the generic dev

the generic dev

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10 sensitive AWS-IAM permissions that can lead to stealthy shadow admins

14 Aug 2018

“Cloud shadow admins can undermine the security of the cloud infrastructure and allow malicious actors to persist silently within it,” Lazarovitz a researcher at CyberArk said. “Cloud shadow admins can be used to compromise the entire cloud infrastructure.”

In this post, I will try and explain how attackers can find and abuse non-trivial and so-called “limited” permissions to still make it through and escalate their privileges and become full cloud admins. Furthermore, attackers can easily use those tricky specific permissions to hide stealthy admin entities that will wait for them as an undercover persistence technique.

Permissions that need attention

Here is the list of 10 sensitive IAM permissions that can lead to shadow admin privileges:


An attacker with just CreateAccessKey IAM API permission could abuse it to create a new access key to another IAM admin account. An entity (user/group/role) with this permission in it’s policy is as powerful as other full admin users with the “AdministratorAccess” permissions. Compromising an account with this policy alone will allow the attacker to gain a new privileged access key and continue to execute malicious actions in the environment on behalf of the target user he has just created a new access key for.


With this permission, an attacker can take a privileged entity that only has API access keys (like an IAM entity that’s not meant for humans but for an application’s APIs automatic usage). Then the attacker can add a new password-based login profile, set a new password for that entity, impersonate it and execute the intended malicious action on behalf of the compromised user.


This permission provides potential attackers the permission to reset other IAM users’ login passwords.

AttachUserPolicy, AttachGroupPolicy or AttachRolePolicy

An attacker with a policy containing these permissions could attach existing admin policy to any other entity he currently possesses.

PutUserPolicy, PutGroupPolicy or PutRolePolicy

These permissions permit the attacker to add “inline” policies to other entities as opposed to “managed policies.” An inline policy is a policy that is embedded in a principal entity (a user, group or role). So when you delete an entity, its embedded inline policies are deleted as well. The newly added inline policy defined by the attacker will allow the attacker to grant additional privileges to previously compromised entities.


Using this permission, the attacker could add a stealthy admin policy and call it a “ReadOnly” policy, making it look harmless.


With this permission, an attacker could add his currently possessed user directly into the admin group of the organization.


Every role has a policy that defines who can assume this role. This is typically referred to as the “role trust policy.” Using this permission, an attacker can change the assuming permissions of a privileged role and then assume it with a non-privileged account.

CreatePolicyVersion, SetDefaultPolicyVersion

Like CreateAccessKey, with the permissions to “CreatePolicyVersion” and “SetDefaultPolicyVersion,” attackers can change customer-managed policies and change a non-privileged entity to be a privileged one.

PassRole with CreateInstanceProfile/AddRoleToInstanceProfile

Like CreateLoginProfile, with these permissions to modify Instance Profiles, an attacker could create a new privileged instance profile and attach it to a compromised EC2 instance that he possesses.

I cannot thank enough the researchers at CyberArk, for sharing their research with us and for building free cloud security tool, SkyArk, to help detect and mitigate the increasing threat of Cloud Shadow Admins.