Container attack vectors

We live in a containerised world. Container solutions like Docker are now so extended that they are not a niche thing any more or a buzzword, they are mainstream. Multiple companies use it and, the ones that do not are dreaming with it probably.

The only problems are that they are still something new. The adoption of them has been fast and, it has arrived like a storm to all kind of industries that use technology. The problem is that from a security point of view we, as an industry, do not have all the awareness we should have. Containers and, especially, containers running on cloud environments are hidden partially the fact that they exist and they need to be part of our security considerations. Some companies use them thinking they are completely secure, trusting the cloud providers or the companies that generate the containers take care of everything and, even, for less technology focus business, they are an abstraction and not real and tangible thing. They are not the old bare metal servers, the desktop machines or the virtual machines they were used to it, and till a certain point, they worried because they were things that could be touched.

All of that has made that while security concerns for web applications are first-level citizens, not as much as it should but the situation has improved a lot on the last few years, security concerns about containers seem to be the black sheep of the family, no one talks about it. And, this is not right. It should have the same level of concern and the same attention should be paid to it and, be part of the development life cycle.

In the same way that web applications can be attacked in multiple ways, containers have their own attack vectors, some of which we are going to see here. We will see that some of the attack vectors can be easily compared with known attack vectors on spaces we are more aware like web applications.

Vulnerable application code

Containers package applications and third-party dependencies that can contain known flaws or vulnerabilities. There are thousands of published vulnerabilities that attackers can take advantage to exploit our systems if found on the applications running inside the containers.

The best to try to avoid running container with known vulnerabilities is to scan the images we are going to deploy and, not just as a one-time thing. This should be part of our delivery pipelines and, the scans should apply all the time. In addition to known vulnerabilities, scanners should try to find out-of-date packages that need an update. Even, some available scanners try to find some possible malware on the images.

Badly configured container images

When configuring how a container is going to be built some vulnerabilities can be introduced by mistake or if not the proper attention is paid to the building process that can be later exploited by attackers. A very common example is to configure the container to run with unnecessary root permissions giving it more privileges on the host than it really needs.

Build machine attacks

As any piece of software, the one we use to run CI/CD pipelines and build container images can be attacked successfully and, attackers can add malicious code to our containers during the build phase obtaining access to our production environment once the containers have been deploy and, even, utilising these compromised containers to pivot to other parts of our systems or networks.

Supply chain attacks

Once containers have been built they are stored in registries and retrieved or “pulled” when they are going to be run. Unfortunately, no one can guarantee the security of this registries and, an attacker can compromise the registry an replace the original image with a modified one including a few surprises.

Badly configured containers

When creating configuration files for our containers, i.e. a YAML file, we can make some mistakes and add configurations to the containers we did not need. Some possible examples are unnecessary access privileges or unnecessary open ports.

Vulnerable host

Containers run on host machines and, in the same way, we try to ensure containers are secure host should be too. Some times they run old versions of orchestration component with known vulnerabilities or other components for monitorisation. A good idea is to minimise the number of components installed on the host, configure them correctly and apply security best practices.

Exposed secrets

Credentials, tokens or passwords are all of them necessary if we want our system to be able to communicate with other parts of the system. One risk is the way we supply the container and the applications running in it these secret values. There are different approaches with varying levels of security that can be used to prevent any leakage.

Insecure networking

The same than non containerised applications, containers need to communicate using networks. some level of attention will be necessary to set up secure connections among components.

Container escape vulnerabilities

Containers are prepared to run on isolation from the hosts were they are running, in general, all container runtimes like “containerd” or “CRI-O” have been heavily tested and are quite reliable but, as always, there are vulnerabilities to be discovered. Some of these vulnerabilities can let malicious code running inside a container escape out into the host. Due to the severity of this, some stronger isolation mechanisms can be worth to consider.

Some other risks related to containers but not directly been containers can be:

  • Attacks to code repositories of application deployed on the containers poisoning them with malicious code.
  • Hosts accessible from the Internet should be protected as expected with other tools like firewalls, identity and access management systems, secure network configurations and others.
  • When container run under an orchestrator, i.e. Kubernetes, a door to new attack vectors is open. Configurations, permission or access not controlled properly can give attackers access to our systems.

As we can see some of the attack vectors are similar to the one existing in more mature areas like networking or web application but, due to the abstraction and the easy-to-use approach, the security on containers, unfortunately, is left out the considerations.

Reference:¬†“Container Security by Liz Rice (O’Reilly). Copyright 2020 Vertical Shift Ltd., 978-1-492-05670-6”

Container attack vectors