Hidden Dangers in Creating Public EBS Snapshots on EC2

Amazon EC2 recently released a feature which lets you share an EBS snapshot so that other accounts can access it. The snapshot can be shared with specific individual accounts or with the public at large.

You should obviously be careful what files you put on a shared EBS snapshot because other people are going to be able to read them. What may not be so obvious to is that you also need to be wary of what files are not currently on the snapshot but once were.

For example, if you copied some files onto the EBS volume, then realized a few contained sensitive information, you might think it’s sufficient to delete the private files and continue on to create a public EBS snapshot of the volume.

The problem with this is that EBS is an elastic block store device, not an interface at the file system level. Any block which was once written to on the block device will be available on the shared EBS volume, even if it is not being used by a visible file on the file system.

Since popular Linux file systems do not generally wipe data when a file is deleted, it is often possible to recover the contents of the deleted files. Even attempting to overwrite a file may, depending on the application, leave the original content available on the disk.

This means any content that touched your EBS volume at any point may still be available to users of your shared EBS snapshot.

To be clear: I do not consider this to be a security flaw in EC2 or EBS. It is merely a security risk for people who do not understand and take precautions against the combination of interactions with file systems, block devices, EBS volumes, and snapshots.

$100 Reward

To demonstrate the security risk, I have created a simple challenge with a tangible reward. Here is a public EBS snapshot:


This EBS snapshot contains two files. The first file is README-1.txt which has nothing sensitive in it but will let you know that you’ve got the right device mounted on your EC2 instance.

The second file created on the source EBS volume contained an Amazon.com gift certificate for $100. I deleted this second file, then took an EBS snapshot of the volume and released it to the public.

The first person who successfully recovers the deleted file on this shared EBS snapshot and enters the gift certificate code into their Amazon.com account will win the $100 prize. Subsequent solvers will get a notice from Amazon that the certificate has already been redeemed, but you still get credit for solving it and helping demonstrate the risks.

Feel free to post a comment on this blog entry if you recovered the deleted file on the shared EBS snapshot. Recipes for doing so are welcomed even if you were not the first. I tested this, so know it’s possible and that the deleted file is still accessible (but I did not redeem the gift certificate, of course).

Good luck!