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Understanding the NEED for AWS Permission Boundaries

cloud computing

AWS Permission Boundaries are a critical component in safeguarding your AWS environment. When I first read about them, I thought they were redundant: “Why can't we just use granular policies to mitigate the risk of privilege escalation to begin with?”. But as I researched more on the topic I came to understand that it is all about autonomy and productivity for developers and security teams.

Analogy 1: The Chef and the Locked Pantry

Imagine a restaurant where the head chef (representing a developer) is responsible for creating exquisite dishes (developing applications). In this restaurant, all the exotic ingredients (privileged permissions) are kept in a locked pantry, and the key is held by the restaurant manager (the security team). Every time the chef needs a specific ingredient for a new dish, they must stop cooking, find the manager, and request access to the pantry. This process involves:

  1. Interrupting the Cooking Process: Each time the chef needs a new ingredient, they have to pause their cooking. This represents the interruption in a developer's workflow every time they need new permissions.
  2. Seeking Approval for Access: The chef must explain why they need the ingredients and wait for the manager's approval. Similarly, developers have to explain and justify their need for new permissions to the security team.
  3. Waiting for the Manager: The manager might be busy with other tasks, causing delays. This is akin to the wait times developers face when security teams are handling other requests or assessments.
  4. Impact on the Manager: The manager, who has other responsibilities, is constantly interrupted by the chef's requests. This reflects how security teams can become bottlenecks, overwhelmed by frequent permission requests.
  5. Reduced Efficiency and Creativity: The chef's creativity and efficiency in preparing dishes are hampered by the constant need to seek permission. For developers, similar delays can stifle innovation and slow down project timelines.

In this scenario, the constant back-and-forth for permission significantly hampers both the chef's (developer's) productivity and the manager's (security team's) ability to perform their other duties effectively. It creates a dependency that is inefficient and frustrating for both parties.

By implementing a system like AWS Permission Boundaries, it's as if the chef is given a set of keys to a secondary pantry that contains a wide variety of ingredients, though not as extensive as the main pantry. These ingredients are enough for most dishes, allowing the chef to work efficiently without constantly seeking permission. However, for truly exotic ingredients (highly privileged permissions), the chef would still need to go through the manager. This system strikes a balance, enhancing autonomy for the chef while maintaining the manager's oversight for exceptional cases, thus boosting productivity and innovation for both.

Analogy 2: The 'Junior Admin'

Let us assume that 'junior admins' are users with administrative responsibilities but limited authority. Permission Boundaries are pivotal in empowering these junior admins to be more productive. They can manage resources within their scope without the risk of overstepping or unintentionally escalating their privileges. In this scenario, 'senior admins' or Master AWS administrators play a crucial role. They have the authority to adjust these boundaries, essentially balancing the scope of actions and permissions that users and roles can exercise within AWS, ensuring a secure environment and hence mitigating the risk of security incidents caused by misconfigurations.

Why Use Permission Boundaries?

Prevention of privilege escalation

  • The primary benefit of AWS Permission Boundaries is the prevention of privilege escalation.
  • They offer a layered security approach, complementing IAM policies by adding an additional layer of control. This granular management of permissions ensures that even with comprehensive IAM policies, there's an extra safeguard against unauthorized access or actions, reinforcing security and operational integrity.

Complementing Service Control Policies

  • In the context of AWS Permission Boundaries, a critique often revolves around the balance between developer freedom and security needs.
  • Developers seek autonomy to build secure solutions, while security teams focus on compliance and control. This balance is crucial, as development and security teams sometimes do not collaborate as closely as needed, leading to bottlenecks in the release process due to security reviews of IAM policy changes.
  • Permission Boundaries serve as a vital tool in this landscape, acting more like a scalpel compared to the broader sweep of Service Control Policies (SCPs). They are attached to individual identities, limiting their privileges and allowing for more nuanced control. This precision is particularly useful in conditions where developers need to create roles or users, ensuring that they attach the permission boundary during creation or updating. This mechanism ensures that developers can operate within a controlled environment without overstepping boundaries.

It's important to note that Permission Boundaries are not a magic bullet for all security issues. They set the upper limit of permissions but do not inherently ensure the principle of least privilege. Developers must still be vigilant in limiting the scope of their policies. Despite this, Permission Boundaries provide a significant layer of defense against overly broad permissions and are a valuable tool in the AWS security toolbox, helping to mitigate the impact of potential misconfigurations.

Permission boundary vs Service Control Policies (SCPs)

Service Control Policies (SCPs):

  • SCPs apply to the entire AWS account and all resources within it. They act as a broad mechanism to enforce compliance and governance across the account.
  • SCPs are often described as "blunt instruments" because of their wide-ranging impact, making them ideal for overarching account-level restrictions.
  • A key use case for SCPs is to restrict every principal in the account through a single policy, rather than managing restrictions for individual identities or roles. This makes SCPs particularly useful for enforcing organization-wide policies and ensuring consistent security and compliance standards across all users and resources in an account.

AWS Permission Boundaries:

  • In contrast, Permission Boundaries are more granular and are attached to individual IAM identities (users or roles). They serve as a "scalpel" compared to the broader approach of SCPs.
  • The primary use case for Permission Boundaries is to limit the privileges available to IAM roles, particularly those created by developers or delegated administrators. This is crucial in scenarios where developers need the flexibility to create and manage roles but should be restricted from granting overly broad permissions.
  • For example, a developer might need to create a role that can access specific AWS resources like Amazon S3 buckets or DynamoDB tables. Permission Boundaries allow this while ensuring that the developer cannot grant access to sensitive resources or exceed the defined permission scope. The central administrator can enforce this by attaching a condition to the developer’s identity policy, requiring that a permissions boundary be attached to any new role they create.

Other clouds

Despite different terminologies and approaches, Azure's tools align with the principles of AWS's SCPs and Permission Boundaries in managing cloud resource security and compliance. Similar to AWS Permission Boundaries, **Azure Policies** and **Management Groups** control access and permissions, effectively preventing privilege escalation by ensuring adherence to defined corporate security standards and service-level agreements. In addition, you can use RBAC to segregate duties within your team and grant only the amount of access to users that they need to perform their jobs. Instead of giving everybody unrestricted permissions in your Azure subscription or resources, you can allow only certain actions at a particular scope.


AWS Permission Boundaries are more than just a security feature; they're a fundamental aspect of responsible AWS management. They offer a balanced approach to access control, providing flexibility while maintaining tight security controls. As we've explored through various analogies, understanding and implementing these boundaries is crucial for any AWS administrator. Dive deeper into AWS Permission Boundaries to fortify your cloud environment and harness the full potential of AWS's security capabilities.


  1. "Using Permission Boundaries to Balance Security and Developer Productivity," DEV Community. Available at: https://dev.to/tecracer
  2. "When and where to use IAM permissions boundaries," AWS Security Blog. Available at: https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/security/