security updates to Linux or Windows virtual machines hosted on AWS, along with the underlying apps. Configure the AWS firewall properly and apply other AWS security functions typical to a live production environment.
Develop a plan: List the AWS instances and applications you plan to pen test. Then, note the services exposed to the public internet and develop a testing plan that adequately tests the service’s or app’s security.
After completing AWS penetration testing prerequisites, the next steps are comparable to
traditional pentesting methods:
- Get authorization: Before conducting penetration tests, acquire appropriate approval from the AWS account owner and, if applicable, the application administrator.
- Define your goals: Identify the target system and AWS service to be tested. Define the results you expect and what anomalies may look like.
- Map the attack surface: Identify the AWS services, instances, network subnets, S3buckets, IAM roles, and other pertinent services to test.
- Perform the vulnerability assessment: Use the AWS pentesting tools and search for vulnerabilities.
- Exploit the vulnerabilities: If you find a vulnerability, try to exploit it. Then, log your results.
- Report your findings: Draft a report on what your AWS penetration testing session found, along with any remediation recommendations.
Traditional Penetration Testing vs. AWS Penetration Testing
While the overall goals and general methodology of AWS pentesting may resemble
traditional methods, there are some differences to consider.
Traditional penetration testing
Traditional penetration testing often targets physical infrastructure, typically on-premises servers and networks. In that regard, traditional pentesting is often easier to plan and execute because an organization’s IT team fully owns the systems and networks to be tested.
Obtaining permission to pen test is easily accomplished, and all system administrators are aware of the penetration testing activities. Since the tester either works for the same IT team or has been granted access, they’re free to perform tests a cloud provider wouldn’t sign off on.
AWS penetration testing
In contrast, AWS pentesting focuses on cloud services, containers, serverless applications,and other cloud technologies. AWS penetration testing also has key advantages, including its suitability for automation and scaling. AWS environments feature many opportunities for automation, and pentesting is no exception. Traditional penetration testing is usually a manual process with little chance for automation. In addition, the scalable nature of the cloud makes pentesting a large platform much easier on AWS than on traditional infrastructure.
What Are the Tools Used in AWS Testing?
The limitations of AWS pentesting mean you won’t be able to use many of the common tools of the trade. However, Amazon provides many apps that function as AWS pentesting tools. These include:
AWS Command Line Interface (CLI)
The AWS CLI is a standard tool for all customers. It allows testers to interact with AWS services programmatically. You can use CLI for various tasks, including resource enumeration, security group analysis, and credential management (AWS, 2023).
AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) Policy Simulator
The IAM Policy Simulator is another built-in AWS tool that helps testers simulate IAM policy changes and evaluate their impact on AWS resources (AWS, 2023). It’s a valuable tool for understanding the potential consequences of policy modifications.
AWS Config provides a detailed inventory of AWS resources and their configurations. It helps testers assess the security posture of AWS resources by identifying deviations from desired configurations.
AWS Security Hub
The AWS Security Hub has a centralized view of security alerts and compliance status across AWS accounts. It aggregates findings from various AWS security services and thirdparty tools, making identifying and prioritizing security issues easier (AWS, 2023).
GuardDuty is a paid add-on for AWS that provides managed threat detection services (AWS, 2023). It continuously monitors AWS accounts for malicious activity and unauthorized access, generating alerts based on AWS CloudTrail logs and VPC (Virtual Private Cloud) Flow Logs analysis.
Learn How to Perform Pentesting on AWS With C|PENT
Pentesting has long been a favored tool for ethical hackers and other cybersecurity
professionals. As cloud platforms become the standard in modern enterprises, the practice will continue to evolve. AWS penetration testing may differ from security testing of other systems, but adapting to this popular platform’s requirements is worth the time. Whether you’re new to cybersecurity or want to learn AWS penetration testing skills, check out the Certified Penetration Testing Professional (C|PENT) certification from EC-Council. This world-class certification program moves past traditional pentesting techniques to the cloud and beyond. You’ll learn AWS penetration testing, along with attacking IoT systems, advanced Windows attacks, and other skills for the modern penetration tester.
1. AWS. (2023). Cloud computing with AWS. https://aws.amazon.com/what-is-aws/
2. AWS. (2023). AWS Command Line Interface. https://aws.amazon.com/cli/
3. AWS. (2023). Testing IAM policies with the IAM policy
4. AWS. (2023). AWS Security Hub. https://aws.amazon.com/security-hub/
5. AWS. (2023). Amazon GuardDuty. https://aws.amazon.com/guardduty/
About the Author
Leaman Crews is a former newspaper reporter, publisher, and editor with over 25 years of professional writing experience. He is also a former IT director specializing in writing
about tech in an enjoyable way.