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Kubernetes Security Tools, The Risks, and Best Practices

Shingai Zivuku
December 12, 2023 | 17 min read

Kubernetes has become the dominant orchestration platform for deploying containerized applications due to its powerful capabilities for automation, scaling, and management of container workloads. However, the dynamic nature of Kubernetes environments also introduces unique security risks that require specific defensive strategies and tools. As more organizations adopt Kubernetes for mission-critical deployments, properly safeguarding the infrastructure and workloads running within it becomes crucial.


Securing Kubernetes is a nuanced topic, given its modular architecture and shifting topology. Care must be taken to implement security in a way that does not inhibit the agility and velocity benefits Kubernetes offers. With the right set of tools and practices, you can strike the right balance between security and productivity within your Kubernetes infrastructure. This Kubernetes security tools article aims to explore practical methods for protecting containers and clusters without compromising the key benefits of Kubernetes environments.

Main Security Risks and Challenges

Kubernetes environments present several unique security risks and attack surfaces that must be addressed. Some of the primary challenges and security threats facing Kubernetes deployments include:

  1. Misconfigurations - Kubernetes components like the API server, and etcd can be inadvertently misconfigured, exposing the network or granting overly permissive access. Errors in pod or deployment manifests can also lead to compromised security.
  2. Insufficient network segmentation - The flat network model of Kubernetes clusters makes it crucial to segment network traffic between pods and namespaces properly. Lack of segmentation allows lateral attacker movement.
  3. Weak access controls - Kubernetes does not restrict user access with need-to-know principles by default. This can let attackers escalate privileges or gain access to sensitive resources.
  4. Vulnerable container images - Containers built from images containing known vulnerabilities or misconfigurations can be deployed into production if not scanned and hardened beforehand.
  5. Insider threats - Malicious actors with cluster access can potentially launch attacks to steal or destroy sensitive data in the cluster. Proper auditing is needed.
  6. Increased attack surface - The Kubernetes API server, etcd, network plugins, and container runtimes introduce more components that can be potentially compromised by attackers.

Securing Kubernetes requires controls and tools specifically designed to mitigate these risks across the entire environment. Cluster infrastructure, network policies, user access, and container deployments all need to be secured as part of a defense-in-depth approach.

Critical Security Capabilities Needed

Hardening the security of Kubernetes resources requires implementing controls and Kubernetes security tools to provide defense in depth across these key areas:


1. Visibility

  • Employ container network monitoring tools to gain insights into pod-to-pod traffic patterns and identify anomalies that might indicate malicious activity. These tools should be capable of analyzing network flows, identifying potential threats, and generating alerts for further investigation.
  • Implement comprehensive auditing of all API server requests to track control plane operations and configuration changes. This auditing should capture details such as user IDs, access methods, and resource requests, enabling security teams to detect unauthorized access, misconfigurations, or suspicious activities.

2. Configuration Hardening

  • Configure API servers, etcd, controllers, and kubelets according to CIS benchmarks. These benchmarks provide guidance on hardening default configurations, reducing attack surfaces, and enhancing overall security posture.
  • Continuously scan live cluster configurations to detect any deviations from established security policies or misconfigurations that could compromise the cluster's integrity. This continuous scanning should identify and report any changes in permissions, resource access, or other configuration parameters that could introduce security vulnerabilities.
  • Enforce configuration compliance as code through policy frameworks like Pod Security Standards.
  • Remediate insecure settings through automated configuration remediation.

3. Network Segmentation

  • Leverage network policies to restrict pod-to-pod communications across namespaces. This segmentation limits the lateral movement of threats, preventing unauthorized access between different workloads and reducing the potential for widespread compromise.
  • Enforce ingress policies on load-balanced services to filter public traffic and control access to applications. These policies specify which external sources are allowed to access specific services, protecting internal workloads from unauthorized access and malicious traffic.
  • Use Kubernetes CNI plugins like Calico and Cilium for network visibility and access controls. These plugins provide granular control over network traffic, enabling advanced filtering, traffic shaping, and security enforcement.

4. Access Controls

  • Apply the principle of least privilege to limit user capabilities to only required resources.
  • Leverage role-based access control (RBAC) for fine-grained user and service account permissions.
  • Integrate Kubernetes access controls with external identity providers via OIDC.
  • Prevent privilege escalation and enforce immutable infrastructure through policy agents.

5. Container Security

  • Scan container images for vulnerabilities or misconfigurations on the build.
  • Harden container processes via read-only filesystems, limited capabilities, etc.
  • Detect suspicious container behavior and block malicious activities at runtime.
  • Automatically refresh containers with the latest patched images.
  • Use tools like Twistlock or Aqua to enforce container security policies.

6. Encryption

  • Enable TLS for all Kubernetes component communication and data in transit.
  • Store secrets, keys, and sensitive data encrypted at rest via tools like HashiCorp Vault.
  • Integrate hardware security modules (HSM) for master key management.
  • Encrypt node root filesystems and sensitive cluster data via dm-crypt.

7. Monitoring & Auditing

  • Collect and secure audit logs of all API server requests and user actions.
  • Gain holistic visibility into hosts, containers, networks, and storage.
  • Implement SIEM integration and analytics for threat detection and incident response.
  • Enable automatic response and mitigation actions triggered by alerts.

8. CI/CD Pipeline

  • Scan container image vulnerabilities as part of the build process.
  • Validate Kubernetes manifests against security policies before applying.
  • Only deploy images from trusted registries after scanning and signing.
  • Promote security hygiene as code through policy as code frameworks.

Taking a multi-layered defense-in-depth approach with these intersecting capabilities enables securing Kubernetes against both external and internal threats targeting the control plane, worker nodes, or application workloads. Implementing this comprehensive set of security best practices significantly reduces the attack surface and prevents threats from materializing across the Kubernetes environment.


The combination of hardened configurations, restricted access, network segmentation, runtime protections, encryption, and enhanced monitoring creates an overlapping mesh of security controls. This makes it exponentially harder for attackers to penetrate Kubernetes infrastructure or exploit its components.

Overview of Key Kubernetes Security Tools

Robust security is not about a single tool but weaving together integrated technologies to protect the entire Kubernetes deployment. Given the complexity of Kubernetes security, you must build a reliable Kubernetes security toolkit consisting of both open-source and commercial solutions.


Many prominent technologies have emerged to address the various challenges inherent to securing Kubernetes environments. An overview of some of the leading Kubernetes security tools across major capability areas includes


Configuration Scanning

  • Kube-bench: This Kubernetes security tool tests settings of Kubernetes components against CIS benchmarks to detect misconfigurations.
  • Conftest: Open Policy Agent plugin to validate Kubernetes manifests against security policies.
  • Komiser: Scans live clusters for security risks and generates compliance reports.

Network Security

  • Calico: Calico is an open source CNI plugin tool that enforces network policies and provides fine-grained filtering between pods.
  • Cilium: Microsegmentation and network visibility for containers via eBPF data plane.
  • Romana: CNI plugin tool for automated network segmentation and security group policies.

Access Control

  • OPA Gatekeeper: Enforce custom Kubernetes admission policies at runtime for access controls.
  • Kyverno: Kubernetes native policy engine tool that blocks insecure deployments pre-creation.
  • : Implements micro-segmentation, which is a security technique that isolates workloads within a Kubernetes cluster. This helps to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data and resources.

Secrets Management

  • HashiCorp Vault: Securely generate, store, and manage sensitive Kubernetes secrets.
  • Akeyless: Agentless secrets orchestration with RBAC, scanning, and auditing.
  • AWS Secrets Manager: Handles secrets rotation, access control, auditing.
  • Sealed Secrets: One-way encryption tool of secret manifests checked into source control.

Runtime Security

  • Falco: Behavioral monitoring and threat detection tool for container processes and activities.
  • Sysdig Falco: Detects abnormal application and Kubernetes behavior based on rules.
  • Palo Alto Prisma Cloud: Scans images and enforces runtime controls around containers in production.
  • Twistlock(Prisma Cloud Compute): WAF, RASP, and vulnerability scanning for Kubernetes workloads.

Monitoring

  • Datadog: Holistic observability tool with integrated security monitoring alerts and dashboards.
  • Sysdig Monitor: Visibility into hosts, containers, and Kubernetes objects for compliance and threat detection.
  • Dynatrace: AI-powered Kubernetes and container monitoring with automatic anomaly detection.

This mix of both open-source and commercial solutions provides coverage across the range of Kubernetes security requirements - from build to deployment to runtime. Adopting the right tools is key to defense in depth.

Best Practices for Securing Kubernetes

In addition to deploying Kubernetes security tools, whether you are a Kubernetes administrator or engineer, you should follow these recommended industry best practices to enhance the security posture of your clusters:

Maintain Up-to-Date Kubernetes Versions

Running the latest Kubernetes version is critical for security and reliability. New releases contain security patches, bug fixes, and feature improvements that can harden Kubernetes against emerging security threats.


However, Kubernetes updates often require careful planning and testing before deploying to production clusters. Breaking changes between versions can impact workloads. Consult the Kubernetes changelog for an overview of enhancements and deprecations with each release.

