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Hacking Your Way Around AWS IAM Roles

Identity and Access Management (IAM) offers role-based access control (RBAC) to your AWS account users and resources, and you can granularize the permission set by defining the policy. If you are familiar or even a beginner with AWS cloud, you know how important IAM is.

“AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a web service that helps you securely control access to AWS resources. You use IAM to control who is authenticated (signed in) and authorized (has permissions) to use resources.”

– AWS IAM User Guide

With the emergence of cloud infrastructure services, the coolest thing you can do is write your infrastructure as code. AWS offers SDKs for various programming/scripting languages, and of course, like any other API call, you need to sign a request with tokens. The AWS IAM console lets you generate access_key and secret_access_key tokens. This token can then be configured with your SDK. 

Alternatively, you can configure the token with your user profile via aws cli. This also means anyone with access_key and secret_access_key will have permissions configured as per the IAM policy. Thus, keeping credentials on the disk is insecure. You can implement a key rotation policy to keep the environment compliant. To even overcome this, you can use the AWS IAM role for services. 

Let’s say if you are working on an AWS EC2 instance that needs access to some other AWS service, like S3. You can create an IAM role for EC2 with a policy that has appropriate permission to access the S3 bucket. In this case, your SDK doesn’t need a token (not at least on the disk or hardcoded in code). Let’s take a look at the hierarchy of how the AWS SDK looks for a token for signing requests.

1. Embedded in your code (very insecure). This is the very first place your SDK looks for. Below is a NodeJS example, where access_key and secret_access_key are part of the code itself.


2. AWS environment variables. If the token is not embedded in your code, your SDK looks for AWS environment variables available to process. These environment variables are AWS_ACCESS_KEY, AWS_SECRET_ACCESS_KEY, and optional AWS_SESSION_TOKEN. Below is an example where AWS credentials are exported and the aws cli command is used to list S3 buckets. Note that once credentials are exported, they are available to all the child processes. Therefore, these credentials are auto looked up by your AWS SDK.

3. The AWS credentials (default profile) file located at ~/.aws/credentials. This is the third place for the lookup. You can generate this file by running the command aws configure. You may also manually create this file with various profiles. If you happen to have multiple profiles, you can then export an environment variable called AWS_PROFILE. An example credentials file is given below:


4. The IAM role attached to your resource. Your resource could be EC2 Instance, Lambda function, AWS glue, ECS Container, RDS, etc. Now, this is a secure way of using credentials. Since your credentials are not stored anywhere on the disk, exported via an environment variable, or hardcoded in the code. You need not worry about key rotation at all.

TL;DR: IAM roles are a secure way of using credentials. However, they are only applicable to resources within AWS. You can not use them outside of AWS. So, the IAM role can only be attached to resources like EC2, Lambda, ECS, etc.

The problem statement:

Let’s say a group of developers needs access to a few S3 buckets and DynamoDB. The organization does not want developers to use access_key and secret_access_key on their local machine (laptop) as access_key and secret_access can be used anywhere or can be stolen. 

Since IAM roles are more secure, they allocate EC2 with Windows OS and attach the IAM role with appropriate permission to access S3 buckets and DynamoDB and configure IDE and other essential dev tools. Developers then use RDP to connect to EC2 Instance. However, due to license restrictions, only two users can connect with RDP at a given time. So, they add more similar instances. This heavily increases cost. Wouldn’t it be nice, if somehow, IAM roles could be attached to local machines?

How do IAM roles for resources work?

Resources like EC2 or Lambda have the link-local address available. The link-local address can be accessed over HTTP port 80 to retrieve instance metadata. For instance, to get the instance-id of an EC2 instance from the host itself, you can query with a GET request to curl -L Similarly, you can retrieve IAM credentials if the IAM role is attached to the EC2 instance. Let’s  assume you have created an IAM role for an EC2 instance with the name “iam-role-for-ec2”. Your SDK will then automatically access credentials via a GET request to curl -L


Notice that the response payload is JSON with AccessKeyId, SecretAccessKey, and Token. Additionally, there is an Expiration key, which states the validity of the token. This means the token is autogenerated once they expire.


Now that you know how IAM roles work and how important link-local address is, you have probably guessed what needs to be done so that you can access IAM role credentials from your local machine. The two solutions that popup in my mind are:

1. Host a lightweight reverse proxy server like Nginx and then write a wrapper around your SDK so that initial calls are made to EC2 and credentials are retrieved.

2. Route traffic originating from your system, targeting Traffic should reach the EC2 instance and EC2 itself should take care of forwarding packets to the instance metadata server.

The second solution may sound pretty techy, but it is the ideal solution, and you don’t need to do additional tweaking in your SDK. The developer is transparent about what is being implemented. This blog will focus on implementing a second solution.


1. Launch a Linux (Ubuntu 20.04 LTS prefered) EC2 instance from AWS console and attach the IAM role with appropriate permissions. The instance should be in the public subnet and make sure to attach an Elastic IP address. Whitelist incoming port 1194 UDP (open to world) and port 22 (ssh, open to your IP address only) TCP in your instance security group.

2. Install OpenVPN and git package. apt update; apt install git openvpn.

3. Clone easy-rsa repository on your server. cd ~;git clone

4. Generate certificates for OpenVPN server and client using easy-rsa.


5. Configure OpenVPN server.conf file:


In the above configuration file, make sure line number 9 is not conflicting with your AWS VPC CIDR. Line number 14 (push "route") does a trick for us and is the heart of this blog post. This assures that when a client connects via OpenVPN, a route is added to the client machine so that packets targeting are routed via OpenVPN tunnel. (Note: If you do not add this here, you can manually add a route to your client-side once OpenVPN is connected. ip route add YOUR_TUNNEL_IP dev tun0)

6. Generate an OpenVPN client configuration file:


In the above configuration file, make sure to update line number 9. This could be your EC2 elastic IP address (or domain if mapped and configured).

7. Finally, download the /tmp/client.ovpn file to your local machine. Install the OpenVPN client software, import the client.ovpn file, and connect. If you are using a Linux machine, you may connect using sudo openvpn --config /path/to/client.ovpn.


Let us say you have configured the IAM role with permission that lets you list S3 buckets. You should be able to access AWS resources once the OpenVPN client is connected. Your SDK should automatically look for credentials via metadata link-local address. You may install the aws-cli utility and run aws s3 ls to list S3 buckets.


IAM roles are meant to be used with AWS resources like EC2, ECS, Lambda, etc. so that you don’t keep the credentials hardcoded in the code or in the configuration file left unsecured on the disk. Our goal was to use the IAM role directly from the local machine (laptop). We achieved this by using OpenVPN secure SSL tunnel. The VPN assures that we are in a private network, thus keeping the environment compliant. This guide is not meant for how one should set up an OpenVPN server/client. Therefore, you must harden the OpenVPN server. You may put the server behind the network load balancer and may enforce MAC binding features to your clients.

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