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Implicit SAR – IAM Evaluation with Implicit Self Assume Role

31 Mar 2024


In the last post I covered the two documented types of IAM sts:AssumeRole behavior. In this post, I cover a specific subset of this behavior that was changed in AWS’s IAM role trust policy update and only occurred when a role attempted to assume itself.

Implicit Self-Assume Role

This blog post series will refer to this previous behavior as Implicit Self-Assume Role or SAR. Previously, roles implicitly trusted themselves from a role trust policy perspective if they had identity-based permissions to assume themselves.

For example, if we have the following broad and powerful statement in an identity-based policy on a Role:

  "Effect": "Allow",
  "Resource": "*",
  "Action": "sts:AssumeRole"

Then, under the previous behavior, the identity policy itself was sufficient for the Role to assume itself; because in this specific situation, the roles implicitly trusted themselves, and so the role could assume itself regardless of whether its role trust policy referenced the role or not.

This IAM Evaluation Behavior was relatively unknown because a role assuming itself is an anti-pattern that wasn’t commonly implemented - according to AWS, most of the usage they observed before making this change was due to software bugs or other accidental usage.

Additionally, because of the requirement for broad identity-based permissions meant this quirk appeared innocuous at first glance.

What Types of Roles Did Implicit SAR Apply To?

Specifically, under the previous behavior, Implicit SAR affected roles where the identity-based policy of a role allowed sts:AssumeRole to itself, and the trust policy did not explicitly deny the same permission.

Privileged Roles

This included any role that used a policy granting sts:AssumeRole with a *. Generally, this is a very powerful action so these policies often included other privileged actions like the ability to modify IAM.

Trust Policy-based Authorization Models

In a Trust Policy-based authorization model sts:AssumeRole access is managed primarily via IAM Role Trust policies. In these cases broad identity-based sts:AssumeRole permissions may be assigned to simplify IAM management. As long as IAM access to the account is strictly managed, it is not necessarily insecure and allows managing access solely through the target role’s trust policy.

While this is not encouraged, in some cases, it is necessary. For example, situations that do not know all cross-account target roles prior to provisioning can not restrict access in the identity policy.


I will only focus on the cases mentioned above in the later posts, but for the sake of completeness, we can also consider another category where policies granted access based on resource globs or session tags. For example, when sts:AssumeRole access was granted using a partial glob (i.e. arn:aws:sts::*:role/db-access-*) matching the current role, or when sts:AssumeRole was allowed when principal session tags matched the target role’s resource tags.


In this post, we covered the specifics of previous Implicit SAR behavior and the types of roles they apply to.

Next, I will dive into how we could have taken advantage of the previous behavior under certain conditions to extend the effective lifetime of a role session beyond its expected session duration.