Are these your files? I found them on my cloud

Drip drip drip… Is this the sound of your cloud leaking?

It can happen in different ways. See for example this recent research paper, titled “Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud: Exploring Information Leakage in Third-Party Compute Clouds”. It’s a nice read, especially if you find side channels interesting (I came up with one recently, in a different context).

In the first part of the paper, the authors show how to get your EC2 instance co-located (i.e. running in in the same hypervisor) with the instance you are targeting (the one you want to spy on). Once this is achieved, they describe side channel attacks to glean information from this situation.

This paper got me thinking. I noticed that it does not mention trying to go after disk blocks and memory. I don’t know if they didn’t try or they tried and were defeated.

For disk blocks (the most obvious attack vector), Amazon is no dummy and their “proprietary  disk  virtualization  layer  automatically  wipes every block of storage used by  the customer, and guarantees  that one customer’s data  is never exposed to another” as explained in the AWS Security Whitepaper. In fact, they are so confident of this that they don’t even bother forbidding block-based recovery attempts in the AWS customer agreement (they seem mostly concerned about attacks that are not specific to hypervisor environments, like port scanning or network-based DOS). I took this as an invitation to verify their claims, so I launched a few Linux/ext3 and Windows/NTFS instances, attached a couple of EBS volumes to them and ran off-the-shelf file recovery tools. Sure enough, nothing was found on  /dev/sda2 (the empty 150GB partition of local storage that comes with each instance) or on the EBS volumes. They are not bluffing.

On the other hand, there were plenty of recoverable files on /dev/sda1. Here is what a Foremost scan returned on two instances (both of them created from public Fedora AMIs).

The first one:

Finish: Tue Sep  1 05:04:52 2009


jpg:= 14
gif:= 670
htm:= 1183
exe:= 2
png:= 3771

And the second one:

Finish: Wed Sep  2 00:32:16 2009


jpg:= 236
gif:= 2313
rif:= 11
htm:= 4886
zip:= 182
exe:= 6
png:= 9594
pdf:= 8

These are blocks in the AMI itself, not blocks that were left on the volumes on which the AMI was installed. In other words, all instances built from the same AMI will provide the exact same recoverable files. The C: drive of the Windows instance also had some recoverable files. Not surprisingly they were Windows setup files.

I don’t see this as an AWS flaw. They do a great job providing cleanly wiped raw volumes and it’s the responsibility of the AMI creator not to snapshot recoverable blocks. I am just not sure that everyone out there who makes AMIs available is aware of this. My simple Foremost scans above only looked for the default file types known out of the box by Foremost. I suspect that if I added support for .pem files (used by AWS to store private keys) there may well be a few such files recoverable in some of the publicly accessible AMIs…

Again, kudos to Amazon, but I also wonder if this feature opens a possible DOS approach on AWS: it doesn’t cost me much to create a 1TB EBS volume and to destroy it seconds later. But for Amazon, that’s a lot of blocks to wipe. I wonder how many such instantaneous create/delete actions on large EBS volumes it would take to put a large chunk of AWS storage capacity in the “unavailable – pending wipe” state… That’s assuming that they proactively wipe all the physical blocks. If instead the wipe is virtual (their virtualization layer returns zero as the value for any free block, no matter what the physical value of the block) then this attack wouldn’t work. Or maybe they keep track of the blocks that were written and only wipe these.

Then there is the RAM. The AWS security paper tells us that the physical RAM is kept separated between instances (presumably they don’t use ballooning or the more ambitious Xen Transcendent Memory). But they don’t say anything about what happens when a new instance gets hold of the RAM of a terminated instance.

Amazon probably makes sure the RAM is reset, as the disk blocks are. But what about your private Cloud infrastructure? While the prospect of such Cloud leakage is most terrifying in a public cloud scenario (anyone could make use of it to go after you), in practice I suspect that these attack vectors are currently a lot more exploitable in the various “private clouds” out there. And that for many of these private clouds you don’t need to resort to the exotic side channels described in the “get off of my cloud” paper. Amazon has been around the block (no pun intended) a few times, but not all the private cloud frameworks out there have.

One possible conclusion is that you want to make sure that your cloud vendor does more than writing scripts to orchestrate invocations of the hypervisor APIs. They need to understand the storage, computing and networking infrastructure in details. There is a messy physical world under your clean shinny virtual world. They need to know how to think about security at the system level.

Another one is that this is a mostly an issue for hypervisor-based utility computing and a possible trump card for higher level of virtualization, e.g. PaaS. The attacks described in the paper (as well as block-based file recovery) would not work on Google App Engine. What does co-residency mean in a world where subsequent requests to the same application could hit any machine (though in practice it’s unlikely to be so random)? You don’t get “deployed” to the same host as your intended victim. At best you happen to have a few requests executed while a few requests of your target run on the same physical machine. It’s a lot harder to exploit. More importantly, the attack surface is much more restrained. No direct memory access, no low-level scheduler data, no filesystem… The OS to hardware interface that hypervisors emulate was meant to let the OS control the hardware. The GAE interface/SDK, on the other hand, was meant to give the application just enough capabilities to perform its task, in a way that is as removed from the hardware as possible. Of course there is still an underlying physical reality in the GAE case and there are sure to be some leaks there too. But the small attack surface makes them a lot harder to exploit.

[UPDATED 2009/9/8: Amazon just improved the ability to smoothly update your access certificates. So hopefully any such certificate found on recoverable blocks in an AMI will be out of data and unusable.]

[UPDATED 2009/9/24: Some good security practices that help protect you against block analysis and many other forms of attack.]

[UPDATED 2009/10/15: At Oracle Open World this week, I was assured by an Amazon AWS employee that the DOS scenario I describe in this post would not be a problem for them. But no technical detail as to why that is. Also, you get billed a minimum of one hour for each EBS volume you provision, so that attack would not be as cheap as I thought (unless you use a stolen credit card).]


Filed under Amazon, Cloud Computing, Everything, Google App Engine, Security, Utility computing, Virtualization, Xen

4 Responses to Are these your files? I found them on my cloud

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  4. “Or maybe they keep track of the blocks that were written and only wipe these.”

    They definitely keep track of which blocks are written – it’s part of the incremental snapshotting mechanism. As to whether they use it to optimize wiping….

    Also, check out Eric Hammond’s warning about the dangers of info left over on shared EBS snapshots: