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Handling security is an extensive and complex topic. If not done right, you open up your app to dangerous hacks and breaches. Even if everything is right, it may be hacked. So it’s important we understand common security mechanisms to avoid exposing websites to vulnerabilities and follow the recommended practices and methodologies that have been largely tested and proven to be robust.

In this tutorial, we will learn how to secure serverless applications using AWS. Additionally, we will learn about the security basics and then move on to handle authorization and authentication using AWS.

This article is an excerpt taken from the book, ‘Building Serverless Web Applications‘ wriiten by Diego Zanon.

Security basics in AWS

One of the mantras of security experts is this: don’t roll your own. It means you should never use in a production system any kind of crypto algorithm or security model that you developed by yourself. Always use solutions that have been highly used, tested, and recommended by trusted sources. Even experienced people may commit errors and expose a solution to attacks, especially in the cryptography field, which requires advanced math. However, when a proposed solution is analyzed and tested by a great number of specialists, errors are much less frequent.

In the security world, there is a term called security through obscurity. It is defined as a security model where the implementation mechanism is not publicly known, so there is a belief that it is secure because no one has prior information about the flaws it has. It can be indeed secure, but if used as the only form of protection, it is considered as a poor security practice. If a hacker is persistent enough, he or she can discover flaws even without knowing the internal code. In this case, again, it’s better to use a highly tested algorithm than your own.

Security through obscurity can be compared to someone trying to protect their own money by burying it in the backyard when the common security mechanism would be to put the money in a bank. The money can be safe while buried, but it will be protected only until someone finds about its existence and starts to look for it.

Due to this reason, when dealing with security, we usually prefer to use open source algorithms and tools. Everyone can access and discover flaws in them, but there are also a great number of specialists that are involved in finding the vulnerabilities and fixing them.

In this section, we will discuss other security concepts that everyone must know when building a system.

Information security

When dealing with security, there are some attributes that need to be considered. The most important ones are the following:

  • Authentication: Confirm the user’s identity by validating that the user is who they claim to be
  • Authorization: Decide whether the user is allowed to execute the requested action
  • Confidentiality: Ensure that data can’t be understood by third-parties
  • Integrity: Protect the message against undetectable modifications
  • Non-repudiation: Ensure that someone can’t deny the authenticity of their own message
  • Availability: Keep the system available when needed

These terms will be better explained in the next sections.

Authentication

Authentication is the ability to confirm the user’s identity. It can be implemented by a login form where you request the user to type their username and password. If the hashed password matches what was previously saved in the database, you have enough proof that the user is who they claim to be. This model is good enough, at least for typical applications. You confirm the identity by requesting the user to provide what they know. Another kind of authentication is to request the user to provide what they have. It can be a physical device (like a dongle) or access to an e-mail account or phone number.

However, you can’t ask the user to type their credentials for every request. As long as you authenticate it in the first request, you must create a security token that will be used in the subsequent requests. This token will be saved on the client side as a cookie and will be automatically sent to the server in all requests.

On AWS, this token can be created using the Cognito service. How this is done will be described later in this chapter.

Authorization

When a request is received in the backend, we need to check if the user is allowed to execute the requested action. For example, if the user wants to checkout the order with ID 123, we need to make a query to the database to identify who is the owner of the order and compare if it is the same user.

Another scenario is when we have multiple roles in an application and we need to restrict data access. For example, a system developed to manage school grades may be implemented with two roles, such as student and teacher. The teacher will access the system to insert or update grades, while the students will access the system to read those grades. In this case, the authentication system must restrict the actions insert and update for users that are part of the teachers group and users in the students group must be restricted to read their own grades.

Most of the time, we handle authorization in our own backend, but some serverless services don’t require a backend and they are responsible by themselves to properly check the authorization. For example, in the next chapter, we are going to see how serverless notifications are implemented on AWS. When we use AWS IoT, if we want a private channel of communication between two users, we must give them access to one specific resource known by both and restrict access to other users to avoid the disclosure of private messages.

Confidentiality

Developing a website that uses HTTPS for all requests is the main drive to achieve confidentiality in the communication between the users and your site. As the data is encrypted, it’s very hard for malicious users to decrypt and understand its contents.

Although there are some attacks that can intercept the communication and forge certificates (man-in-the-middle), those require the malicious user to have access to the machine or network of the victim user. From our side, adding HTTPS support is the best thing that we can do to minimize the chance of attacks.

Integrity

Integrity is related to confidentiality. While confidentiality relies on encrypting a message to prevent other users from accessing its contents, integrity deals with protecting the messages against modifications by encrypting messages with digital signatures (TLS certificates).

Integrity is an important concept when designing low level network systems, but all that matters for us is adding HTTPS support.

