Following attackers’ (Cloud)trail in AWS: Methodology and findings in the wild

October 11, 2023

Following Attackers’ (cloud)trail In Aws: Methodology And Findings In The Wild

As part of our security research, we regularly perform threat hunting activities—i.e., proactively searching for, and possibly identifying, malicious activity—in cloud environments. Threat hunting helps us identify new threats and improve the content available in Datadog’s security products.

Recently, our threat hunting sessions have focused primarily on AWS environments. In this post, we detail some of our methodology to proactively identify malicious activity by investigating logs in AWS Cloudtrail, which centralizes logs documenting user activity and API usage across an organization’s AWS infrastructure. We also share our findings on malicious activity we’ve observed in the wild, along with actionable queries and indicators of compromise for those who want to search their own environments for signs of the threat activity we’ve observed.

While some of these attacks reflect patterns that have been observed before and are starting to be well-understood, we believe it's critical to continuously challenge hypotheses based on what's really happening in the wild.

Goals of threat hunting in CloudTrail

Threat hunting is generally expected to drive the following outcomes:

  • Finding breaches and malicious activity
  • Fueling the design and creation of new detection rules
  • Building subject matter expertise on threat activity in a particular type of environment
  • Documenting learnings to share with others

Every hunt session starts with a hypothesis about attacker behavior and attempts to verify this idea in the real world using available data sources. The goal, much like the scientific method, is to reject or confirm the hypothesis. In an effort to better understand AWS threat actors, we performed several hunt sessions based on the following hypotheses:

  • An attacker may attempt to create an IAM user in order to persist in an environment they’ve breached
  • An attacker may attempt to leverage Amazon SES for email spam purposes
  • An attacker who has compromised an environment with private EC2 instances may attempt to access it by creating or importing EC2 key pairs and modifying security groups
  • An attacker who has compromised AWS credentials may attempt to enumerate the permissions assigned to a stolen identity


We identified that shortly after compromising an AWS environment, attackers frequently attempt to create an IAM user. In particular, we assess with high confidence that the following IAM user names have been used to create "backdoor" IAM users:


To identify suspicious identities, we looked at several elements such as:

  • High volumes of access denied errors from a specific identity
  • IAM user creation events from EC2 instances (where the role session name starts with i-)
  • Access denied errors that occurred when creating an IAM user, especially when the same IAM user name was attempted to be created across multiple environments
  • IAM user creation events from identities that had never created IAM users in the past
  • IAM user names with grammatical errors or slight deviations of a common word

Then, we analyzed the related activity to confirm maliciousness with a high level of confidence.

The "root" user

As indicated in the list above, we've seen numerous cases of an attacker attempting to create an IAM user named "root".

  "awsRegion": "us-east-1",
  "eventSource": "",
  "readOnly": false,
  "eventType": "AwsApiCall",
  "error": {
    "kind": "AccessDenied",
    "message": "User: arn:aws:iam::REDACTED:user/REDACTED is not authorized to perform: iam:CreateUser on resource: arn:aws:iam::REDACTED:user/root because no identity-based policy allows the iam:CreateUser action"
  "eventName": "CreateUser"

This strikes us as an attempt to stay under the radar, as people may think that this IAM user is the AWS default root user (which is, in reality, not an IAM user but a concept of its own).

The Emperor Tools toolkit

In one case, the malicious IAM user (EmperorsToolsShops32) is related to a toolkit, Emperors Tools, that's sold through an online shop.

Emperors Tools shop
Emperors Tools shop

The threat actor selling this toolkit has several Telegram channels, including one where they provide "free samples" of compromised AWS and RDP credentials:

AWS credentials
AWS credentials
RDP credentials
RDP credentials
AWS credentials
AWS credentials

It appears that the PHP script the actor uses to receive stolen files is available on GitHub. Using Shodan and Google, we were able to identify at least several compromised, legitimate websites that the actor is likely using as an intermediary.

PHP upload script
PHP upload script

Funnily enough, the attacker's upload script is vulnerable to a straightforward arbitrary file upload vulnerability that would easily allow remote code execution.

Persist, but check first

In several cases, we witnessed the attacker checking for the presence of a specific malicious IAM user before attempting to create it.

