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The most common Kubernetes security issues and challenges

The open-source nature of Kubernetes means that it is continually being updated and improved, which introduces new features and functionalities—as well as new vulnerabilities. Understand the most pressing K8 security challenges.

Wiz Experts Team
6 min read

A brief overview of Kubernetes

Kubernetes has emerged as a potent orchestration platform, one that transforms the landscape of container management and deployment. By automating application container deployment, scaling, and management, Kubernetes provides an efficient and resilient framework for running distributed systems. 

That’s why Kubernetes, also known as K8s, has become the go-to solution for organizations looking to streamline their development processes through container orchestration. Building on that strong foundation, Kubernetes’ dynamic ecosystem supports a range of container tools and has a vast community of users and contributors, fostering innovation and offering a rich set of features to enhance container management further.

The importance of security

Kubernetes, despite its robust architecture, is not immune to security threats. The complexity of its environment, coupled with the rapid pace of deployments, can sometimes lead to oversights and vulnerabilities. To stay ahead of potential attackers, DevSecOps professionals need to stay up to date on security challenges and implement security measures to safeguard Kubernetes deployments—from containerized applications to the underlying infrastructure. 

Pro tip

Integrate vulnerability scanning into CI/CD pipelines to ensure that every build is automatically scanned for vulnerabilities. This continuous scanning approach aligns with the DevSecOps philosophy of integrating security into the development process, enabling immediate feedback and remediation.

Learn more about Kubernetes Vulnerability Scanning ->

Network security, access control, and data encryption could all be targeted by threat actors. And the open-source nature of Kubernetes means that it is continually being updated and improved, which introduces new features and functionalities—as well as new vulnerabilities. Let’s take a closer look at the most pressing K8 security challenges.

The Top 7 Kubernetes security threats 

Data indicates that two-thirds of organizations have delayed or slowed down deployments due to security concerns associated with Kubernetes. But with some knowledge of pressing threats, you don’t have to let Kubernetes risks stand in the way of fast deployments. Below are the top 7 security risks that every DevSecOps professional should be aware of:

1. Vulnerable container images

Unsecured container images present significant risks, including the potential for vulnerabilities and misconfigurations, the primary security concerns in today’s container and Kubernetes environments. These issues have led to organizations experiencing delays or slowdowns in deployment, with many facing adverse impacts such as revenue loss and fines. 

It should also be noted that open-source software has raised significant concerns for software supply chain security. That's why it's best practice to scan container images for vulnerabilities and ensure they are secured before deployment to maintain the integrity of the software supply chain and to avoid the substantial repercussions of security and compliance incidents.

Pro tip

Wiz investigated the number of cloud environments that utilize managed Kubernetes clusters and found that approximately 40% of environments have at least one pod with a cleartext long-term cloud key that is stored in its container image and associated with an IAM/AAD cloud identity. As with lateral movement risks in the VPC, these numbers underscore the exploitability of many organizations’ cloud environments.

Learn more

2. Kubernetes API vulnerabilities

The Kubernetes API can be a potential vulnerability point, posing significant risks if not adequately secured. Attackers can exploit unprotected API endpoints to gain unauthorized access to your systems. Unprotected API endpoints can also serve as a gateway for various cyberattacks, including injection attacks and denial of service (DoS) attacks, which can severely disrupt business operations and compromise sensitive data. 

Securing API endpoints through authentication and authorization mechanisms prevents such attacks, safeguarding your organization's assets, and maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of your data.

3. Cluster misconfiguration 

Cluster misconfiguration is a prevalent issue where the settings and arrangements of the clusters are not optimal, potentially leading to security vulnerabilities. It’s critical to meticulously configure the clusters, ensuring that network policies are correctly implemented and access controls are robust. Otherwise, you open yourself up to unauthorized access and potential security breaches. Regular audits can help you identify and fix misconfigurations promptly. 

Pro tip

There are a number of open-source security tools that organizations can leverage in areas like compliance and configuration scanners, runtime security and threat detection, policy management and enforement, network security, exploit detection.

Check out our post on the top 11 open-source Kubernetes security tools

4. Unrestricted network access

Implementing network policies that restrict access to sensitive areas of your network can go a long way in securing your environment. Beyond protecting against data breaches, restricting network access helps prevent denial of service (DoS) and man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks, which can disrupt business operations and compromise data integrity. By outlining clear boundaries through network policies, you can protect critical infrastructure from intrusions, ensuring business continuity and safeguarding sensitive data.

5. Using default Kubernetes settings 

Using default settings can be a shortcut to deploying clusters, but it comes with risks, including a higher susceptibility to unauthorized access. Reduce risks by altering the default settings to more secure configurations, which might involve setting up firewalls, turning off unnecessary services, and ensuring encryption is enabled where necessary. 