Non-repudiation

Non-repudiation is a term that is often confused with authentication since both of them have the objective to prove who has sent the message. However, the main difference is that authentication is more interested in a technical view and the non-repudiation concept is interested in legal terms, liability, and auditing.

When you have a login form with user and password input, you can authenticate the user who correctly knows the combination, but you can’t have 100% certain since the credentials can be correctly guessed or stolen by a third-party. On the other hand, if you have a stricter access mechanism, such as a biometric entry, you have more credibility. However, this is not perfect either. It’s just a better non-repudiation mechanism.

Availability

Availability is also a concept of interest in the information security field because availability is not restricted to how you provision your hardware to meet your user needs. Availability can suffer attacks and can suffer interruptions due to malicious users. There are attacks, such as Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), that aim to create bottlenecks to disrupt site availability. In a DDoS attack, the targeted website is flooded with superfluous requests with the objective to overload the systems. This is usually accomplished by a controlled network of infected machines called a botnet.

On AWS, all services run under the AWS Shield service, which was designed to protect against DDoS attacks with no additional charge. However, if you run a very large and important service, you may be a direct target of advanced and large DDoS attacks. In this case, there is a premium tier offered in the AWS Shield service to ensure your website’s availability even in worst case scenarios. This requires an investment of US$ 3,000 per month, and with this, you will have 24×7 support of a dedicated team and access to other tools for mitigation and analysis of DDoS attacks.

Security on AWS

We use AWS credentials, roles, and policies, but security on AWS is much more than handling authentication and authorization of users. This is what we will discuss in this section.

Shared responsibility model

Security on AWS is based on a shared responsibility model. While Amazon is responsible for keeping the infrastructure safe, the customers are responsible for patching security updates to software and protecting their own user accounts.

AWS’s responsibilities include the following:

  • Physical security of the hardware and facilities
  • Infrastructure of networks, virtualization, and storage
  • Availability of services respecting Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Security of managed services such as Lambda, RDS, DynamoDB, and others

A customer’s responsibilities are as follows:

  • Applying security patches to the operating system on EC2 machines
  • Security of installed applications
  • Avoiding disclosure of user credentials
  • Correct configuration of access policies and roles
  • Firewall configurations
  • Network traffic protection (encrypting data to avoid disclosure of sensitive information)
  • Encryption of server-side data and databases

In the serverless model, we rely only on managed services. In this case, we don’t need to worry about applying security patches to the operating system or runtime, but we do need to worry about third-party libraries that our application depends on to execute. Also, of course, we need to worry about all the things that we need to configure (firewalls, user policies, and so on), the network traffic (supporting HTTPS) and how data is manipulated by the application.

The Trusted Advisor tool

AWS offers a tool named Trusted Advisor, which can be accessed through https://console.aws.amazon.com/trustedadvisor.

It was created to offer help on how you can optimize costs or improve performance, but it also helps identify security breaches and common misconfigurations. It searches for unrestricted access to specific ports on your EC2 machines, if Multi-Factor Authentication is enabled on the root account and if IAM users were created in your account.

You need to pay for AWS premium support to unlock other features, such as cost optimization advice. However, security checks are free.

Pen testing

A penetration test (or pen test) is a good practice that all big websites must perform periodically. Even if you have a good team of security experts, the usual recommendation is to hire a specialized third-party company to perform pen tests and to find vulnerabilities. This is because they will most likely have tools and procedures that your team may not have tried yet.

However, the caveat here is that you can’t execute these tests without contacting AWS first. To respect their user terms, you can only try to find breaches on your own account and assets, in scheduled time frames (so they can disable their intrusion detection systems for your assets), and only on restricted services, such as EC2 instances and RDS.

AWS CloudTrail

AWS CloudTrail is a service that was designed to record all AWS API calls that are executed on your account. The output of this service is a set of log files that register the API caller, the date/time, the source IP address of the caller, the request parameters, and the response elements that were returned.

This kind of service is pretty important for security analysis, in case there are data breaches, and for systems that need the auditing mechanism for compliance standards.

MFA

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is an extra security layer that everyone must add to their AWS root account to protect against unauthorized access. Besides knowing the user and password, a malicious user would also need physical access to your smartphone or security token, which greatly restricts the risks.

On AWS, you can use MFA through the following means:

  • Virtual devices: Application installed on Android, iPhone, or Windows phones
  • Physical devices: Six-digit tokens or OTP cards
  • SMS: Messages received on your phone

We have discussed the basic security concepts and how to apply them on a serverless project.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article, do check out ‘Building Serverless Web Applications‘ to implement signup, sign in, and log out features using Amazon Cognito.

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