I previously wrote about how to prepare for the Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP) and AWS Certified Solutions Architect – Associate exams. Today, I would like to focus on AWS Security – Specialty.
Exam cost aside, preparing for this specialty can be rather expensive. There is a whole industry around mock practice tests, study books, video tutorials and hands-on labs. Here I’ll aim to outline how to maximise the benefit while minimising costs, focusing on free resources.
Whitepapers, user guides and service FAQs
AWS documentation is arguably the best source of study material out there. I don’t know a single person who passed the exam without reading through at least some of them. Check out the official exam guide for the overview of domains to select the relevant ones. I focused on IAM, KMS, CloudTail, CloudWatch, VPC, Lambda, Inspector, GuardDuty, Athena, Macie and AWS Microsoft AD. At a very minimum, you should read these:
I also wrote about my experience in using security-related AWS services in my blog.
Who needs paid for online tutorials when the AWS YouTube channel has a lot of their re:Invent talks available for free? There is literally a video on pretty much every subject you are interested in. It’s probably too many to mention and you could conduct a simple search to find the latest talk on what you want, but I’ll recommend a few to get you started:
- Become an IAM Policy Master in 60 Minutes or Less
- Best Practices for Implementing AWS Key Management Service
- A Deep Dive into AWS Encryption Services
- Best Practices for DDoS Mitigation on AWS
- Advanced Security Best Practices Masterclass
- Your Virtual Data Center: VPC Fundamentals and Connectivity Options
- AWS PrivateLink: Fundamentals
- AWS Directory Service for Microsoft Active Directory Deep Dive
- Understanding AWS Secrets Manager
- Amazon Athena
- Amazon GuardDuty
- Amazon Macie: Data Visibility Powered by Machine Learning
- Introduction to AWS Security Hub
If you would rather have a structured online course instead and don’t mind paying a little bit for it, I recommend the Linux Academy and/or A Cloud Guru. I’ve done them both. Personally, I preferred the former as it had some hands-on labs, but A Cloud Guru is shorter and has some good exam tips. Besides, you can try both of them for free for 7 days and decide for yourself.
There is also the official AWS Exam Readiness: AWS Certified Security – Specialty course. It covers the exam structure, gives you tips on tackling questions and provides thorough explanations. I would save this one for last to get a view of your preparedness level.
The obvious thing to do is to buy the official practice exam from AWS, right? Well, maybe not. Unless you’ve got it for free for passing one of the other AWS exams previously, you might be better off finding an alternative. It only includes 20 questions (which works out at $2 per question plus tax), and you don’t get to see the answers! Instead, you are presented with a pass/fail summary that gives you the overall percentage broken down by exam domains. You might be better off using the free 15 questions from Whizlabs, although I can’t recommend their paid products. Practice tests are also included in the Linux Academy and A Cloud Guru courses I mentioned above. Plus, the free official Exam Readiness course also comes with 24 questions with answers and explanations at the end. That should be enough to give you the feel for types of question on the exam.
With all this preparation, don’t lose track of why you are doing it in the first place: gaining the skills that you can apply in practice. The exam gives a good indication of your weaker areas and encourages you to fill these gaps. The best way to do this is, of course, through hands-on experience. If your organisation relies on AWS, find ways to apply the newly acquired knowledge there to make your cloud infrastructure more secure. If that’s not an option, there is always the Free Tier, where you can put your skills into practice. Finally, the Linux Academy (and some other providers) for a small cost offer you some hands-on labs and even a whole sandboxed playground for you to experiment in.
AWS constantly evolve and refine their services, and add new ones too. Keep this in mind while studying, as things move pretty fast in the cloud world. This also means that your learning is never finished, even if you pass the exam. But I think this is a good thing and I’m sure you agree!
If you rely on EC2 instances in at least some parts of your cloud infrastructure, it is important to reduce the attack surface by hardening them. You might want to check out my previous blogs on GuardDuty, Config, IAM and CloudTrail for other tips on securing your AWS infrastructure. But today we are going to be focusing on yet another Amazon service – Inspector.
