The principle of least privilege is important to understand and follow as you adopt SaaS technologies. The market for SaaS-based tools is growing rapidly, and can typically be activated much more quickly and cheaply than creating a special-purpose virtual machine within your cloud environment. In this blog, I am focusing specifically on the SaaS cloud management tool area, which can include services like cloud diagramming tools, configuration management tools, storage management and backup tools, or cost optimization tools like ParkMyCloud.

Why the Principle of Least Privilege is Important

Before you start using such tools and services, you should carefully consider how much access you are granting into your cloud. The principle of least privilege is a fundamental tenet of any identity and access control policy, and basically means a service or user should have no more permissions than absolutely required in order to do a job.

Cloud account privileges and permissions are typically granted via roles and permissions. All of the cloud providers provide numerous predefined roles, which consist of pre-packaged sets of permissions. Before granting any requested predefined role to a 3rd-party, you should really investigate the permissions or security policy embedded in that role. In many (most?) cases, you are likely to find that the predefined roles give a lot more information or capabilities away than you are really likely to want.

SaaS Onboarding – Where Least Privilege Can Get Lost

For on-boarding of new SaaS customers, the initial permissions setup is often the most complicated step, and some SaaS cloud management platforms try to simplify the process by asking for one of these predefined roles.  For example, the Amazon ReadOnlyAccess role or the Azure Reader role or the GCP roles/viewer role.  While this certainly makes onboarding of SaaS easier, it also exposes you to a massive data leakage problem.  For example, with the Amazon ReadOnlyAccess role a cloud diagramming tool can certainly get a good enough view of your cloud to create a map…but you are also granting read access for all of your IAM Users, CloudTrail events and history, any S3 objects you have not locked-down with a distinct bucket policy, and….lots of other stuff you probably do not even know you have.  It is like kinda like saying – “Here, please come on in and look at all of our confidential file cabinets – and it is OK for you to make copies of anything interesting, just please do not change any of our secrets to something else…”  No problem, right?

Obviously, least privilege becomes especially critical when giving permissions to a SaaS provider, given the risk of trusting your cloud environment to some unknown party.

Custom Policies for SaaS

Because of the broad nature of many of their predefined roles, all of the major cloud providers give you the ability to assign specific permissions to both internal and external users through Policies.  For example, the following policy snippets show the minimum permissions ParkMyCloud requests to list, start, and stop virtual machines on AWS, Google, and Azure.


Creating and assigning these permissions makes SaaS onboarding a bit more complicated, but it is worth the effort in terms of reducing your exposure.

Other Policy Restrictions

What if you want to give a SaaS provider permissions, but lock it down to only certain resources or certain regions?  AWS and Azure allow you to specify in the policy which resources the policy can be applied to. Google Cloud….not so much.  AWS takes this the farthest, allowing for very robust policies down to specific services, and the addition of tag-based caveats for the policy permissions, for example:

This policy locks down the Start and Stop permissions to only those instances that have the tag name/value parkmycloud: yes, and are located in the us-east-1 region.  Similar Conditions can be used to lock this down by region, instance type, and many other situations. (This recent announcement shows another way to handle the region restriction.)

Azure has somewhat similar features, though with a slightly different JSON layout, as described here.  It does not appear you can use resource tags to for Azure, nor does Azure provide easy ways to limit the geographic scope of permissions.  You can get around the location and grouping of resources by using Azure Management Groups, but that is not quite as flexible as an arbitrary tag-based system, and is actually more intended to aggregate resources across subscriptions, rather than be more specific within a subscription.  That said, the Azure permissions defined here are a bit more granular than AWS.  This does allow for a bit more specificity in permissions if it is needed, but can no doubt grow tedious to list and manage.

Google Cloud provides a long list of predefined roles here, with an excellent listing the contained permissions.  There is also an interesting page describing the taxonomy of the permissions here, but Google Cloud appears to make it a bit difficult to enumerate and understand the permissions individually, outside of the predefined roles.  Google does not provide any tag or resource-based restrictions, apart from assignment at the Project level. More on user management and roles by cloud provider in this blog.

Gotchas

You may note that the ec2:Describe permission in our last example does not have the tag-based restriction.  This is because the tag-based restriction can only be used for certain permissions, as shown in the AWS documentation.  Note also that some APIs can do several different operations, some of which you may be OK with sharing, and others not.  For example, the AWS ModifyInstance permission allows the API user to change the instance type.  But…this one API (and associated permission) also allows the API user to modify security group assignments, shutdown behaviors, and other features – things you may not want to share with an untrusted 3rd party.

Key takeaway here?  Look out for permissions that may have unexpected consequences.

Summary

Beware of SaaS cloud management providers who are asking for simple predefined roles from your cloud provider.  They are either giving a LOT more functionality than you are likely to want from a single provider, or they are asking for a lot more permissions than they need.  Ask for a “limited access policy” that gives the SaaS provider ONLY what they need, and look for a document that defines these permissions and how they tie back to what the SaaS provider is doing for you.

These limited access policies serve to limit your exposure to accidents or compromises at the SaaS provider.

About Bill Supernor

Bill Supernor is the CTO at ParkMyCloud. Bill is a software and network engineering professional with over 20 years of engineering and management experience in enterprise-grade software products, security, and networking. Prior to joining ParkMyCloud in 2017, Bill served as the CTO at KoolSpan, where he led the development of a globally deployed secure voice communication system for smartphones. Prior to KoolSpan, Bill served in security software engineering management positions at TrustDigital, Cognio, Symantec, and McAfee/Network Associates. He also was an officer in the United States Navy. Bill holds the CISSP and CSSLP certifications from ISC2 and is an AWS Certified Solutions Architect - Associate.

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