#HowTo: Protect Your Organization's Root Accounts

For many cloud apps, administrators are given a super admin account credential, also known as the root account, which allows wide-reaching administrative access to the account. These super admin credentials are necessary for some administrative actions and should be the organization's most secure account credentials. However, if root accounts are left unprotected, attackers can abuse your account resources to cryptomine or stage attacks on others, causing significant costs and potential liability.

Root account credentials can cause significant damage if leaked. Earlier this year, we saw a group of hackers gain access to 150,000 cameras worldwide via the surveillance startup Verkada. Verkada acted quickly to take these cameras offline, but the damage had been done: live feeds of Tesla factories, women’s health clinics, psychiatric hospitals and jails became public before the company was even aware the attack was taking place. Securing super admin credentials may have slowed down or stopped these attacks altogether. 

AWS Root Account Usage

Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one example of a cloud service that provides a root account. Amazon strongly encourages users to avoid using root accounts for everyday tasks. The Center for Internet Security (CIS) AWS Foundations Benchmark 1.2 also recommends root accounts are protected with MFA for additional security. However, we find many root accounts in regular use that lack MFA. 

Netskope recently conducted an audit of 915 AWS root accounts and found that regular use is widespread, occurring in 42% of organizations. Additionally, nearly two-thirds of all root accounts don’t have MFA enabled. We also found root account usage occurs regularly: an average of 13% of the total 153 organizations we analyzed used the root account at least once during the week we surveyed.

How to Protect Your Root Account

There are four key strategies to implement immediately to protect the AWS root account. A secure root account will help keep attackers from gaining access and protect important data if they do. 

1) Work with users so that the root account is only used for tasks that cannot be performed as an IAM user. After the initial account set up, you should provision more limited identity and access management (IAM) administrator accounts or roles as needed.

2) Immediately delete or deactivate any root account API keys and provision an API key under a specific IAM user with appropriate privileges. Stealing access keys is a common attack vector, whether stolen from client machines or accidentally committed into source repositories.

3) Enable MFA on the root account. This can be done with a virtual device or hardware key. The root account should not be used often, and the number of people who are authorized to use it should be very small, so enabling MFA should not require a lot of overhead.

4) Implement regular and frequent automated auditing of the root account configuration in all accounts by checking the credential report. Fortunately, the CIS Benchmark for AWS provides good detail and guidance, and you can implement your checks using API/CLI scripts.

As attacks on root account credentials continue to rise, organizations should take an active role in securing these credentials as much as possible. Taking these four steps can help protect your organization from the financial risk, liability, data loss or data exposure that might occur if an AWS root credential is lost or stolen. In addition to AWS, be sure to review other cloud apps and services that you are using to ensure that all root and administrator credentials are appropriately locked down.

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