Kubernetes Security in the Age of Cloud-Native

Kubernetes Security in the Age of Cloud-Native

Kubernetes has become the de facto standard for containerized application deployment, but its rise also attracts malicious actors. Kubernetes security is now a top priority as the attack surface expands with increasing adoption. This comprehensive guide explores the state of Kubernetes security, analyzing the major risks, vulnerabilities, and essential best practices to fortify your cloud-native infrastructure.

The explosive growth of Kubernetes has not been without consequences – it is increasingly becoming a target for various attacks. The situation is compounded by the fact that a typical Kubernetes cluster accumulates many components necessary for its full operation. This integration complicates the infrastructure, expanding the range of directions for attacks by malicious actors.

According to the Red Hat 2023 State of Kubernetes Security Report, security issues have a significant impact on businesses:

  • Slowed Deployments: 67% of organizations reported delaying or halting deployments due to security concerns. Security becoming an afterthought negates the agility benefits of containerization.
  • Financial Losses: 37% of companies experienced revenue or customer loss due to a Kubernetes security incident. Security breaches can disrupt critical projects and damage customer trust.
  • Employee Impact: Security incidents can even lead to employee terminations (21%) and organizational fines (25%).

The report highlights the pervasiveness of security threats throughout the application lifecycle:

  • All Phases Affected: While runtime is the most common attack point (49%), the build and deployment phases are almost equally vulnerable (nearly 45%).
  • Security Misconfigurations: A worrying 45% of respondents admitted to experiencing misconfiguration incidents, highlighting the need for robust security practices.
  • Unpatched Vulnerabilities: Another 42% discovered major vulnerabilities requiring remediation, indicating a lack of thorough security testing.

Main Kubernetes Security Risks

Container Escape is one of the most frequently exploited vulnerabilities in Kubernetes. Implementing security standards for pods (e.g. seccomp mode enabled by default starting in Kubernetes 1.22) and using Linux security modules like AppArmor and SELinux can help mitigate this risk.

The 2023 Sysdig Cloud-Native Security and Usage Report is based on data collected from billions of containers, thousands of cloud accounts, and hundreds of thousands of applications their customers ran over the past year. It highlights these main security threats:

  • Supply Chain Risks: 87% of images have high or critical vulnerabilities. Teams must prioritize as there are so many. Interestingly, 85% of critical vulnerabilities have fixes available but don’t make it to the container runtime for various reasons. Teams spend time on non-applicable threats while real risks go unaddressed. They recommend prioritizing vulnerabilities that actually impact the runtime environment.
  • Shortened Container Lifecycles: 72% of containers live less than 5 minutes, up 28% from 44% in 2021. Such short lifespans make debugging applications or infrastructure issues difficult.

Security Issues Continue Impacting Business

67% of companies delayed or slowed deployment due to security concerns. As organizations adopt cloud-native like Kubernetes and microservices architectures, unforeseen security challenges often arise. When security is an afterthought, the agility gained from containerization is negated. Some are overwhelmed by security needs across the application lifecycle.

Security issues continue to impact
business outcomes
67% of companies have delayed or slowed down deployment
due to a security issue

Security Incidents Impact Employees and Revenue

21% of respondents said an incident led to employee termination, and over a third experienced revenue or customer loss. Compliance violations or data breaches can result in talent loss, experience loss, regulatory fines, and negative publicity. 37% cited revenue/customer loss from a Kubernetes security incident, which could delay projects, product releases, and lose market share.

Both employees and organizations
as a whole pay the price for
security incidents
1 in 5 respondents said a security incident led to employee
termination, and more than 1 in 3 experienced revenue or
customer loss

Incidents Impact All Lifecycle Phases

90% experienced at least one security incident in the last year across all phases – 49% in runtime, but nearly as many in build/deploy. Kubernetes prioritized developer productivity over security, so hardening like SELinux is challenging to customize and integrate. 45% had a misconfiguration incident, 42% a major vulnerability, and 27% failed an audit.

Security incidents are prevalent,
impacting all phases of the
application development life cycle
90% of respondents experienced at least one security
incident in the last 12 months

Security Remains a Top Concern

38% think security investment is inadequate as containers/Kubernetes add complexity. Containers emphasize agility, so security testing may not be prioritized as much as deployment speed. Properly investing means understanding Kubernetes risks and implementing controls across all layers.

