AWS Key Management Service (AWS KMS) helps customers to use encryption to secure their data. When creating a new encrypted Amazon Web Services (AWS) resource, such as an Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) database or an Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) bucket, all you have to do is provide an AWS KMS key ID that you control and the data will be encrypted and the complexity of protecting and making encryption keys highly available is reduced.

If you’re considering delegating encryption to an AWS service to use a key under your control when it encrypts your data in that service, you might wonder how to ensure the AWS service can only use your key when you want it to and not have full access to decrypt any of your resources at any time. The answer is to use scoped-down dynamic permissions in AWS KMS. Specifically, a combination of permissions that you define in the KMS key policy document along with additional permissions that are created dynamically using KMS grants define the conditions under which one or more AWS services can use your KMS keys to encrypt and decrypt your data.

In this blog post, I discuss:

  • An example of how an AWS service uses your KMS key policy and grants to securely manage access to your encryption keys. The example uses Amazon RDS and demonstrates how the block storage volume behind your database instance is encrypted.
  • Best practices for using grants from AWS KMS in your own workloads.
  • Recent performance improvements when using grants in AWS KMS.

Case study: How RDS uses grants from AWS KMS to encrypt your database volume

Many Amazon RDS instance types are hosted on an Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instance where the underlying storage layer is an Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) volume. The blocks of the EBS volume that stores the database content are encrypted under a randomly generated 256-bit symmetric data key that is itself encrypted under a KMS key that you configure RDS to use when you create your database instance. Let’s look at how RDS interacts with EBS, EC2, and AWS KMS to securely create an RDS instance using an KMS key.

When you send a request to RDS to create your database, there are several asynchronous requests being made among the RDS, EC2, EBS, and KMS services to:

  1. Create the underlying storage volume with a unique encryption key.
  2. Create the compute instance in EC2.
  3. Load the database engine into the EC2 instance.
  4. Give the EC2 instance permissions to use the encryption key to read and write data to the database storage volume.

The initial authenticated request that you make to RDS to create a new database is made by an AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) principal in your account (e.g. a user or role). Once the request is received, a series of things has to happen:

  1. RDS needs to request EBS to create an encrypted volume to store your future data.
  2. EBS needs to request AWS KMS generate a unique 256-bit data key for the volume and encrypt it under the KMS key you told RDS to use.
  3. RDS then needs to request that EC2 launch an instance, attach that encrypted volume, and make the data key available to EC2 for use in reads and writes to the volume.

From your perspective, the IAM principal used to create the database also must have permissions in the KMS key policy for the GenerateDataKeyWithoutPlaintext and Decrypt actions. This enables the unique 256-bit data key to be created and encrypted under the desired KMS key as well as allowing the user or role to have the data key decrypted and provisioned to the Nitro card managing your EC2 instance so that reads/writes can happen from/to the database. Given the asynchronous nature of the process of creating the database vs. launching the database volume in the future, how do the RDS, EBS, and EC2 services all get the necessary least privileged permissions to create and provision the data key for use with your database? The answer starts with your IAM principal having permission for the AWS KMS CreateGrant action in the key policy.

RDS uses the identity from your IAM principal to create a grant in AWS KMS that allows it to create other grants for EC2 and EBS with very limited permissions that are further scoped down compared to the original permissions your IAM principal has on the AWS KMS key. A total of three grants are created:

  • The initial RDS grant.
  • A subsequent EBS grant that allows EBS to call AWS KMS and generate a 256-bit data key that is encrypted under the KMS key you defined when creating your database.
  • The attachment grant, which allows the specific EC2 instance hosting your database volume to decrypt the encrypted data key for and provision it for use during I/O between the instance and the EBS volume.

