Internal communication security - AWS Key Management Service

Internal communication security

Commands between the service hosts or AWS KMS operators and the HSMs are secured through two mechanisms depicted in Authenticated sessions: a quorum-signed request method and an authenticated session using an HSM-service host protocol.

The quorum-signed commands are designed so that no single operator can modify the critical security protections that the HSMs provide. The commands that run over the authenticated sessions help ensure that only authorized service operators can perform operations involving KMS keys. All customer-bound secret information is secured across the AWS infrastructure.

Key establishment

To secure internal communications, AWS KMS uses two different key establishment methods. The first is defined as C(1, 2, ECC DH) in Recommendation for Pair-Wise Key Establishment Schemes Using Discrete Logarithm Cryptography (Revision 2). This scheme has an initiator with a static signing key. The initiator generates and signs an ephemeral elliptic curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) key, intended for a recipient with a static ECDH agreement key. This method uses one ephemeral key and two static keys using ECDH. That is the derivation of the label C(1, 2, ECC DH). This method is sometimes called one-pass ECDH.

The second key establishment method is C(2, 2, ECC, DH). In this scheme, both parties have a static signing key, and they generate, sign, and exchange an ephemeral ECDH key. This method uses two static keys and two ephemeral keys, each using ECDH. That is the derivation of the label C(2, 2, ECC, DH). This method is sometimes called ECDH ephemeral or ECDHE. All ECDH keys are generated on the curve secp384r1 (NIST-P384).

HSM security boundary

The inner security boundary of AWS KMS is the HSM. The HSM has a proprietary interface and no other active physical interfaces in its operational state. An operational HSM is provisioned during initialization with the necessary cryptographic keys to establish its role in the domain. Sensitive cryptographic materials of the HSM are only stored in volatile memory and erased when the HSM moves out of the operational state, including intended or unintended shutdowns or resets.

The HSM API operations are authenticated either by individual commands or over a mutually authenticated confidential session established by a service host.


         HSM API operations.

Quorum-signed commands

Quorum-signed commands are issued by operators to HSMs. This section describes how quorum-based commands are created, signed, and authenticated. These rules are fairly simple. For example, command Foo requires two members from role Bar to be authenticated. There are three steps in the creation and verification of a quorum-based command. The first step is the initial command creation; the second is the submission to additional operators to sign; and the third is the verification and execution.

For the purpose of introducing the concepts, assume that there is an authentic set of operator’s public keys and roles {QOSs}, and a set of quorum-rules QR = {Commandi, Rule{i, t}} where each Rule is a set of roles and minimum number N {Rolet, Nt}. For a command to satisfy the quorum rule, the command dataset must be signed by a set of operators listed in {QOSs} such that they meet one of the rules listed for that command. As mentioned earlier, the set of quorum rules and operators are stored in the domain state and the exported domain token.

In practice, an initial signer signs the command Sig1 = Sign(dOp1, Command) . A second operator also signs the command Sig2 = Sign(dOp2, Command) . The doubly signed message is sent to an HSM for execution. The HSM performs the following:

  1. For each signature, it extracts the signer’s public key from the domain state and verifies the signature on the command.

  2. It verifies that the set of signers satisfies a rule for the command.

Authenticated sessions

Your key operations run between the externally facing AWS KMS hosts and the HSMs. These commands pertain to the creation and use of cryptographic keys and secure random number generation. The commands run over a session-authenticated channel between the service hosts and the HSMs. In addition to the need for authenticity, these sessions require confidentiality. Commands running over these sessions include the returning of cleartext data keys and decrypted messages intended for you. To ensure that these sessions cannot be subverted through man-in-the-middle attacks, sessions are authenticated.

This protocol performs a mutually authenticated ECDHE key agreement between the HSM and the service host. The exchange is initiated by the service host and completed by the HSM. The HSM also returns a session key (SK) encrypted by the negotiated key and an exported key token that contains the session key. The exported key token contains a validity period, after which the service host must renegotiate a session key.

A service host is a member of the domain and has an identity-signing key pair (dHOSi, QHOSi) and an authentic copy of the HSMs’ identity public keys. It uses its set of identity-signing keys to securely negotiate a session key that can be used between the service host and any HSM in the domain. The exported key tokens have a validity period associated with them, after which a new key must be negotiated.


         HSM-service host operator authenticated sessions.

The process begins with the service host recognition that it requires a session key to send and receive sensitive communication flows between itself and an HSM member of the domain.

  1. A service host generates an ECDH ephemeral key pair (d1, Q1) and signs it with its identity key Sig1 = Sign(dOS,Q1).

  2. The HSM verifies the signature on the received public key using its current domain token and creates an ECDH ephemeral key pair (d2, Q2). It then completes the ECDH-key-exchange according to Recommendation for Pair-Wise Key Establishment Schemes Using Discrete Logarithm Cryptography (Revised) to form a negotiated 256-bit AES-GCM key. The HSM generates a fresh 256-bit AES-GCM session key. It encrypts the session key with the negotiated key to form the encrypted session key (ESK). It also encrypts the session key under the domain key as an exported key token EKT. Finally, it signs a return value with its identity key pair Sig2 = Sign(dHSK, (Q2, ESK, EKT)).

  3. The service host verifies the signature on the received keys using its current domain token. The service host then completes the ECDH key exchange according to Recommendation for Pair-Wise Key Establishment Schemes Using Discrete Logarithm Cryptography (Revised). It next decrypts the ESK to obtain the session key SK.

During the validity period in the EKT, the service host can use the negotiated session key SK to send envelope-encrypted commands to the HSM. Every service-host-initiated command over this authenticated session includes the EKT. The HSM responds using the same negotiated session key SK.