Researchers: AWS users are leaving security holes

Amazon customers often have poor security practices, inadvertently publishing security keys and passwords

Researchers in Germany have found abundant security problems within Amazon's cloud-computing services due to its customers either ignoring or forgetting published security tips.

Amazon offers computing power and storage using its infrastructure via its Web Services division. The flexible platform allows people to quickly roll out services and upgrade or downgrade according to their needs.

Thomas Schneider, a postdoctoral researcher in the System Security Lab of Technische Universität Darmstadt, said on Monday that Amazon's Web Services is so easy to use that a lot of people create virtual machines without following the security guidelines.

"These guidelines are very detailed," he said.

In what they termed was the most critical discovery, the researchers found that the private keys used to authenticate with services such as the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) or the Simple Storage Service (S3) were publicly published in Amazon Machine Images (AMIs), which are pre-configured operating systems and application software used to create virtual machines.

Those keys shouldn't be there. "They [Customers] just forgot to remove their API keys from machines before publishing," Schneider said.

But the consequences could be expensive: With those keys, an interloper could start up services on EC2 or S3 using the customer's keys and create "virtual infrastructure worth several thousands of dollars per day at the expense of the key holder," according to the researchers.

The researchers looked at some 1,100 AMIs and found another common problem: One-third of those AMIs contained SSH (Secure Shell) host keys or user keys.

SSH is a common tool used to log into and manage a virtual machine. But unless the host key is removed and replaced, every other instance derived from that image will use the same key. This can cause severe security problems, such as the possibility of impersonating the instance and launching phishing attacks.

Some AMIs also contained SSH user keys for root-privileged logins. "Hence, the holder of the corresponding SSH key can login to instances derived from those images with superuser privileges unless the user of the instance becomes aware of this backdoor and manually closes it," according to a technical data sheet on the research.

Among the other data found in the public AMIs were valid SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificates and their private keys, the source code of unpublished software products, passwords and personally identifiable information including pictures and notes, they said.

Anyone with a credit card can get access to Amazon Web Services, which would enable a person to look at the public AMIs that the researchers analyzed, Schneider said. Once the problem was evident, Schneider said they contacted Amazon Web Services at the end of April. Amazon acted in a professional way, the researchers said, by notifying those account holders of the security issues.

The study was done by the Center for Advanced Security Research Darmstadt (CASED) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Security in Information Technology (SIT) in Darmstadt, Germany, which both study cloud computing security. Parts of the project were also part of the European Union's "Trustworthy Clouds" or TClouds program.

Send news tips and comments to

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Amazon Web Servicessecuritydevelopment platformsdata breachweb servicescloud computingExploits / vulnerabilitiesinternetdata protection

More about Amazon Web ServicesC2IDGSSHTechnology

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Jeremy Kirk

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts