AWS’s response to ALB internal validation failures

Last week I wrote about how AWS ALB's do not validate TLS certificates from internal services. Colm MacCárthaigh, the lead engineer for Amazon ELB, writes:

I’m the main author of Amazon s2n, our Open Source implementation of TLS/SSL, and a contributor to the TLS/SSL standards. Hopefully I’m qualified to chime in!

You’re right that ALB does not validate the certificates on targets, but it’s important to understand the context that ALBs run in to see why this is still a pending item on our roadmap, rather than something we’ve shipped already as a “must have”.

The role that server certificates play in TLS is to authenticate the server, so that it can’t be impersonated or MITM. ALBs run exclusively on our Amazon VPC network, a Software Defined Network where we encapsulate and authenticate traffic at the packet level. We believe that this protection is far stronger than certificate authentication. Every single packet is being checked for correctness, by both the sender and the recipient, even in Amazon-designed hardware if you’re using an Enhanced Networking interface. We think it’s better than the ecosystem where any CA can issue a certificate at any time, with still limited audit controls (though certificate transparency is promising!).

The short of it is that traffic simply can’t be man-in-the-middled or spoofed on the VPC network, it’s one of our core security guarantees. Instances, containers, lambda functions, and Elastic Network Interfaces can only be given IPs via the secure and audit-able EC2 APIs. In our security threat model, all of this API and packet level security is what plugs in the role performed by server certificates.

This contrasts with the older EC2 classic network, a big shared network, which is why classic load balancers do support backend authentication.

We actually find that many customers actually load their targets and backends with “invalid” certificates that are self-signed or expired, because it’s so operationally hard to stay up-to-date and it’s hard to automate, even with projects like LetsEncrypt, when your instances are inherently unreachable on the internet.

All that said, we’ll be adding support for certificate validation, probably including pinning and private CAs! Used well with good operational controls it can be a measure of defense in depth, and it’s important for cases such as targets hosted on less secure private networks such as on-premesis data-centers.

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