5 common Kubernetes misconfigs and how to fix them

Kubernetes is a powerful tool with enough settings to deploy a performant, scalable, and reliable cloud native application. There are also enough settings so that it’s hard to keep all security and compliance best practices straight. Writing Kubernetes manifests to create a secure application is not straightforward and keeping all of the correct security requirements in your head is nearly impossible. Additionally, there are times when it feels easiest to loosen security restraints temporarily, such as granting overly permissive access for a container, until you forget to dial it back before deploying to production.

Overly permissive access leads to risk, but when you add the scalability of IaC into the mix, this risk can quickly multiply exponentially. We recently saw this in the wild with open-source modules, where 47% of publicly-accessible Helm charts in Artifact Hub contained a misconfiguration. This means every resource deployed using these charts also contained a misconfiguration unless the default configuration was updated.

In addition to analyzing the state of open source Helm chart security, we wanted to dig into the most common security challenges when developing Kubernetes infrastructure. We took the results of thousands of security scans of Kubernetes manifests and runtime environments and aggregated the data to find the most common security misconfigurations at each of the four levels of severity (Low, Medium, High, Critical) plus one more bonus high severity issue. For each misconfiguration, we’ll walk through the issue, why it’s a security concern, and how to fix it. Although these are well-documented misconfigurations, they’re still common, such as showing up in the recommended deployment for many popular services.

Low: The default namespace should not be used

Namespaces in Kubernetes create a logical separation for services that share the same cluster, creating “virtual” clusters. They are useful for separating services for security or resource allocation reasons when multiple applications share the same cluster or if there are multiple stages of applications in the same cluster (e.g., development, staging, production).

It shouldn’t be any surprise that the most common Low misconfiguration (and actually across all severities) is using the default namespace. This isn’t a bad thing for a single application, but in shared clusters, you lose the logical separation if everything is deployed to the default namespace. This makes it easier for a bad actor to access other services, or one service to be a resource hog for another team. Namespaces, along with other settings like resource limits, create those boundaries.

This could be the most common misconfig for a variety of reasons. First, it could be the power of defaults, where people simply apply a YAML file without adding a namespace. Second, it could be that many of the manifests scanned didn’t include a namespace, but the namespace was defined when applying the yaml (kubectl apply pod.yaml --namespace namespace1). The best practice, however, is to include it in the YAML file to avoid accidentally deploying to the default namespace. Third, if a cluster isn’t shared or there aren’t concerns about services talking or being resource hogs, there isn’t a need for custom namespaces.

To fix this, create a namespace if you don’t already have one. You can do this using the CLI, but let’s follow the declarative path and create a development-namespace.yaml:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
name: development
name: development

Then apply that YAML with kubectl apply -f development-namespace.yaml

Next, add a namespace to the metadata section of the pod, secrets, ConfigMap, etc. manifest with the following lines:

+ namespace: development

Medium: Containers should not run with allowPrivilegeEscalation

allowPrivilegeEscalation is part of the Pod Security Policies deprecated in Kubernetes 1.21 and set to be removed in 1.25. There will be replacements, but until then, it’s worth addressing the most common Medium severity issue—containers running with allowPrivilegeEscalation.

allowPrivilegeEscalation allows a container to run in privileged mode. If enabled, this allows the container to access the host just like a host process, instead of a container isolated process. That means that if a bad actor gets access to that container, they will be able to exploit the host, such as monitoring traffic or leveraging the CRI to spin up a cryptojacking container.

If a container absolutely needs access to host capabilities, such as the host network or filesystem, set those capabilities individually. However, this really should not be necessary in most cases.

To resolve the issue, add the securityContext with allowPrivilegeEscalation set to false in the container spec for a pod.

- name: 
+ allowPrivilegeEscalation: false

High: Ensure container is not privileged

The most common High misconfiguration is directly related to the previous issue, but it is a more direct configuration. In fact, setting a container to privileged or granting it CAP_SYS_ADMIN permissions will automatically set allowPrivilegeEscalation to true. The effect is the same—the container is spun up with root access and no cgroup limits, so any successful exploits of that container will have complete access to the host. What’s interesting about this setting is that it is by default set to false.

That means enough users are turning on privileged containers to be our most common High severity violation. This is likely due to certain containers needing a few Linux capabilities, such as a monitoring agent needing CAP_NET_RAW access, and it being easier to just grant that agent root access.

The more secure way to run a container is without privilege access and with resources limited by cgroups. If your container absolutely must have access to certain kernel capabilities, such as CAP_NET_ADMIN for network monitoring, it should be granted one by one rather than in a bundle.

- name:
- privileged: true

Critical: Ensure that the –kubelet-https argument is set to true

Checkov only has a few critical policies for Kubernetes, so you know they are especially important. A majority of these policies are for self-deployed Kubernetes instances where you have even more ways to customize the control plane and ways to create a security misconfiguration. Misconfigurations for insecurely deploying the Kubernetes API or kubelet API open clusters to attacks that can grant bad actors complete control over your cluster to do things like spin up cryptojacking containers or steal sensitive data.

The most common Critical misconfiguration is turning --kubelet-https to false. The --kubelet-https flag ensures that traffic between the Kubernetes API server and the kubelets is encrypted. By default, this is turned on and isn’t available for the managed offerings from the big cloud providers. We’ve run into clusters where this setting is turned off, mostly in development environments. If traffic is not encrypted, it’s subject to man-in-the-middle attacks.

In order to keep this turned on, either omit that flag or, better yet, explicitly set it to true. You can add this as a flag or do it declaratively in the commands section of the spec:

creationTimestamp: null
component: kube-apiserver
tier: control-plane
name: kube-apiserver
namespace: kube-system
- command:
+ - kube-apiserver
+ - --kubelet-https=true

BONUS: HIGH: Ensure Amazon EKS public endpoint disabled

We’ve already gone through one vanilla Kubernetes High severity misconfiguration, so let’s do one for a managed Kubernetes offering.

When you configure an EKS cluster on Amazon, the API endpoint is, by default, public to the world. It still requires IAM permissions, but many organizations prefer a layered approach, limiting access to the API endpoint to a bastion host or VPN.

To lower the attack surface, you can either limit the CIDR blocks that can access the public API endpoint or set the API endpoint to private. For the latter option, if you use the official CLI eksctl, create your cluster with eksctl utils update-cluster-endpoints --name=<clustername> --private-access=true --public-access=false. If you use Terraform, add these lines to your code:

module "eks_cluster" {
+ cluster_endpoint_private_access = true
+ cluster_endpoint_public_access = false

Hardening Kubernetes clusters against exploits

These are just five of the common misconfigurations we’ve found. Kubernetes is powerful and has the capabilities to run secure workloads if you configure it right. Learn more about the essential Kubernetes IaC security considerations and how to use Checkov to identify these misconfigurations and more in your Kubernetes manifests.

This post was originally published on VMblog on September 21, 2021.

Learn how to holistically address these common Kubernetes misconfigurations in our DevSecGuide to Kubernetes.