Security remains a top concern with
container and Kubernetes strategies
38% of respondents either think security isn’t taken seriously
enough or security investment is inadequate

Decentralized Security Responsibility

Less than a third consider the security team responsible for Kubernetes security. Securing Kubernetes requires different teams to own parts of the lifecycle – DevOps for infrastructure, security for policies/controls, developers for app/image security, operations for access controls, etc.

Kubernetes security responsibility
is highly decentralized
Less than a third of respondents consider the security team
to be responsible for Kubernetes security

Embracing DevSecOps

45% have advanced DevSecOps integration with automated security practices across the lifecycle. 39% more are early-stage. However, 17% still separate DevOps and security, likely making them more reactive.

Top Concerns: Misconfigurations and Vulnerabilities

Over 50% worry about misconfigurations and vulnerabilities due to Kubernetes customizability. The complex environments with rapid scaling make consistent security posture challenging. The shared kernel means one vulnerability can impact multiple containers/hosts. Automating security scanning for common issues like privileged containers, vulnerable dependencies, and insecure defaults can mitigate risks.

Vulnerabilities and misconfigurations
are top security concerns with container
and Kubernetes environments

The Majority Address Misconfiguration Concerns

Exposed/unprotected sensitive data is the most worrying misconfiguration at 32%. With configuration a leading cause for concern, respondents did not single out any one misconfiguration as significantly more worrisome than others. This underscores the need for a comprehensive approach to securing all Kubernetes components. Encouragingly, organizations are taking steps to address risks – 75% who worried about default configurations are working to remediate them.

Consequences Can Be Serious

Ransomware from misconfigurations is the top cited concern at 40%. Human error behind most breaches can increase breach cost and detection time. 41% worry most about ransomware, and 53% of those experienced a ransomware attack last year. For each cited consequence, a larger percentage had actually experienced it, like 46% with data deletion despite only 34% worried about it. This may indicate being inundated with concerns, lack of resources, or decentralized security ownership.

Software Supply Chain Risks

35% most worry about supply chain software vulnerabilities. Supply chain security is a hot topic after incidents like SolarWinds and Log4Shell. Respondents are concerned about vulnerabilities and open source usage, which are understandable risks if components contain flaws or are unmaintained.

Their concerns are well-founded – over half experienced virtually every supplied chain issue, with vulnerable components at 69% and CI/CD weaknesses at 68% most common.

Scanning and Attestation Are Key Controls

Nearly half identified artifact signing as most important for supply chain security. Attestation ensures software meets standards and is uncompromised, building trust across the supply chain participants like internal teams, vendors, and open source.

Scanning and attestation are two of the most important security controls for software supply chain security:

  • 47% Vulnerability scanning
  • 43% Security attestation (image signing, deployment signing, pipeline attestation, etc.)
  • 40% Access and authentication
  • 34% Configuration management
  • 31% CI/CD integration and security automation
  • 29% Registry governance
  • 20% IDE scanning

Popular Open Source Security Tools

KubeLinter at 37% and Kube-hunter at 32% are the top used open source Kubernetes security tools. Open Policy Agent, a policy engine for Kubernetes and more, ties Kube-hunter at 32% usage.

  • 37% KubeLinter
  • 32% Kube-hunter
  • 32% Open Policy Agent (OPA)
  • 29% Kube-bench
  • 19% Falco
  • 14% Terrascan
  • 14% StackRox
  • 10% Clair
  • 9% Kyverno
  • 8% Checkov

Common Mistakes in Kubernetes Security

The Fairwinds Security, Cost and Reliability Workload Results report evaluates statistics from over 150,000 workloads across hundreds of companies using Fairwinds Insights. Its authors also believe Kubernetes security is deteriorating. The stats show users often neglect best practices:

  • Enabled Risky Linux Capabilities: Like CHOWN, DAC_OVERRIDE, FSETID, FOWNER etc. Some are enabled by default though most workloads don’t need them. Only 10% of companies disabled them in 2022, down from 42% in 2021. A third run almost all workloads in an insecure mode. This is compounded by security-enhancing settings like allowPrivilegeEscalation being disabled by default.
  • 44% run 71%+ of workloads as root, up 22% from last year – puzzling given the CVE count in this area.
  • 62% of organizations have at least half their workloads potentially vulnerable to image vulnerabilities, up significantly.
  • Outdated Helm Charts: 46% have half or more workloads on outdated Helm charts, up from 33%.
  • Privilege Excess: Sysdig data shows 90% of privileges go unused despite cloud security and zero trust best practices.