  "eventName": "GetUser",
  "errorCode": "AccessDenied",
  "errorMessage": "User: arn:aws:iam::[redacted]:user/[redacted] is not authorized to perform: iam:GetUser on resource: user admindvelop because no identity-based policy allows the iam:GetUser action"

We witnessed the following IAM user names being checked:


Creating security groups

We identified an actor who, after initial compromise, attempted to create a security group called Java_Ghost. We noticed this activity in several independent environments:

  "awsRegion": "us-east-1",
  "eventName": "CreateSecurityGroup",
  "eventCategory": "Management",
  "eventSource": "",
  "requestParameters": {
    "groupName": "Java_Ghost",
    "groupDescription": "TEST"

A similar activity was also noticed by a Reddit user in May 2022, whose account was compromised.

Considering that all attempts to create this security group failed due to a lack of permissions, we can't know for sure the intent of the attacker. However, it seems reasonable to assume that they were creating a security group before attempting to run EC2 instances.

Creating EC2 key pairs

The creation of a EC2 key pair is a known technique to maintain access to an AWS environment via EC2 instances. During our research, we witnessed one attacker attempt a DescribeInstances API call with a filter for a specific key-name before attempting to create a key pair. We inferred that this was likely an automated function to determine if the AWS account had been compromised previously.

  "eventName": "DescribeInstances",
  "requestParameters": {
    "filterSet": {
      "items": [{
        "valueSet": {
          "name": "key-name",
          "items": [{
              "value": "xg1"
  "eventName": "CreateKeyPair",
  "requestParameters": { 
    "keyFormat": "pem", 
    "keyName": "xg1" 

Most common enumeration techniques

In the table below, we’ve compiled the most common enumeration API calls discovered throughout our hunting activity. At this stage, the attacker has compromised credentials, but they don't know where they’ve landed in the breached environment. Their goal is to gain situational awareness and understand the value and potential of the compromised account.

Enumeration API call Comment Attacker's question being answered
sts:GetCallerIdentity Returns the identity of the authenticated user "What are the credentials I compromised?"
ses:GetAccount Returns information about the SES account, including sending limits and past usage "What's the volume of emails I can send through this account?"
ses:GetSendQuota Returns SES sending limits "What's the volume of emails I can send through this account?"
ses:ListIdentities Lists verified SES senders "Who can I impersonate?"
sns:GetSMSAttributes Returns SMS sending settings "What's the SMS monthly spend limit?"
iam:ListUsers Returns IAM users in the account "How many people are using this account?"
ec2:DescribeRegions Describes the Regions that are enabled for your account, or all Regions. "What regions are enabled that infrastructure could be set up in?"
ec2:DescribeInstances Describes the specified instances or all instances "What type of EC2 infrastructure is present in this account?"
ec2:DescribeVpcs Describes one or more of your VPCs "How is the network infrastructure set up in this account?"
lightsail:GetRegions Returns a list of all valid regions for Amazon Lightsail "What regions are enabled that infrastructure could be set up in?"
lightsail:GetInstances Returns information about all Amazon Lightsail instances "What type of Lightsail infrastructure is present in this account?"
route53:ListDomains Returns domain names registered in the account "What's the name and domain names of the organization I have compromised?"
route53:GetHostedZoneCount Returns the number of hosted zones in the account "How large is this company?"
s3:ListBuckets Returns S3 buckets "Is there sensitive data available?"
servicequotas:ListServiceQuotas Returns service quotas in use for a specific service (e.g. EC2) "How many resources can I spin up in that account?"

The usage pattern of these API calls leads us to believe that the discovery is automated, and not performed by a human—at least not at first. For instance, in several cases in which the compromised IAM user had the word s3 in it, the attacker did not attempt to list or access S3 buckets. These events are also logged within a very short period of time, reinforcing our assumption that their discovery is automated.

Detection Opportunities

As an outcome of our threat hunt, we used our findings to create several high-confidence detections. These are presented in a CloudTrail SQL format, allowing any team to search their CloudTrail logs for potential threats through AWS CloudTrail Lake.

Atomic indicator IAM user creation

  userIdentity.arn as user,
  eventSource = '' AND eventName = 'CreateUser' 
  AND requestParameters['userName'] IN ('EmperorsToolsShops32', 'one_piece', 'Policy-role-16', 'Policy-role-6', '', 's3.simprosys', 'flashx7860', 'sesadministrator', 'ses-admin', 'ses_BackupUser', 'sesadminsmtp', 'roxaot', 'devlops', 'produc-sns-net-usr', 'ampIify-dev', 'root', 'jSDSsajsnhjjjjjjwyyw', 'ses_legion', 'ses_master', 'MailSES', 's3-ftp')
  userIdentity.arn AS user,
  eventSource = '' AND eventName = 'CreateUser' 
  AND (errorMessage LIKE '%/EmperorsToolsShops32%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/one_piece%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/Policy-role-6%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/Policy-role-16%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/flashx7860%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/sesadministrator%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/ses-admin%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/ses_BackupUser%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/sesadminsmtp%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/roxaot%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/devlops%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/produc-sns-net-usr%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/adminprod%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/adminprodz%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/admindvelop%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/ampLify-dev%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/root%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/jSDSsajsnhjjjjjjwyyw%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/ses_legion%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/ses_master%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/MailSES%' OR errorMessage LIKE '%/s3-ftp%')

Atomic indicator Security Group creation

  userIdentity.arn AS user,
  eventSource = '' 
  AND eventName = 'CreateSecurityGroup'
  AND requestParameters['groupName'] = 'Java_Ghost'

Atomic indicator EC2 keypair creation

  userIdentity.arn AS user,
  eventSource = '' 
  AND eventName = 'CreateKeyPair'
  AND requestParameters['keyName'] IN ('xg1', 'temp_key_pair')

EC2 instances attempting to create IAM users

  userIdentity.sessioncontext.sessionissuer.arn as roleArn, 
  split(userIdentity.arn, '/')[3] as instanceId, 
  requestParameters['userName'], eventName 
  eventSource = '' AND eventName = 'CreateUser' 
  AND split(userIdentity.arn, '/')[3] LIKE 'i-%'

Principals with a high number of access denied errors

  COUNT(*) AS "Total access denied errors",
  COUNT(DISTINCT eventName) AS "Unique failed event names",
  array_distinct(array_sort(zip_with(array_agg(eventSource), array_agg(eventName), (source, event) -> concat(split_part(source, '.', 1), ':', event))) AS "Event names with permission denied")
WHERE errorCode = 'AccessDenied'
GROUP BY useridentity.arn
HAVING COUNT(DISTINCT concat(eventSource, ':', eventName)) > 1
ORDER BY "Unique failed event names" DESC

How Datadog can help

Datadog Cloud SIEM includes several detection rules that help teams detect some of the types of malicious activity we encountered in our AWS threat hunting. These include:

In addition, you can use the following Datadog logs queries to identify activity matching one of the indicators of compromise described in this post.

source:cloudtrail (@requestParameters.userName:(EmperorsToolsShops32 OR one_piece OR Policy-role-6 OR Policy-role-16 OR OR s3.simprosys OR flashx7860 OR sesadministrator OR ses-admin OR ses_BackupUser OR sesadminsmtp OR roxaot OR devlops OR produc-sns-net-usr OR adminprod OR adminprodz OR admindvelop OR ampLify-dev OR root OR jSDSsajsnhjjjjjjwyyw OR ses_legion OR ses_master OR MailSES OR s3-ftp) OR @error.message:(*/EmperorsToolsShops32* OR */one_piece* OR */Policy-role-6* OR */Policy-role-16* OR */* OR */s3.simprosys* OR */flashx7860* OR */sesadministrator* OR */ses-admin* OR */ses_BackupUser* OR */sesadminsmtp* OR */roxaot* OR */devlops* OR */produc-sns-net-usr* OR */adminprod* OR */adminprodz* OR */admindvelop* OR */ampLify-dev* OR */root* OR */jSDSsajsnhjjjjjjwyyw* OR */ses_legion* OR */ses_master* OR */MailSES* OR */s3-ftp))
source:cloudtrail @requestParameters.groupName:"Java_Ghost"
source:cloudtrail KeyPair @requestParameters.keyName:(xg1 OR temp_key_pair)


We are always trying to learn how the cloud threat landscape is evolving, and through the threat hunting activities described in this post, we identified some unique behaviors and validated some of the other amazing research out there, which we have referenced below. We hope you can use some of these indicators to find—or, hopefully, not find—badness in your own environment.


