adrift on a cosmic ocean

Writings on various topics (mostly technical) from Oliver Hookins and Angela Collins. We have lived in Berlin since 2009, have two kids, and have far too little time to really justify having a blog.

Amazon S3 object deletions and Multi-Factor Authentication

Posted by Oliver on the 6th of October, 2012 in category Tech
Tagged with: awsmfaobject deletionsrubys3sdk

I've been using S3 a lot in the last couple of months, and with the Amazon SDK for Ruby it really is dead simple to work with (as well as all of the other AWS services the SDK supports currently). So simple in fact, that you could quite easily delete all of your objects with very little work indeed. I did some benchmarks and found that (with batch operations) it took around 3 minutes to delete ~75000 files in about a terabyte. Single threaded.

Parallelize that workload and you could drop everything in your S3 buckets within a matter of minutes for just about any number of objects. Needless to say, if a hacker gets your credentials an extraordinary amount of damage can be done very easily and in a very short amount of time. Given there is often a several hour lag in accesses being logged, you'll probably not find out about such accesses until long after the fact. Another potential cause of deletions is of course human error (and this is generally way more probable). In both cases there is something you can do about it.

S3 buckets have supported versioning for well over two years now, and if you use SVN, Git, or some other version control system then you'll already understand how it works. The access methods of plain objects and their versions do differ slightly but the principle ideas are the same (object access methods generally operate on only the latest, non-deleted version). With versioning you can already protect yourself against accidental deletion, since you can revert to the last non-deleted version at any time.

However there is nothing preventing you from deleting all versions of a file, and with it all traces that that file ever existed. This is an explicit departure from the analogy with source versioning systems, as any object with versions still present will continue to cost you real money (even if the latest version is a delete marker). So, you can add Multi-Factor Authentication to your API access to S3 and secure these version deletion operations.

This has existed in the web API for some time but I recently had a commit merged into the official SDK that allows you to enable MFA Delete on a bucket, and there is another one in flight which will allow you to actually use the multi-factor tokens in individual delete requests. The usage is slightly interesting so I thought I'd demonstrate how it is done in Ruby, and some thoughts on its potential use cases. If you want to use it now, you'll have to pull down my branch (until the pull request is merged).

Enabling MFA

I won't go into details about acquiring the actual MFA device as it is covered in sufficient detail in the official documentation but suffice it to say that you can buy an actual hardware TOTP token, or use Amazon's or Google's "virtual" MFA applications for iPhone or Android. Setting them up and associating them with an account is also fairly straightforward (as long as you are using the AWS console; the command line IAM tools are another matter altogether).

Setting up MFA Delete on your bucket is actually quite trivial:

require 'rubygems'
require 'aws-sdk'
s3 = => 'XXXX', :secret_access_key => 'XXXX')
bucket = s3.buckets['my-test-bucket']
bucket.enable_versioning(:mfa_delete => 'Enable', :mfa => 'arn:aws:iam::123456789012:mfa/root-account-mfa-device 123456')

Behind the scenes, this doesn't do much different to enabling versioning without MFA. It adds a new element to the XML request which requests that MFA Delete be enabled, and adds a header containing the MFA device serial number and current token number. Importantly (and this may trip you up if you have started using IAM access controls), only the owner of a bucket can enable/disable MFA Delete. In the case of a "standard" account and delegated IAM accounts under it, this will be the "standard" account (even if one of the sub-accounts was used to create the bucket).

Version Deletion with MFA

Now, it is still possible to delete objects but not versions. Version deletion looks much the same but requires the serial/token passed in if MFA Delete is enabled:

require 'rubygems'
require 'aws-sdk'
s3 = => 'XXXX', :secret_access_key => 'XXXX')
bucket = s3.buckets['my-test-bucket']
bucket.versions['itHPX6m8na_sog0cAtkgP3QITEE8v5ij'].delete(:mfa => 'arn:aws:iam::123456789012:mfa/root-account-mfa-device 123456')

As mentioned above there are some limitations to this (as you've probably guessed):

  • Being a TOTP system, tokens can be used only once. That means you can delete a single version with a single token, no more. Given that on Google Authenticator and Gemalto physical TOTP devices a token is generated once every 30 seconds it may take up to a minute to completely eradicate all traces of an object that was deleted previously (original version + delete marker).
  • Following on from this, it is almost impossible to consider doing large numbers of deletions. There is a batch object deletion method inside of AWS::S3::ObjectCollection but this is not integrated with any of the MFA Delete mechanisms. Even then, you can only perform batches of 1000 deletions at a time.

As it stands, I'm not sure how practical it is. MFA involves an inherently human-oriented process as it is involves something you have rather than something you are or something you know (both of which are reasonably easily transcribed once into a computer). Given the access medium is an API designed for rapid, lightweight use there seems to be an impedance mismatch. Still, with some implementation to get the batch deletions working it would probably serve a lot of use cases still.

Are you using MFA Delete (through any of the native APIs or other language SDKs, or even 3rd-party apps)? I would love to hear about other peoples' experiences with it - leave your comments below.

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