To start with, we need to make sure the Inspector Agent is installed on our EC2 instances. There are a couple of ways of doing this and I suggest simply using the Inspector service Advance Setup option. In addition, you can specify the instances you want to include in your scan as well as its duration and frequency. You can also select the rules packages to scan against.
After the agent is installed, the scan will commence in line with the configuration you specified in the previous step. You will then be able to download the report detailing the findings.
The above setup gives you everything you need to get started but there is certainly room for improvement.
It is not always convenient to go to the Inspector dashboard itself to check for discovered vulnerabilities. Instead, I recommend creating an SNS Topic which will be notified if Inspector finds new weaknesses. You can go a step further and, in the true DevSecOps way, set up a Lambda function that will automatically remediate Inspector findings on your behalf and subscribe it to this topic. AWS kindly open sourced a Lambda job (Python script) that automatically patches EC2 instances when an Inspector assessment generates a CVE finding.
You can see how Lambda is doing its magic installing updates in the CloudWatch Logs:
Or you can connect to your EC2 instance directly and check yum logs:
You will see a number of packages updated automatically when the Lambda function is triggered based on the Inspector CVE findings. The actual list will of course depend on how many updates you are missing and will correspond to the CloudWatch logs.
You can run scans periodically and still choose to receive the notifications but the fact that security vulnerabilities are being discovered and remediated automatically, even as you sleep, should give you at least some peace of mind.
If you work for or (even better) co-founded a tech startup, you are already busy. Hopefully not too busy to completely ignore security, but definitely busy enough to implement one of the industrial security frameworks, like the NIST Cybersecurity Framework (CSF). Although the CSF and other standards are useful, implementing them in a small company might be resource intensive.
I previously wrote about security for startups. In this blog, I would like to share some ideas for activities you might consider (in no particular order) instead of implementing a security standard straight away. The individual elements and priorities will, of course, vary depending on your business type and needs and this list is not exhaustive.
Information security underpins all products and services to offer customers an innovative and frictionless experience.
- Improve product security, robustness and stability through secure software development process
- Automate security tests and prevent secrets in code
- Upgrade vulnerable dependencies
- Secure the delivery pipeline
Cloud infrastructure security
To deliver resilient and secure service to build customer trust.
- Harden cloud infrastructure configuration
- Improve identity and access management practices
- Develop logging and monitoring capability
- Reduce attack surface and costs by decommissioning unused resources in the cloud
- Secure communications and encrypt sensitive data at rest and in transit
To prevent regulatory fines, potential litigation and loss of customer trust due to accidental mishandling, external system compromise or insider threat leading to exposure of customer personal data.
- Enable device (phone and laptop) encryption and automatic software updates
- Make a password manager available to your staff (and enforce a password policy)
- Improve email security (including anti-phishing protections)
- Implement mobile device management to enforce security policies
- Invest in malware prevention capability
- Segregate access and restrict permissions to critical assets
- Conduct security awareness and training
To prepare for, respond to and recover from cyber attacks while delivering a consistent level of service to customers.
- Identify and focus on protecting most important assets
- Develop (and test) an incident response plan
- Collect and analyse logs for fraud and attacks
- Develop anomaly detection capability
- Regular backups of critical data
- Disaster recovery and business continuity planning
Compliance and data protection
To demonstrate to business partners, regulators, suppliers and customers the commitment to security and privacy and act as a brand differentiator. To prevent revenue loss and reputational damage due to fines and unwanted media attention as a result of GDPR non compliance.
- Ensure lawfulness, fairness, transparency, data minimisation, security, accountability, purpose and storage limitation when processing personal data
- Optimise subject access request process
- Maintain data inventory and mapping
- Conduct privacy impact assessments on new projects
- Data classification and retention
- Vendor risk management
- Improve governance and risk management practices
Image by Lennon Shimokawa.
Outline security requirements at the beginning of the project, review the design to check if the requirements have been incorporated and perform security testing before go-live. If this sounds familiar, it should. Many companies manage their projects using the waterfall method, where predefined ‘gates’ have to be cleared before the initiative can move forward. The decision can be made at certain checkpoints to not proceed further, accepting the sunk costs if benefits now seem unlikely to be realised.
This approach works really well in structured environments with clear objectives and limited uncertainty and I saw great things being delivered using this method in my career. There are many positives from the security point of view too: the security team gets involved as they would normally have to provide their sign-off at certain stage gates, so it’s in the project manager’s interest to engage them early to avoid delays down the line. Additionally, the security team’s output and methodology are often well defined, so there are no surprises from both sides and it’s easier to scale.
If overall requirements are less clear, however, or you are constantly iterating to learn more about your stakeholder’s needs to progressively elaborate on the requirements, to validate and perhaps even pivot from the initial hypothesis, more agile project management methodologies are more suitable.
Embedding security in the agile development is less established and there is more than one way of doing it.
When discussing security in startups and other companies adopting agile approaches, I see a lot of focus on automating security tests and educating developers on secure software development. Although these initiatives have their merits, it’s not the whole story.
Security professionals need to have the bigger picture in mind and work with product teams to not only prevent vulnerabilities in code, but influence the overall product strategy, striving towards security and privacy by design.
Adding security features and reviewing and refining existing requirements to make the product more secure is a step in the right direction. To do this effectively, developing a relationship with the development and product teams is paramount. The product owner especially should be your best friend, as you often have to persuade them to include your security requirements and user stories in sprints. Remember, as a security specialist, you are only one of the stakeholders they have to manage and there might be a lot of competing requirements. Besides, there is a limited amount of functionality the development can deliver each sprint, so articulating the value and importance of your suggestions becomes an essential skill.
Few people notice security until it’s missing, then the only thing you can notice is the absence of it. We see this time and time again when organisations of various sizes are grappling with data breaches and security incidents. It’s your job to articulate the importance of prioritising security requirements early in the project to mitigate the potential rework and negative impact in the future.
One way of doing this is by refining existing user stories by adding security elements to them, creating dedicated security stories, or just adding security requirements to the product backlog. Although the specifics will depend on you organisation’s way of working, I will discuss some examples in my next blog.
I’ve been interviewed for the launch of the ISACA Young Professionals portal that contains a wealth of information for starting and accelerating your career in IT audit and cybersecurity.
I decided to contribute because ISACA played a role in my career development too.
I started attending ISACA London chapter events while I was studying for my Master’s degree in London. Although the university provided a great theoretical foundation on information security, I wanted to know about the real-world challenges that practitioners in the industry were facing.
At the time I had just finished writing my thesis after doing some great research at the university and I wanted to share my findings and the research of my colleagues with the community. The organisers were supportive, so we agreed a day and I delivered a talk on resolving conflicts between security compliance and human behaviour.
It was a rewarding experience as the participants provided some valuable insights and feedback; they helped to bridge the gap between academia and real practical experience. I already had a solid foundation from my postgraduate degree but I was missing was some anecdotes and real life stories about how this could apply in practice. This laid the foundation for my book The Psychology of Information Security.
It worked out for me, but should you get involved in broader activities beyond developing your technical skills? I would say yes.
The value of technical skills and knowledge can’t be overestimated. But there’s another side to this story. Prospective employers are not only looking for technical experts, they want people who are good team players, who can collaborate and communicate effectively with others, who can organise and get things done, who can lead. Getting involved with the community and volunteering gives you the chance to develop and demonstrate these non-technical skills and grow your professional network.
Regardless of where you are on your journey, ISACA provides great opportunities to advance your career through courses, networking and certification programmes, so I highly recommend getting involved!