Harden Kubernetes Components and Hosts

  • Configure API servers, etcd, controller managers, kubelets, and Kubernetes hosts according to CIS benchmarks. This establishes secure defaults.
  • Enable role based access control (RBAC) and assign the least privilege permissions to all users and service accounts. Prevents privilege escalation.
  • Rotate all certificates, keys, and passwords used by Kubernetes components periodically.

Here is an example of a YAML manifest that implements some hardening practices for Kubernetes components and hosts:

# Enable RBAC
apiVersion: rbac.authorization.k8s.io/v1
kind: ClusterRoleBinding
metadata:
name: default-rbac
subjects:
- kind: Group
name: system:authenticated
apiGroup: rbac.authorization.k8s.io
roleRef:
kind: ClusterRole
name: view
apiGroup: rbac.authorization.k8s.io
---
# Create read-only role
kind: ClusterRole
apiVersion: rbac.authorization.k8s.io/v1
metadata:
name: read-only
rules:
- apiGroups: ["", "extensions", "apps"]
resources: ["*"]
verbs: ["get", "list", "watch"]
---
# Bind service account to read-only role
apiVersion: rbac.authorization.k8s.io/v1
kind: ClusterRoleBinding
metadata:
name: read-only-binding
roleRef:
apiGroup: rbac.authorization.k8s.io
kind: ClusterRole
name: read-only
subjects:
- kind: ServiceAccount
name: default
namespace: default
---
# Set winding key expiry
apiVersion: v1
kind: ConfigMap
metadata:
name: cert-config
namespace: kube-system
data:
cert-expiry: 2160h # 90 days

This enables cluster-wide RBAC, creates a read-only role, binds the default service account to that role, and sets a certificate rotation policy via ConfigMap.

Lower risk from compromised credentials.

  • Use admission webhooks like OPA Gatekeeper to enforce policies on deployments. Stops insecure workloads.
  • Set up audit logging to monitor all API requests and user activity. Critical for threat detection.

Validate and Lock Down Containers

  • Scan container images at build time and block deploying vulnerabilities into production. Shifts security left.
  • Sign container images and enable content trust to ensure integrity. Prevents tampering or forgery.
  • Apply Mandatory Access Control policies like SELinux to restrict container process actions. This helps limit the blast radius if the container is compromised.
  • Automatically refresh containers to pull the latest patched images. Maintains secure posture.

Strengthen Network Security

  • Define network policies to restrict communications between pods based on workload trust levels. Limits lateral movement.
  • Encrypt all inter-node Kubernetes communications with . Protects control plane traffic.
  • Integrate Kubernetes with underlying infrastructure firewall policies for defense in depth.

Manage Secrets Securely

  • Encrypt sensitive data like keys, credentials, and application secrets at rest and in transit. This significantly reduces the blast radius from a data breach, as the encrypted keys are useless to attackers without the decryption keys.
  • Use tools like HashiCorp Vault to securely generate, store, rotate, and access secrets like API keys, passwords, and certificates. This minimizes exposure of critical secrets by reducing the number of systems and users that have direct access.
  • Enable encryption of Kubernetes etcd data at rest to protect the sensitive cluster configuration secrets stored there. All of this configuration data is highly sensitive. Encrypting the etcd data adds a critical final layer of defense.

Continuously Monitor and Audit All Activities

  • Collect audit logs for the Kubernetes API server and controllers to trace all changes.
  • Monitor networking between pods along with node and container metrics for anomaly detection.
  • Forward logs and metrics to a SIEM for correlation, alerts, and historical analysis.
  • Enable automatic responses to shut down detected security threats or anomalies.

By combining the deployment of purpose-built tools with the implementation of administrative best practices, organizations can establish robust security for their Kubernetes clusters across multiple dimensions. Ongoing vigilance is required.

Conclusion

Kubernetes has become the leading platform for deploying containerized workloads and microservices. However, its dynamic nature and complexity introduce new security challenges that require specialized tools and practices.


To mitigate these risks, Kubernetes deployments must integrate security capabilities such as configuration hardening, network micro-segmentation, granular access controls, container image scanning, encrypted secrets management, and enhanced monitoring. Many open-source and commercial technologies now exist to provide these critical security features tailored to Kubernetes. Kubernetes security tools like kube-bench, Falco, Sysdig, and Datadog are purpose-built for securing containers, clusters, and cloud-native applications.


As Kubernetes continues to accelerate, securing the infrastructure and workloads it runs becomes paramount. Proper implementation of the tools and best practices covered in this article will give organizations an enhanced security posture on their journey with Kubernetes and containers. Security must evolve alongside agile application delivery.