Annex: Indicators of compromise

These indicators have been observed between August 6 2023, and September 7 2023.

Indicator Type
Java_Ghost EC2 security group name
xg1 EC2 keypair name
temp_key_pair EC2 keypair name
EmperorsToolsShops32 IAM user name
one_piece IAM user name
Policy-role-6 IAM user name
Policy-role-16 IAM user name IAM user name
s3.simprosys IAM user name
flashx7860 IAM user name
sesadministrator IAM user name
ses-admin IAM user name
ses_BackupUser IAM user name
sesadminsmtp IAM user name
roxaot IAM user name
devlops IAM user name
produc-sns-net-usr IAM user name
adminprod IAM user name
adminprodz IAM user name
admindvelop IAM user name
ampIify-dev IAM user name
root IAM user name
jSDSsajsnhjjjjjjwyyw IAM user name
ses_legion IAM user name
ses_master IAM user name
MailSES IAM user name
s3-ftp IAM user name
3[.]92.161.20 IP Address
45[.]8.144.238 IP Address
35[.]88.137.175 IP Address
185[.]174.101.50 IP Address
38[.]25.16.137 IP Address
34[.]222.249.116 IP Address
54[.]144.221.102 IP Address
44[.]211.239.66 IP Address
165[.]22.30.213 IP Address
45[.]137.22.252 IP Address
114[.]124.242.80 IP Address
107[.]182.128.12 IP Address
3[.]134.110.223 IP Address
45[.]128.199.130 IP Address
18[.]207.250.11 IP Address
179[.]43.142.141 IP Address
170[.]64.156.73 IP Address
35[.]93.106.70 IP Address
54[.]179.17.106 IP Address
45[.].137.22.184 IP Address
54[.]163.234.166 IP Address
45[.]77.104.18 IP Address
3[.]238.100.27 IP Address
116[.]206.35.14 IP Address
191[.]96.50.11 IP Address
31[.]42.184.32 IP Address
95[.]214.24.124 IP Address
54[.]149.145.75 IP Address
170[.]64.148.101 IP Address
13[.]56.247.108 IP Address
18[.]159.195.197 IP Address
35[.]203.175.21 IP Address
110[.]137.115.39 IP Address
180[.]244.163.225 IP Address
170[.]64.166.210 IP Address
18[.]144.86.242 IP Address
185[.]145.245.42 IP Address
103[.]241.66.180 IP Address
20[.]163.67.84 IP Address
54[.]215.183.223 IP Address
45[.]8.17.29 IP Address
35[.]93.87.139 IP Address
20[.]219.103.204 IP Address
114[.]124.212.97 IP Address
170[.]64.174.72 IP Address
45[.]128.199.232 IP Address
64[.]190.113.103 IP Address
80[.]76.51.97 IP Address
54[.]202.114.214 IP Address
3[.]120.207.231 IP Address
5[.]62.20.22 IP Address
45[.]137.20.63 IP Address
103[.]241.66.161 IP Address
203[.]4.236.234 IP Address
179[.]43.191.162 IP Address
20[.]97.113.197 IP Address
51[.]222.42.163 IP Address
34[.]82.27.79 IP Address
165[.]227.178.173 IP Address
135[.]125.27.253 IP Address
184[.]168.125.148 IP Address
107[.]22.38.236 IP Address
3[.]87.88.196 IP Address
179[.]43.145.194 IP Address
34[.]168.149.29 IP Address
45[.]128.199.108 IP Address
54[.]245.40.95 IP Address
165[.]227.177.229 IP Address
2[.]58.150.54 IP Address
3[.]143.228.87 IP Address
20[.]18.34.148 IP Address
149[.]28.33.206 IP Address
36[.]77.170.40 IP Address
146[.]190.84.26 IP Address
3[.]230.173.139 IP Address
34[.]83.136.204 IP Address

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