Kubernetes Security Best Practice

Kubernetes Security - Best Practice Guide
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Kubernetes Security - Best Practice Guide

This document acts as a best practice guide to Kubernetes security. K8s is a powerful platform which can be abused in many ways if not configured properly. The authors of this guide are running Kubernetes in production and worked on several K8s projects to learn about security flaws the hard way.

The severity or importance of each topic is indicated by an emoji in the topic name.

  • 💥 Critical
  • 🔥 High
  • ☁️ Medium
  • ⛅️ Low

If you're more into watching talks on YouTube, here are some really nice ones:


Your cluster is as secure as the system running it 🔥

Before you start looking into Kubernetes security specifics you should start with your system running Kubernetes. Go through some guides for securing your OS in general.

Here are some to begin with:

Private topology ⛅️

If your infrastructure allows for private IP addresses you should host the cluster in a private subnet and only forward ports that are needed from the outside from your NAT gateway to your cluster. If you're running on a cloud provider like AWS this can be achieved through a private VPC.

Why? In a private topology all K8s masters and nodes only have private IP addresses assigned. This greatly reduces the risk of exposing anything critical to the public by mistake or lack of knowledge. Also, experience shows that if you need to expose ports explicitly you are more conscious of the potential consequences.

Firewall ports 🔥

This is a general security best practice: Never expose a port, which doesn't need exposure. IMHO, defining port exposure should be done in the following order:

  • Check if you can define a listen IP/interface to bind the service to, if possible
  • If selectively binding to an IP/interface is not possible, then firewall the port

Kubernetes processes like kubelet are opening a few ports on all network interfaces, which should be firewalled from public access. Those ports may "only" allow to query for sensitive information, but some of them allow straight full access to your cluster.

Port Process Description
4149/TCP kubelet Default cAdvisor port used to query container metrics
10250/TCP kubelet API which allows full node access
10255/TCP kubelet Unauthenticated read-only port, allowing access to node state
10256/TCP kube-proxy Health check server for Kube Proxy
9099/TCP calico-felix Health check server for Calico (if using Calico/Canal)
6443/TCP kube-apiserver Kubernetes API port

Health check ports are no security threat per se stemming from the information they expose, but critical components like the network provider could be DoSed through an exposed health check port, which would affect the whole cluster. Additionally, unknown exploits could potentially endanger security.

Why? Every port exposed to a network poses a potential attack vector. To minimize risk, exposure should be avoided if possible.

Bastion host ☁️

Don't provide straight public SSH access to each Kubernetes node, use a bastion host setup where you expose SSH only on one specific host from which you SSH into all other hosts. There are quite a few articles on how to do this, for example https://www.nadeau.tv/ssh-with-a-bastion-host/. Also SSH session recording as described in https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/security/how-to-record-ssh-sessions-established-through-a-bastion-host/ can be useful.

For general SSH hardening check Hardening OpenSSH and the OpenSSH chapter in Applied Crypto Hardening by bettercrypto.org.

Why? SSH is a critical service which is under constant attack if exposed to the public. Still today, key-based authentication is not used consistently and everywhere and dictionary attacks or exploits will eventually lead to intrusion. To minimize risk a hardened bastion host is introduced and SSH blocked for public access on all other nodes.

Kubernetes Security Scan with kube-bench 🔥

A very helpful tool to eliminate roughly 95% of the configuration flaws is kube-bench. A master or a node and their control-plane components are checked by applying the CIS Kubernetes Benchmark which results in specific guidelines to secure your cluster setup. This should be a first step before going through any specific Kubernetes security issues or security enhancements.

API settings

Authorization mode & anonymous auth 💥

Some installers like kops will use the AlwaysAllow authorization mode for the cluster. This would grant any authenticated entity full cluster access. Instead, RBAC should be used for role-based access control. To find out what your current configuration is, check the --authorization-mode parameter of your kube-apiserver processes. More information on that topic at https://kubernetes.io/docs/admin/authorization/. To enforce authentication, make sure anonymous auth is disabled by setting --anonymous-auth=false.

Note This doesn't affect the kubelet authorization mode. The kubelet itself exposes an API to execute commands through which the Kubernetes API can be bypassed completely.