RDS grant

In this example, let’s say you’ve created an RDS instance with an ID of db-1234 and specified a KMS key for encryption. The following grant is created on the KMS key, allowing RDS to create more grants for EC2 and EBS to use in the asynchronous processes required to launch your database instance. The RDS grant is as follows:

{Grantee Principal: '<Regional RDS Service Account>', Encryption Context: '"aws:rds:db-id": "db-1234"', Operations: ['CreateGrant', 'Decrypt', 'GenerateDataKeyWithoutPlaintext']}

In plain English, this grant gives RDS permissions to use the KMS key for three specific operations (API actions) only when the call specifies the RDS instance ID db-1234 in the Encryption Context parameter. The grant provides access for the the grantee principal, which in this case is the value shown for the <Regional RDS service account>. This grant is created in AWS KMS and associated with your KMS key. Because the EC2 instance hasn’t yet been created and launched, the grantee principal cannot include the EC2 instance ID and must instead be the regional RDS service account.

EBS grant

With the RDS instance and initial AWS KMS grant created, RDS requests EC2 to launch an instance for the RDS database. EC2 creates an instance with a unique ID (e.g. i-1234567890abcdefg) using EC2 permissions you gave to the original IAM principal. In addition to the EC2 instance being created, RDS requests that Amazon EBS create an encrypted volume dedicated to the database. As a part of volume creation, EBS needs permission to call AWS KMS to generate a unique 256-bit data key for the volume and encrypt that data key under the KMS key you defined.

The EC2 instance ID is used as the name of the identity for future calls to AWS KMS, so RDS inserts it as the grantee principal in the EBS grant it creates. The EBS grant is as follows:

{Grantee Principal: '<RDS-Host-Role>:i-1234567890abcdefg', Encryption Context: '"aws:rds:db-id": "db-1234"', Operations: ['CreateGrant', 'Decrypt', 'GenerateDataKeyWithoutPlaintext']}}

You’ll notice that this grant uses the same encryption context as the initial RDS grant. However, now that we have the EC2 instance ID associated with the database ID, the permissions that EBS gets to use your key as the grantee principal can be scoped down to require both values. Once this grant is created, EBS can create the EBS volume (e.g. vol-0987654321gfedcba) and call AWS KMS to generate and encrypt a 256-bit data key that can only be used for that volume. This encrypted data key is stored by EBS in preparation for the volume attachment process.

Attachment grant

The final step in creating the RDS instance is to attach the EBS volume to the EC2 instance hosting your database. EC2 now uses the previously created EBS grant to create the attachment grant with the i-1234567890abcdefg instance identity. This grant allows EC2 to decrypt the encrypted data key, provision it to the Nitro card that manages the instance, and begin encrypting I/O to the EBS volume of the RDS database. The attachment grant in this example will be as follows:

{Grantee Principal: 'EC2 Instance Role:i-1234567890abcdefg', Encryption Context: '"aws:rds:db-id": "db-1234", "aws:ebs:id":"vol-0987654321gfedcba"', Operations: ['Decrypt']}

The attachment grant is the most restrictive of the three grants. It requires the caller to know the IDs of all the AWS entities involved: EC2 instance ID, EBS volume ID, and RDS database ID. This design ensures that your KMS key can only be used for decryption by these AWS services in order to launch the specific RDS database you want.

The encrypted EBS volume is now active and attached to the EC2 instance. Should you terminate the RDS instance, the services retire all the relevant KMS grants so they no longer have any permission to use your KMS key to decrypt the 256-bit data key required to decrypt data in your database. If you need to launch your encrypted database again, a similar set of three grants will be dynamically created with the RDS database, EC2 instance, and EBS volume IDs used to scope down permissions on the AWS KMS key.

The process described in the previous paragraphs is graphically shown in Figure 1:
Figure 1: How Amazon RDS uses Amazon EC2, Amazon EBS, and AWS KMS to create an encrypted RDS instance

Considering all the AWS KMS key permissions that are added and removed as a part of launching a database, you might ask why not just use the key policy document to make these changes? A KMS key allows only one key policy with a maximum document size of 32 KB. Because one key could be used to encrypt any number of AWS resources, trying to dynamically add and remove scoped-down permissions related to each resource to the key policy document creates two risks. First, the maximum allowable size of the key policy document (32KB) might be exceeded. Second, depending on how many resources are being accessed concurrently, you may exceed the request rate quota for the PutKeyPolicy API action in AWS KMS.

