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Container Security 2018: Threats and Concerns

By Adrian Lane

To better understand which container security areas you should focus on, and why we recommend particular controls, it helps to understand which threats need to be addressed and which areas containers affect most. Some threats and issues are well-known, some are purely lab proofs of concept, and others are threat vectors which attackers have yet to exploit – typically because there is so much low-hanging fruit elsewhere.

So what are the primary threats to container environments?

Threats to the Build Environment

The first area which needs protection is the build environment. It’s not first on most people’s lists for container security, but I start here because it is typically the least secure, and the easiest place to insert malicious code. Developers tend to loathe security in development because it slows them down. That is why there is an entire industry dedicated to test data management and data asking: because developers tend to end-run around security whenever it slows their build and testing processes.

What kinds of threats are we talking about, specifically? Things like malicious or moronic source code changes. Malicious or mistaken alterations to automated build controllers. Configuration scripts with errors, or which expose credentials. The addition of insecure libraries or down-rev/insecure versions of existing code. We want to know whether runtime code has been scanned for vulnerabilities. And we worry about failures to audit all the above and catch any errors.

Container Workload and Contents

What the hell is in the container? What does it do? Is that even the correct version? These are common questions from operations folks. They have no idea. Nor do they know whether developers included tools like ssh in a container so they can alter its contents on the fly. Just as troubling is the difficulty of mapping access rights to OS and host resources by a container, which can break operational security and open up the entire stack to various attacks. Security folks are typically unaware of what – if any – container hardening may have been performed. You want to know each container’s contents have been patched, vetted, hardened, and registered prior to deployment.

Runtime Behavior

Organizations worry a container will attack or infect another container. They worry a container may quietly exfiltrate data, or just exhibit suspicious behavior. We have seen attacks extract source code, and others add new images to registries – in both cases the platforms were unprotected by identity and access management. Organizations need to confirm that access to the Docker client is sufficiently gated through access controls to limit who controls the runtime environment. They worry about containers running a long time, without rotation to newer patched versions. And whether the network has been properly configured to limit damage from compromise. And also about attackers probing containers, looking for vulnerabilities.

Operating System Security

Finally, the underlying operating system’s security is a concern. The key question is whether it is configured correctly to restrict each container’s access to the subset of resources it needs, and to effectively block everything else. Customers worry that a container will attack the underlying host OS or the container engine. They worry that the container engine may not sufficiently shield the underlying OS. If an attack on the host platform succeeds it’s pretty much game over for that cluster of containers, and may give malicious code sufficient access to pivot and attack other systems.

Orchestration Manager Security

A key reason to update and reissue this report is this change in the container landscape, where focus has shifted to orchestration managers which control containers. It sounds odd, but as containers have become a commodity unit of application delivery, organizations have begun to feel they understand containers, and attention has shifted to container management. Attention and innovation have shifted to focus on cluster orchestration, with Kubernetes the poster child for optimizing value and use of containers. But most of the tools are incredibly complex. And like many software product, the focus of orchestration tools is scalability and ease of management – not security. As you probably suspected, orchestration tools bring a whole new set of security issues and vulnerabilities. Insecure default configurations, as well as permission escalation and code injection vulnerabilities, are common. What’s more, most organizations issue certificates, identity tokens and keys from the orchestration manager as containers are launched.

We will drill down into these issues and what to do about them in the remainder of this series.

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