In the Operating Lambda series, I cover important topics for developers, architects, and systems administrators who are managing AWS Lambda-based applications. This two-part series discusses core security concepts for Lambda-based applications.

Part 1 explains the Lambda execution environment and how to apply the principles of least privilege to your workload. This post covers securing workloads with public endpoints, encrypting data, and using AWS CloudTrail for governance, compliance, and operational auditing.

Securing workloads with public endpoints

For workloads that are accessible publicly, AWS provides a number of features and services that can help mitigate certain risks. This section covers authentication and authorization of application users and protecting API endpoints.

Authentication and authorization

Authentication relates to identity and authorization refers to actions. Use authentication to control who can invoke a Lambda function, and then use authorization to control what they can do. For many applications, AWS Identity & Access Management (IAM) is sufficient for managing both control mechanisms.

For applications with external users, such as web or mobile applications, it is common to use JSON Web Tokens (JWTs) to manage authentication and authorization. Unlike traditional, server-based password management, JWTs are passed from the client on every request. They are a cryptographically secure way to verify identity and claims using data passed from the client. For Lambda-based applications, this allows you to secure APIs for each microservice independently, without relying on a central server for authentication.

You can implement JWTs with Amazon Cognito, which is a user directory service that can handle registration, authentication, account recovery, and other common account management operations. For frontend development, Amplify Framework provides libraries to simplify integrating Cognito into your frontend application. You can also use third-party partner services like Auth0.

Given the critical security role of an identity provider service, it’s important to use professional tooling to safeguard your application. It’s not recommended that you write your own services to handle authentication or authorization. Any vulnerabilities in custom libraries may have significant implications for the security of your workload and its data.

Protecting API endpoints

For serverless applications, the preferred way to serve a backend application publicly is to use Amazon API Gateway. This can help you protect an API from malicious users or spikes in traffic.

For authenticated API routes, API Gateway offers both REST APIs and HTTP APIs for serverless developers. Both types support authorization using AWS Lambda, IAM or Amazon Cognito. When using IAM or Amazon Cognito, incoming requests are evaluated and if they are missing a required token or contain invalid authentication, the request is rejected. You are not charged for these requests and they do not count towards any throttling quotas.

Unauthenticated API routes may be accessed by anyone on the public internet so it’s recommended that you limit their use. If you must use unauthenticated APIs, it’s important to protect these against common risks, such as denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. Applying AWS WAF to these APIs can help protect your application from SQL injection and cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks. API Gateway also implements throttling at the AWS account-level and per-client level when API keys are used.

In some cases, the functionality provided by an unauthenticated API can be achieved with an alternative approach. For example, a web application may provide a list of customer retail stores from an Amazon DynamoDB table to users who are not logged in. This request may originate from a frontend web application or from any other source that calls the URL endpoint. This diagram compares three solutions:

Solutions for an unauthenticated API

  1. The unauthenticated API can be called by anyone on the internet. In a denial of service attack, it’s possible to exhaust API throttling limits, Lambda concurrency, or DynamoDB provisioned read capacity on an underlying table.
  2. An Amazon CloudFront distribution in front of the API endpoint with an appropriate time-to-live (TTL) configuration may help absorb traffic in a DoS attack, without changing the underlying solution for fetching the data.
  3. Alternatively, for static data that rarely changes, the CloudFront distribution could serve the data from an S3 bucket.

The AWS Well-Architected Tool provides a Serverless Lens that analyzes the security posture of serverless workloads.

Encrypting data in Lambda-based applications

Managing secrets

For applications handling sensitive data, AWS services provide a range of encryption options for data in transit and at rest. It’s important to identity and classify sensitive data in your workload, and minimize the storage of sensitive data to only what is necessary.

When protecting data at rest, use AWS services for key management and encryption of stored data, secrets and environment variables. Both the AWS Key Management Service and AWS Secrets Manager provide a robust approach to storing and managing secrets used in Lambda functions.

Do not store plaintext secrets or API keys in Lambda environment variables. Instead, use KMS to encrypt environment variables. Also ensure you do not embed secrets directly in function code, or commit these secrets to code repositories.

Using HTTPS securely

HTTPS is encrypted HTTP, using TLS (SSL) to encrypt the request and response, including headers and query parameters. While query parameters are encrypted, URLs may be logged by different services in plaintext, so you should not use these to store sensitive data such as credit card numbers.

AWS services make it easier to use HTTPS throughout your application and it is provided by default in services like API Gateway. Where you need an SSL/TLS certificate in your application, to support features like custom domain names, it’s recommended that you use AWS Certificate Manager (ACM). This provides free public certificates for ACM-integrated services and managed certificate renewal.

Governance controls with AWS CloudTrail

For compliance and operational auditing of application usage, AWS CloudTrail logs activity related to your AWS account usage. It tracks resource changes and usage, and provides analysis and troubleshooting tools. Enabling CloudTrail does not have any negative performance implications for your Lambda-based application, since the logging occurs asynchronously.

Separate from application logging (see chapter 4), CloudTrail captures two types of events:

  • Control plane: These events apply to management operations performed on any AWS resources. Individual trails can be configured to capture read or write events, or both.
  • Data plane: Events performed on the resources, such as when a Lambda function is invoked or an S3 object is downloaded.

For Lambda, you can log who creates and invokes functions, together with any changes to IAM roles. You can configure CloudTrail to log every single activity by user, role, service, and API within an AWS account. The service is critical for understanding the history of changes made to your account and also detecting any unintended changes or suspicious activity.

To research which AWS user interacted with a Lambda function, CloudTrail provides an audit log to find this information. For example, when a new permission is added to a Lambda function, it creates an AddPermission record. You can interpret the meaning of individual attributes in the JSON message by referring to the CloudTrail Record Contents documentation.

CloudTrail Record Contents documentation

CloudTrail data is considered sensitive so it’s recommended that you protect it with KMS encryption. For any service processing encrypted CloudTrail data, it must use an IAM policy with kms:Decrypt permission.

By integrating CloudTrail with Amazon EventBridge, you can create alerts in response to certain activities and respond accordingly. With these two services, you can quickly implement an automated detection and response pattern, enabling you to develop mechanisms to mitigate security risks. With EventBridge, you can analyze data in real-time, using event rules to filter events and forward to targets like Lambda functions or Amazon Kinesis streams.

CloudTrail can deliver data to Amazon CloudWatch Logs, which allows you to process multi-Region data in real time from one location. You can also deliver CloudTrail to Amazon S3 buckets, where you can create event source mappings to start data processing pipelines, run queries with Amazon Athena, or analyze activity with Amazon Macie.

If you use multiple AWS accounts, you can use AWS Organizations to manage and govern individual member accounts centrally. You can set an existing trail as an organization-level trail in a primary account that can collect events from all other member accounts. This can simplify applying consistent auditing rules across a large set of existing accounts, or automatically apply rules to new accounts. To learn more about this feature, see Creating a Trail for an Organization.

Conclusion

In this blog post, I explain how to secure workloads with public endpoints and the different authentication and authorization options available. I also show different approaches to exposing APIs publicly.

CloudTrail can provide compliance and operational auditing for Lambda usage. It provides logs for both the control plane and data plane. You can integrate CloudTrail with EventBridge to create alerts in response to certain activities. Customers with multiple AWS accounts can use AWS Organizations to manage trails centrally.

For more serverless learning resources, visit Serverless Land.