Have Security Concerns About Your Kubernetes Environment? Contact Gart Solutions for Expert DevOps and Cloud-Native Security Guidance.

Recommendations to improve Kubernetes security

When security is an afterthought, organizations risk negating the core benefit of faster application development and deployment by not ensuring their cloud-native environments are built, deployed, and managed securely. Our findings show events in the build and deploy stages significantly impact security, underscored by the prevalence of misconfigurations and vulnerabilities across organizations. Security must therefore shift left, imperceptibly embedding into DevOps workflows instead of being “bolted on” when an application nears production deployment.

Use Kubernetes-Native Security Architectures and Controls

Kubernetes-native security leverages the rich declarative data and native controls in Kubernetes to deliver key security benefits. Analyzing Kubernetes’ declarative data yields better risk-based insights into configuration management, compliance, segmentation, and Kubernetes-specific vulnerabilities. Using the same infrastructure and controls for application development and security reduces the learning curve and supports faster analysis and troubleshooting. It also eliminates operational conflicts by ensuring security gains the same automation and scalability advantages Kubernetes provides infrastructure.

Security Across the Full Lifecycle

Security has long been viewed as inhibiting business, especially by developers and DevOps teams mandated to deliver code quickly. With containers and Kubernetes, security should accelerate business by helping developers build strong security into assets from the start. Look for a platform that incorporates DevOps best practices and internal controls into its configuration checks. It should also assess Kubernetes’ configuration for a secure posture, so developers can focus on feature delivery.

Bridge DevOps and SecOps

Given no clear role or team is solely responsible for container/Kubernetes security at most organizations, your tooling must bridge teams from Security and Ops to DevOps and Development. To be effective, the platform must have security controls relevant to containerized, Kubernetes environments. It should also assess risk appropriately – telling a developer to fix all 39 vulnerabilities with a CVSS score ≥7 is inefficient. Identifying the 3 deployments exposed to that vulnerability, showing why they’re risky, will significantly improve posture.

Other Tips:

  • Follow least privilege when assigning roles/privileges to users and service accounts to limit attacker ability to gain excessive access if breached. Use specialized tooling to find and remove excessive privileges.
  • Use defense in depth techniques to hinder lateral movement and data exfiltration by attackers.
  • Continuously scan manifest files, registries, and clusters for vulnerabilities.
  • Regularly update cluster software. After vulnerability disclosures, attackers hunt for unpatched clusters. The Log4J vulnerability saw over 840,000 attempted exploits within 72 hours of disclosure.


As a leading DevOps provider, Gart Solutions specializes in helping organizations bolster their Kubernetes security posture and implement robust best practices across the entire cloud-native stack. Our team of seasoned experts can assess your current security risks, vulnerabilities, and misconfigurations, then provide tailored solutions to safeguard your containerized applications and Kubernetes clusters.

Don’t leave your business exposed to emerging threats. Reach out to Gart Solutions today to ensure your mission-critical cloud-native infrastructure remains secure and compliant in 2024 and beyond.

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Is Kubernetes Inherently Secure?

Kubernetes itself isn't inherently insecure, but misconfigurations, weak access controls, and improper deployments can introduce vulnerabilities. Following security best practices is essential for a secure Kubernetes environment.

What are some Kubernetes Security Best Practices?

Here are some recommended security measures for Kubernetes: Least privilege: Grant only the minimum permissions required for pods and service accounts. Network segmentation: Isolate workloads using network policies to limit communication between pods. Resource quotas: Set limits on resources (CPU, memory) each pod can consume to prevent denial-of-service attacks. Secrets management: Securely store sensitive data like passwords and API keys using Kubernetes Secrets. Regular security updates: Keep Kubernetes components, container images, and host OS updated to patch vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scanning: Regularly scan container images for vulnerabilities before deployment. Audit logging: Enable audit logging to track user activity and identify suspicious behavior.

How can I enable RBAC for my cluster?

The Kubernetes documentation provides instructions

What are the benefits of using Network Policies?

Isolate workloads and limit communication between pods

What is the principle of least privilege in Kubernetes?

Granting only the minimum permissions required
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