This approach not only fortifies the security posture but also tailors the environment to the specific needs and demands of your organization.

6. RBAC and permissions

Role-based access control (RBAC) is vital in managing permissions and ensuring that only authorized individuals can access certain information. Implementing strict RBAC policies can help combat risks associated with unauthorized access. The risks posed by improper permissions management include potential data breaches, where sensitive information can be accessed or leaked by individuals who shouldn't have access to it. Unfortunately, improper permissions management can also facilitate internal fraud and data manipulation, undermining the integrity and reliability of the system. That’s why a well-implemented RBAC system is an essential part of safeguarding data and maintaining trust in your systems.

7. Kubernetes Secrets

Kubernetes Secrets are objects designed to securely store and handle confidential data, such as passwords, OAuth tokens, and SSH keys. Because it’s designed for sensitive data, a Secret can lead to security breaches. To keep data safe, encrypt Secrets at rest and limit access to Secrets to only those components that require it.

How to overcome Kubernetes security challenges

Let’s take a deeper dive into the technical aspects of securing your Kubernetes environment and learn actionable steps and best practices. To take control of your Kubernetes security, it’s best practice to concentrate your efforts on the following domains:

  • Workload security: Safeguard the applications running on Kubernetes from potential threats by ensuring the code is secure and the runtime environment is configured correctly to prevent unauthorized access and other security breaches.

  • Workload configuration: Correctly configuring workloads is a detailed task that demands a deep understanding of Kubernetes architecture and involves setting the correct parameters to ensure workloads are secure and operate optimally. We have you covered: Our Migration Guide from Pod Security Policies to Pod Security Standards explains the nuances of secure workload configuration.

  • Cluster configuration: A secure cluster configuration is pivotal in safeguarding your Kubernetes environment. Take steps like establishing stringent access controls to restrict unauthorized access to sensitive data, and implement robust logging and monitoring systems to detect and respond to any security incidents promptly. Additionally, it’s vital to secure the API server through mechanisms such as role-based access control (RBAC) and mutual TLS authentication to create a fortified defense against unauthorized data access and other potential cyber threats. 

  • Kubernetes networking: Set up network policies that dictate the kind of traffic allowed between pods, helping to isolate workloads and reduce the risk of malicious attacks. Tools like Calico or Cilium can enhance network security and performance by providing features such as API-driven control, load balancing, and encryption to safeguard data transmissions.

  • Infrastructure security: Safeguarding the physical and virtual resources that support the Kubernetes environment can be a huge undertaking. For valuable insights into how it’s done, look to our Enhancements in Kubernetes security with user namespaces guide.

Pro tip

"The main motivation behind user namespaces in the container context is curbing the potential impact of container escape. When a container-bound process running as root escapes to the host, it is still considered a privileged process with its user ID (UID) equal to 0. However, user namespaces introduce a consistent mapping between host-level user IDs and container-level user IDs that ensures a UID 0 on the container corresponds to a non-zero UID on the host. In order to eliminate the possibility of UID overlap with the host, every pod receives 64K user IDs for private use."

Learn more -> How user namespaces improve workload security

Kubernetes security by phase

Each stage of the deployment lifecycle comes with its own set of security considerations. Here are the security best practices for every phase:

  1. Development/design phase: In the development and design phase, the foundational structures and functionalities of an application are crafted. Secure coding practices prevent vulnerabilities such as code injections and give you confidence that the application architecture is designed with security as a focal point.

  2. Build phase: Now the application starts taking shape. Wiz's approach to removing risks includes a roadmap to building secure applications, helping to identify and mitigate risks early in the development lifecycle.

  3. Deployment phase: During deployment, implementing robust authentication and authorization mechanisms and ensuring secure communications go a long way toward peace of mind. Learn how Wiz Guardrails can help you with security policy checks at deployment time.

  4. Runtime phase: The runtime phase is when the application is live. It’s a critical phase where continuous monitoring is the only way to promptly detect and mitigate potential threats. In case of a breach, understanding the necessary steps to take is critical. Our Intro to Forensics in the Cloud offers insights on post-breach actions, helping you navigate the complex landscape of cloud forensics.

Streamline your container and Kubernetes security solutions

As we’ve seen, cloud security is dynamic and complex enough to overwhelm many DevSecOps teams. That’s where Wiz comes in. Wiz offers comprehensive solutions tailored to address the multifaceted security concerns in container and Kubernetes deployments. Our holistic approach can fortify every aspect of your Kubernetes environment

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Learn why CISOs at the fastest growing companies choose Wiz to secure their Kubernetes workloads.

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