In contrast, there can be any number of grants on a given AWS KMS key, each grant specifying a scoped-down permission for the use of a KMS key with any AWS service that integrated with AWS KMS. Grant creation and deletion is also designed for much higher-volume request rates than modifications to the key policy document. Finally, permission to call PutKeyPolicy is a highly privileged permission, as it lets the caller make unrestricted changes to the permissions on the key, including changes to administrative permissions to disable or schedule the key for deletion. Grants on a key can only allow permissions to use the key, not administer the key. Also, grants that allow the creation of other grants by other IAM principals prohibit the escalation of privilege. In the RDS example above, the permissions RDS receives from the IAM principal in your account during the first CreateGrant request cannot be more permissive than what you defined for the IAM principal in the KMS key policy. The permissions RDS gives to EC2 and EBS during the database creation process cannot be more permissive than the original permission RDS has from the initial grant. This design ensures that AWS services cannot escalate their privileges and use your KMS key for purposes different than what you intend.

Best practices for using AWS KMS grants

AWS KMS grants are a powerful tool to dynamically define permissions to use keys. They are automatically created when you use server-side encryption features in various AWS services. You can also use grants to control permission in your own applications that perform client-side encryption. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Design the permissions to be as scoped down as possible. Use a specific grantee principal, such as an IAM role, and give the principal access only to the AWS KMS API actions that are needed. You can further limit the scope of grants with the Encryption Context parameter by using any element you want to ensure callers are using the AWS KMS key only for the intended purpose. Below is a specific example that grants AWS account 123456789012 permission to call the GenerateDataKey or Decrypt APIs, but only if the supplied encryption context for customerID is 5678.
    {Actions: 'GenerateDataKey, Decrypt', Grantee Principal: '123456789012', Encryption Context: '"customerID": "5678"'}

    This grant could prevent your application from decrypting data belonging to customer “5678” without explicitly passing the expected customerID in the request to AWS KMS. This may be a useful defense-in-depth mechanism to prevent unauthorized access to your customers’ data if your application’s AWS credentials were compromised and used from a different caller who doesn’t know that encryption context is a required parameter for all reads and writes in order to encrypt and decrypt data.

    For more information on how you can use encryption context in AWS KMS permissions, requests, and AWS CloudTrail logs, see How to Protect the Integrity of Your Encrypted Data by Using AWS Key Management Service and EncryptionContext.

  • Remember that grants don’t automatically expire. Your code needs to retire or revoke them once you know the permission is no longer needed on the KMS key. Grants that aren’t retired are leftover permissions that might create a security risk for encrypted resources. See retiring and revoking grants in the AWS KMS developer guide for more detail.
  • Avoid creating duplicate grants. A duplicate grant is a grant that shares the same AWS KMS key ID, API actions, grantee principal, encryption context, and name. If you retire the original grant after use and not the duplicates, then the leftover duplicate grants can lead to unintended access to encrypt or decrypt data.

Recent performance improvements to AWS KMS grants: Removing a resource quota

For customers who use AWS KMS to encrypt resources in AWS services that use grants, there used to be cases where AWS KMS had to enforce a quota on the number of concurrently active resources that could be encrypted under the same KMS key. For example, customers of Amazon RDS, Amazon WorkSpaces, or Amazon EBS would run into this quota at very large scale. This was the Grants for a given principal per key quota and was previously set to 500. You might have seen the error message “Keys only support 500 grants per grantee principal in this region” when trying to create a resource in one of these services.

We recently made a change to AWS KMS to remove this quota entirely and this error message no longer exists. With this quota removed, you can now attach unlimited grants to any KMS key when using any AWS service.


In this blog post, you’ve seen how services such as Amazon RDS use AWS KMS grants to pass scoped-down permissions through the Amazon EC2 and Amazon EBS instances. You also saw some best practices for using AWS KMS grants in your own applications. Finally, you learned about how AWS KMS has improved grants by removing one of the resource quotas.

Below are some additional resources for AWS KMS and grants.

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Rick Yin

Rick is a software development engineer on the AWS KMS team. His current focus is helping to scale AWS KMS to meet increasing customer demand by making sure we can serve our requests at ultra-low latency and ultra-high availability. In his free time, Rick enjoys learning about history and trying to stay in shape. He has recently taken up rowing.

Categories: Security