New for Identity Federation – Use Employee Attributes for Access Control in AWS

When you manage access to resources on AWS or many other systems, you most probably use Role-Based Access Control (RBAC). When you use RBAC, you define access permissions to resources, group these permissions in policies, assign policies to roles, assign roles to entities such as a person, a group of persons, a server, an application, etc. Many AWS customers told us they are doing so to simplify granting access permissions to related entities, such as persons sharing similar business functions in the organisation.

For example, you might create a role for a finance database administrator and give that role access to the tables and compute resources necessary for finance. When Alice, a database admin, moves into that department, you assign her the finance database administrator role.

On AWS, you use AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) permissions policies and IAM roles to implement your RBAC strategy.

The multiplication of resources makes it difficult to scale. When a new resource is added to the system, system administrators must add permissions for that new resource to all relevant policies. How do you scale this to thousands of resources and thousands of policies? How do you verify that a change in one policy does not grant unnecessary privileges to a user or application?

Attribute-Based Access Control
To simplify the management of permissions, in the context of an evergrowing number of resources, a new paradigm emerged: Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC). When you use ABAC, you define permissions based on matching attributes. You can use any type of attributes in the policies: user attributes, resource attributes, environment attributes. Policies are IF … THEN rules, for example: IF user attribute role == manager THEN she can access file resources having attribute sensitivity == confidential.

Using ABAC permission control allows to scale your permission system, as you no longer need to update policies when adding resources. Instead, you ensure that resources have the proper attributes attached to them. ABAC allows you to manage fewer policies because you do not need to create policies per job role.

On AWS, attributes are called tags. You can attach tags to resources such as Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) instance, Amazon Elastic Block Store (EBS) volumes, AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) users and many others. Having the possibility to tag resources, combined with the possibility to define permissions conditions on tags, effectively allows you to adopt the ABAC paradigm to control access to your AWS resources.

You can learn more about how to use ABAC permissions on AWS by reading the new ABAC section of the documentation or taking the tutorial, or watching Brigid’s session at re:Inforce.

This was a big step, but it only worked if your user attributes were stored in AWS. Many AWS customers manage identities (and their attributes) in another source and use federation to manage AWS access for their users.

Pass in Attributes for Federated Users
We’re excited to announce that you can now pass user attributes in the AWS session when your users federate into AWS, using standards-based SAML. You can now use attributes defined in external identity systems as part of attributes-based access control decisions within AWS. Administrators of the external identity system manage user attributes and define attributes to pass in during federation. The attributes you pass in are called “session tags”. Session tags are temporary tags which are only valid for the duration of the federated session.

Granting access to cloud resources using ABAC has several advantages. One of them is you have fewer roles to manage. For example, imagine a situation where Bob and Alice share the same job function, but different cost centers; and you want to grant access only to resources belonging to each individual’s cost center. With ABAC, only one role is required, instead of two roles with RBAC. Alice and Bob assume the same role. The policy will grant access to resources where their cost center tag value matches the resource cost center tag value. Imagine now you have over 1,000 people across 20 cost centers. ABAC can reduce the cost center roles from 20 to 1.

Let us consider another example. Let’s say your systems engineer configures your external identity system to include CostCenter as a session tag when developers federate into AWS using an IAM role. All federated developers assume the same role, but are granted access only to AWS resources belonging to their cost center, because permissions apply based on the CostCenter tag included in their federated session and on the resources.

Let’s illustrate this example with the diagram below:

In the figure above, blue, yellow, and green represent the three cost centers my workforce users are attached to. To setup ABAC, I first tag all project resources with their respective CostCenter tags and configure my external identity system to include the CostCenter tag in the developer session. The IAM role in this scenario grants access to project resources based on the CostCenter tag. The IAM permissions might look like this :

    "Version": "2012-10-17",
    "Statement": [
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": [ "ec2:DescribeInstances"],
            "Resource": "*"
            "Effect": "Allow",
            "Action": ["ec2:StartInstances","ec2:StopInstances"],
            "Resource": "*",
            "Condition": {
                "StringEquals": {
                    "ec2:ResourceTag/CostCenter": "${aws:PrincipalTag/CostCenter}"

The access will be granted (Allow) only when the condition matches: when the value of the resources’ CostCenter tag matches the value of the principal’s CostCenter tag. Now, whenever my workforce users federate into AWS using this role, they only get access to the resources belonging to their cost center based on the CostCenter tag included in the federated session.

If a user switches from cost center green to blue, your system administrator will update the external identity system with CostCenter = blue, and permissions in AWS automatically apply to grant access to the blue cost center AWS resources, without requiring permissions update in AWS. Similarly, when your system administrator adds a new workforce user in the external identity system, this user immediately gets access to the AWS resources belonging to her cost center.

We have worked with Auth0, ForgeRock, IBM, Okta, OneLogin, Ping Identity, and RSA to ensure the attributes defined in their systems are correctly propagated to AWS sessions. You can refer to their published guidelines on configuring session tags for AWS for more details. In case you are using other Identity Providers, you may still be able to configure session tags, if they support the industry standards SAML 2.0 or OpenID Connect (OIDC). We look forward to working with additional Identity Providers to certify Session Tags with their identity solutions.

Sessions Tags are available in all AWS Regions today at no additional cost. You can read our new session tags documentation page to follow step-by-step instructions to configure an ABAC-based permission system.

— seb

Originally posted on AWS News Blog
Author: Sébastien Stormacq

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