A couple of weeks ago amidst another interesting Amazon Web Services announcement featuring the newly-arrived Relational Database Service, Werner Vogels (Amazon CTO) jokingly retweeted a remark that someone made suggesting he was like “…Santa for nerds.”
So, now that I have Werner following me on Twitter and a confirmed mailing address (clearly the North Pole) I thought I’d make my Christmas wish early this year. I’ve put a lot of thought into this.
Just when I had settled on a shiny new gadget from the bookstore side of the house, I saw Amazon’s response to Eran Tromer’s (et al) research on Cloud Cartography featured in this Computerworld article written by my old friend Jaikumar Vijayan titled “Amazon downplays report highlighting vulnerabilities in its cloud service.”
I feature Eran and his team’s work in my Cloudifornication presentation. You can read more about it on Craig’s blog here.
I quickly cast aside my yuletyde treasure list and instead decided to ask Santa (Werner/AWS) for a most important present: a straight answer from AWS that isn’t delivered by a PR spokeshole that instead speaks openly, transparently and in an engaging fashion with customers and the security community.
Here’s what torqued me (emphasis is mine):
In response, Amazon spokeswoman Kay Kinton said today that the report describes cloud cartography methods that could increase an attacker’s probability of launching a rogue virtual machine (VM) on the same physical server as another specific target VM.
What remains unclear, however, is how exactly attackers would be able to use that presence on the same physical server to then attack the target VM, Kinton told Computerworld via e-mail.
The research paper itself described how potential attackers could use so-called “side-channel” attacks to try and try and steal information from a target VM. The researchers had argued that a VM sitting on the same physical server as a target VM, could monitor shared resources on the server to make highly educated inferences about the target VM.
By monitoring CPU and memory cache utilization on the shared server, an attacker could determine periods of high-activity on the target servers, estimate high-traffic rates and even launch keystroke timing attacks to gather passwords and other data from the target server, the researchers had noted.
Such side-channel attacks have proved highly successful in non-cloud contexts, so there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work in a cloud environment, the researchers postulated.
However, Kinton characterized the attack described in the report as “hypothetical,” and one that would be “significantly more difficult in practice.”
“The side channel techniques presented are based on testing results from a carefully controlled lab environment with configurations that do not match the actual Amazon EC2 environment,” Kinton said.
“As the researchers point out, there are a number of factors that would make such an attack significantly more difficult in practice,” she said.
So while the Amazon spokesperson admits the vulnerability/capability exists, rather than rationally address that issue, thank the researchers for pointing this out and provide customers some level of detail regarding how this vulnerability is mitigated, we get handwaving that attempts to have us not focus on the vulnerability, but rather the difficulty of a hypothetical exploit. That example isn’t the point of the paper. The fact that I could deliver a targeted attack is.
Earth to Amazon: this sort of thing doesn’t work. It’s a lousy tactic. It simply says that either you think we’re all stupid or you’re suffering from a very bad case of incident handling immaturity. Take a look around you, there are plenty of companies doing this right. You’re not one of them. Consistently.
Tromer and crew gave a single example of how this vulnerability might be exploited that was latched on to by the AWS spokesperson as a way of defusing the seriousness of the underlying vulnerability by downplaying this sample exploit. There are potentially dozens of avenues to be explored here. Craig talked about many of them in his blog (above.) What we got instead was this:
At the same time, Amazon takes all reports of vulnerabilities in its cloud infrastructure very seriously, she said. The company will continue to investigate potential exploits thoroughly and continue to develop features bolster security for users of its cloud service, she said.
Amazon Web Services has already rolled out safeguards that prevent potential attackers from using the cartography techniques described in the paper, Kinton said without offering any details.
She also pointed to the recently launched Amazon Web Service Multi-Factor Authentication (AWS MFA) as another example of the company’s continuing effort to bolster cloud security. AWS MFA is designed to provide an extra layer access control to a customer’s Web services account, Kinton said.
Did you catch “…without offering any details” or were you simply overwhelmed by the fact that you can use a token to authenticate your single-key driven AWS console instead?
I’m not interested in getting into a “full disclosure” battle here, but being dismissive, not providing clear-cut answers and being evasive without regard for transparency about issues like this or the DDoS attacks we saw with Bitbucket, etc. are going to backfire. I posted about this before in previous blogs here and here.
If you want to be taken seriously by large enterprises and government agencies that require real answers to issues like this, you can engage with the security community or ignore us and get focused on by it (and me) until you decide that it’s a much better idea to do the former. You’ll gain much more credibility and an eagerness to work with you instead of against you if you choose to use the force wisely 😉
Until then, may I suggest this? I found it in the Amazon.com bookstore: