The ASD Essential Eight in the AWS Serverless World

The Australian Signals Directorate, part of the Australian Department of Defence, has been issuing guidance to organisations to help secure their digital systems for several years. Known as the Essential Eight, it defines eight activities that help mitigate exposure to compromise or exploit.

Some of the most basic items are around patching the tech stack:

  • operating systems
  • programming runtime environments like Java, .Net, Python and more
  • software solutions that run on those run-times

Of course Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is a key one; and slowly our service providers are coming around to offering MFA pas part of their login services – or better yet, federation of identity to other online services hat already do this, such as Facebook, Google, etc.

But how much of this applies to your technology stack in the Serverless world of AWS? Let us begin, following the AWS guide

1. Application Control

ASD recommends organisations “prevent execution of unapproved/malicious programs including .exe, DLL, scripts (e.g. Windows Script Host, PowerShell and HTA) and installers“.

In the world of AWS Lambda, the only code that is present is our bespoke code and any libraries (layers) we’ve possibly added in. What we want to do is ensure that the code we upload is the code executing, and Lambda now allows signed code bundles (Configuring, Best Practices).

If we’re running a Serverless static web site (using S3, CloudFront, etc), then we have no executing code; only content (note you may have some Lambda@Edge or CloudFront functions to inject various Security related HTTP headers, such as HSTS, CSP, and more: see Scott Helme’s excellent

However, there are no other applications as… there is no application server per sé.

2. Patch Applications

Well, in AWS Lambda, this is where we have to update out own applications (and those layers/libraries) to ensure they are up to date. If you have abstracted those libraries and imports into Layers, then manage them and update.

Again, in a static web site deployed Serverlessly, we have no application serves to patch (again, except for any Lambda@Edge or CloudFront functions that need maintenance).

3. Configure Microsoft Office Macro Settings

Er, well, no Microsoft Office installed in Serverless, so this is a no-op. Nothing to do here, move along…

4. User Application Hardening

ASD says “Configure web browsers to block Flash (ideally uninstall it), ads and Java on the internet. Disable unneeded features in Microsoft Office (e.g. OLE), web browsers and PDF viewers.“.

We have none of this in our Serverless environments. However we should be delivering updated applications with everything we can do to support the most modern and up to date browsers; the rest of the world is auto-updating these browsers very rapidly.

For corporate environments that lock down browser updates; question why the rest of the world has better security than your corporate users you’re trying to protect!

5. Restrict Admin Privileges

Using AWS IAM, restrict who can deploy, particularly to production environments. Using CI/CD pipelines and approvals, developers should be able to write and update code and then have it deploy immediately to non-production environments, but it should require a second sign off from a separate individual (or team or people) before it gets near production. Indeed, consider that commits to a revision control repository of code being the source of truth, and that repository needs review before changes are staged ready for a CI/CD pipeline to do its delivery job.

6. Patch Operating Systems

No servers, no Operating systems. OK, Lambda will apply minor version updates to run-times to address security requirements, but its also worth updating major versions of run-times as well. Newer runtime versions have a great chance of supporting newer TLS protocols, ciphers, key exchange methods and checksums.

7. Multi-Factor Authentication

There should never be an interactive user with access that doesn’t use MFA. Not only should your access to AWS be MFA based, it should probably be federated via AWS SSO, using MFA back on your identity provider (IdP).

However, your users of your Serverless solutions may also want the option of using federated identity (SAML, etc), and with MFA implemented on their IdP as well (if you have authenticated access). Or perhaps mutual certificate authentication. If you have an open system with no authentication (publicly, anonymously available) then perhaps that’s fine too. Most web sites are, after all, publicly, anonymously available for their home page and other public content; but the ability to change that content is heavily protected.

8. Backups.

You should have Backups. You should know where your data is. If you’re using DynamoDB, then at least turn on Point In Time Recovery, and a backup schedule. Consider dumping those backups to a separate account in escrow: check out the S3 options around versioning, and retention (Life Cycle) of older versions. Consider the concept from the point of an AWS account being compromised; can an attacker than delete the backups across-account to another environment.

For your code base – is it in a revision control repository – separate to the operational runtime environment. What happens if bad code is put into your repository, and pushed through your environments – can you go back. Do you consider the code repository as a Production service, accessible for commits from developers, but managed as a Production service for them.


In summary, much – but not all – of the ASD Essential Eight evaporates from being the operator/developers responsibility, leaving you more time to concentrate on the effective implementation of the rest of those items that do remain.

This is all excellent advise, and the more that it is clearly demonstrated with easy adoption for organisations, the better we are across all sizes and types of organisations.

Going further, I am keen on is to remove the use of any unencrypted protocols, particularly HTTP. With free, globally trusted TLS certificates available, moving to HTTPS should be straight forward.

However, that’s not the end of the journey, as TLS has versions. Older versions – less than TLS 1.2 as of this time of writing – should not be used – and most browsers and crypto libraries have removed these from their technology stack to prevent them being used.

Your application – even in a Serverless environment – should verify when it establishes an outbound HTTPS connection that the details of that connection meet your minimum TLS requirements – and you should be ready to up your requirements in future. As mentioned above, sometimes that requires a newer runtime, but newer run-times often still support older TLS protocols – even if you don’t want to (or shouldn’t).

I have been recommending to organisations for some time is to start blocking corporate users from using unencrypted HTTP from their workstations. Firefox has a setting to soft-disable unencrypted HTTP as well (a warning is presented to the user). This may seem inconvenient, but its a huge step up in the security for your workers, which is a key vector into your systems.

Furthermore, stop providing convenience redirects on your services from unencrypted HTTP on port 80 to HTTPS on port 443 – for anything other than your organisations home page. Any other redirection via an unencrypted port should be a hard fail, and fixed at the source.