Read my story on ISACA Blog.
In the past year I had a pleasure working with a number of startups on improving their security posture. I would like to share some common pain points here and what to do about them.
Advising startups on security is not easy, as it tends to be a ‘wicked’ problem for a cash-strapped company – we often don’t want to spend money on security but can’t afford not to because of the potential devastating impact of security breaches. Business models of some of them depend on customer trust and the entire value of a company can be wiped out in a single incident.
On a plus side, security can actually increase the value of a startup through elevating trust and amplifying the brand message, which in turn leads to happier customers. It can also increase company valuation through demonstrating a mature attitude towards security and governance, which is especially useful in fundraising and acquisition scenarios.
Security is there to support the business, so start with understanding the product who uses it. Creating personas is quite a useful tool when trying to understand your customers. The same approach can be applied to security. Think through the threat model – who’s after the company and why? At what stage of a customer journey are we likely to get exposed?
Are we trying to protect our intellectual property from competitors or sensitive customer data from organise crime? Develop a prioritised plan and risk management approach to fit the answers. You can’t secure everything – focus on what’s truly important.
A risk based approach is key. Remember that the company is still relatively small and you need to be realistic what threats we are trying to protect against. Blindly picking your favourite NIST Cybersecurity Framework and applying all the controls might prove counterproductive.
Yes, the challenges are different compared to securing a large enterprise, but there some upsides too. In a startup, more often than not, you’re in a privileged position to build in security and privacy by design and deal with much less technical debt. You can embed yourself in the product development and engineering from day one. This will save time and effort trying to retrofit security later – the unfortunate reality of many large corporations.
Be wary, however, of imposing too much security on the business. At the end of the day, the company is here to innovate, albeit securely. Your aim should be to educate the people in the company about security risks and help them make the right decisions. Communicate often, showing that security is not only important to keep the company afloat but that it can also be an enabler. Changing behaviours around security will create a positive security culture and protect the business value.
How do you apply this in practice? Let’s say we established that we need to guard the company’s reputation, customer data and intellectual property all the while avoiding data breaches and regulatory fines. What should we focus on when it comes to countermeasures?
I recommend an approach that combines process and technology and focuses on three main areas: your product, your people and your platform.
Think of your product and your website as a front of your physical store. Thant’s what customers see and interact with. It generates sales, so protecting it is often your top priority. Make sure your developers are aware of OWASP vulnerabilities and secure coding practices. Do it from the start, hire a DevOps security expert if you must. Pentest your product regularly. Perform code reviews, use automated code analysis tools. Make sure you thought through DDoS attack prevention. Look into Web Application Firewalls and encryption. API security is the name of the game here. Monitor your APIs for abuse and unusual activity. Harden them, think though authentication.
I talked about building security culture above, but in a startup you go beyond raising awareness of security risks. You develop processes around reporting incidents, documenting your assets, defining standard builds and encryption mechanisms for endpoints, thinking through 2FA and password managers, locking down admin accounts, securing colleagues’ laptops and phones through mobile device management solutions and generally do anything else that will help people do their job better and more securely.
Some years ago I would’ve talked about network perimeter, firewalls and DMZs here. Today it’s all about the cloud. Know your shared responsibility model. Check out good practices of your cloud service provider. Main areas to consider here are: data governance, logging and monitoring, identity and access management, disaster recovery and business continuity. Separate your development and production environments. Resist the temptation to use sensitive (including customer) data in your test systems, minimise it as much as possible. Architect it well from the beginning and it will save you precious time and money down the road.
Every section above deserves its own blog and I have deliberately kept it high-level. The intention here is to provide a framework for you to think through the challenges most startups I encountered face today.
If the majority of your experience comes from the corporate environment, there are certainly skills you can leverage in the startup world too but be mindful of variances. The risks these companies face are different which leads to the need for a different response. Startups are known to be flexible, nimble and agile, so you should be too.
Image by Ryan Brooks.