iSEC Research Labs

IAM user management strategy (part 2)

09 Jun 2015 - Loïc Simon
This article is part of the AWS blog post series

The previous IAM user management strategy post discussed how usage of IAM groups enables AWS administrators to consistently grant privileges and enforce a number of security rules (such as MFA-protected API access). This blog post will build on this idea by introducing category groups and documenting new tools to improve IAM user management.

Categorize your IAM users

For a variety of reasons, applying a single set of security rules to all IAM users is not always practical. For example, because many applications running in AWS predate IAM roles, numerous environments still rely on the existence of headless IAM users. Additionally, third parties may be granted access to an AWS account for a number of reasons but may not be able to comply with the same set of security rules that employees follow. For this reason, NCC recommends using category groups to sort IAM users and reliably enforce appropriate security measures. For example, one group for all human users and a second for all headless users may be created: MFA-protected API access and password management are not relevant for headless users. Furthermore, human users may be categorized into several groups such as employees and contractors: API access can be restricted to the corporate IP range for employees but might not be achievable for contractors.

Note 1: The set of category groups should define all types of IAM users that may exist in your AWS account and each IAM user should belong to one -- and only one -- category group (they may belong to other groups though).

Note 2: The common group and category groups should be used to enable enforcing security in one's AWS environment. Policies attached to these groups should be carefully reviewed and grant the minimum set of privileges necessary for this type of IAM user (e.g. credential management for humans).

Example of category groups

The rest of this article describes a number of tools developed and used by NCC to help implement this IAM user management strategy. These tools can be found in the AWS-Recipes repository. We will use our test AWS environment as an example, in which we use three category groups in addition to the AllUsers common group:

  1. AllHumans, the group all employees must belong to.
  2. AllHeadlessUsers, the group all headless IAM users must belong to.
  3. AllMisconfiguredUsers, a placeholder for sample misconfigured users.

We also have an IAM user naming convention that requires usernames to match the following schema:

  1. Employees: firstname initial appended with lastname
  2. Headless user: name of the service prefixed with HeadlessUser-
  3. Misconfigured: description of the misconfiguration prefixed with MisconfiguredUser-

Based on these rules, we created a configuration file stored under .aws/recipes/isecpartners.json, with isecpartners matching the profile's name. If you do not use profiles, the configuration will be under .aws/recipes/default.json.

    "common_groups": [ "AllUsers" ],
    "category_groups": [
    "category_regex": [
    "profile_name": [ "isecpartners" ]

This configuration file declares the name of the common IAM group and two lists related to the categorization of IAM users:

  1. A list of category groups.
  2. A list of regular expressions matching our naming convention.

Note 1: If you do not have a naming convention in place to distinguish the type of user, remove the category_regex attribute from your configuration file.

Note 2: If a regular expression is only applicable to a subset of category groups, you must ensure that both lists have the same length and use an empty string for groups that cannot be automatically associated (see the AllHumanUsers group in our example).

Note 3: Use of a configuration file is not necessary as all values may be passed as command line arguments. If a configuration file exists and a value is passed as an argument, the value passed via the command line will be used.

Create your default groups with

The purpose of this tool is to create IAM groups whose name matches the common and category groups specified in the above configuration file. Running the following command results in four new groups being created if they did not already exist.

./ --profile isecpartners

(Automatically) sort IAM users with

This tool iterates through all IAM users and attempts to automatically detect the IAM groups each user should belong to. For convenience, we recommend adding the following to your AWS recipes configuration files:

"": {
    "create_groups": false,
"force_common_group": true

This specifies default values for additional arguments to be set when running Specifically, with these values, running this tool will automatically add all IAM users to the common group AllUsers and will not attempt to create the default groups (not necessary as we already did this). Additionally, this tool checks that each IAM user belongs to one of the category groups. If this is not the case and the username matches a regular expression, the user is automatically added to the matching category group. Otherwise, a multi-choice prompt appears to allow manual selection of the appropriate category group.

Additional advantages of configuration files

Besides helping with simplification of these tools' usage, this new AWS-recipe configuration file can be used across tools, allowing for more consistent rule enforcement. For example, the tool uses this configuration file and applies the same business logic to add users to the common group and appropriate category group at user creation time. In our test environment, for example, running the following command automatically added the new user to the MisconfiguredUser group:

$ ./ --profile isecpartners --users MisconfiguredUser-BlogPostExample
Creating user MisconfiguredUser-BlogPostExample...
Save unencrypted value (y/n)? y
User 'MisconfiguredUser-BlogPostExample' does not belong to the mandatory common group 'AllUsers'. Do you want to remediate this now (y/n)? y
User 'MisconfiguredUser-BlogPostExample' does not belong to any of the category group (AllHumanUsers, AllHeadlessUsers, AllMisconfiguredUsers). Automatically adding...
Enabling MFA for user MisconfiguredUser-BlogPostExample...


While efficient and reliable management of IAM users can be challenging, using the right strategy and tools significantly simplifies this process. Creation and use of a naming convention for IAM users enables automated user management and enforcement of security rules.