Insecure Port 💥

The insecure port (especially relevant for older Kubernetes releases) is an API port without any kind of protection. No SSL/TLS, no auth, no authz! This port really should be disabled by setting --insecure-port=0. Sometimes it's not possible, because of health check configuration or bootstrapping mechanisms. If that's the case firewall the port from public and internal access. This flag is deprecated since v1.10.

Disable Profiling ☁️

It's recommended to disable the profiling API endpoint by setting --profiling=false.


Sensible program or system information can be uncovered by profiling data and because of the amount of data and load induced by profiling your cluster could be DoSed by this feature.


Add the following plugins to --admission-control=

AlwaysPullImages ☁️



By default Pods can specify there own image pull policy. Once an image is pulled (even if once pulled from a secured registry with credentials) other Pods could reuse the locally stored image and get access to potentially confidential information. By enabling the AlwaysPullImages policy the controller modifies every new Pod to force the image pull policy to Always, which ensures that credentials need to be provided every time.

DenyEscalatingExec 💥



If pods are scheduled with privileged: true, hostPID: true or hostIPC: true it's possible to escalate privileges through attaching to a privileged pod or executing a command in it. The DenyEscalatingExec denies attach and exec for such Pods.

PodSecurityPolicy 💥



If PodSecurityPolicy is not enabled, defined Pod Security Policies are not enforced and Pods violating defined policies will still be scheduled.

Warning: Before enabling PodSecurityPolicy you should have Pod security policies already in place or Pods will fail to be scheduled. See Use Pod Security Policies for a basic setup.

Kublet settings

Authorization mode & anonymous auth 💥

The kubelet offers a command API used by kube-apiserver through which arbitrary commands can be executed on the specific node. On top of firewalling the port (10250/TCP) from public access, the kubelet settings --authorization-mode=Webhook and --anonymous-auth=false should be ensured.

Auto mount default Service Account

With RBAC enabled: ⛅️

Without RBAC enabled: 💥

The Admission Controller ensures that all Pods have a service account assigned by default, which is called "default". The credentials for this service account will be mounted into the containers file system running in the Pod unless the auto mounting feature is disabled. The mounted token can be used to query the Kubernetes API.

kubectl patch serviceaccount default -p "automountServiceAccountToken: false"

This will disable the auto mounting of the service account token and needs to be done on a per namespace basis.

Note For every new namespace, the Admission Controller will create the default service account. Changes to this service account need be applied accordingly.

Use Network Policies ☁️

Network Policies are firewall rules for Kubernetes. If you're using a network provider which supports Network Policies, you should definitely use them to secure internal cluster communication and external cluster access. By default, there are no restrictions in place to limit pods from communicating with each other.

Check Kubernetes Network Policy Recipes for an awesome starting point. If your network provider doesn't support network policies, consider switching to one which does, check https://kubernetes.io/docs/concepts/cluster-administration/networking/.

Use Pod Security Policies ☁️

Pod security policies allow for controlling security sensitive aspects of the pod specification.


Most (almost all) of your Pods don't need privileged access or even host access, so it should be ensured that a Pod requesting such access needs to be white listed explicitly. By default no one should be able to request privileges above the default to avoid being vulnerable through misconfiguration or malicious content of a Docker image.

A very basic setup consists of a unprivileged and a privileged policy. The unprivileged is called "default" and the privileged is called, well, "privileged".

Important: Check if you're cluster nodes support AppArmor or not, as different default policies need to be created accordingly.

With AppArmor:

kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/default.psp.yaml
kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/privileged.psp.yaml

Without AppArmor:

kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/default-non-apparmor.psp.yaml
kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/privileged.psp.yaml

Pod Security Policies are evaluated based on access to the policy. When multiple policies are available, the pod security policy controller selects policies in the following order:

  1. If any policies successfully validate the pod without altering it, they are used.
  2. If it is a pod creation request, then the first valid policy in alphabetical order is used.
  3. Otherwise, if it is a pod update request, an error is returned, because pod mutations are disallowed during update operations.

In order to use a policy, the requesting user or target pod's service account must be authorized to use the policy, by allowing the use verb on the policy. So, when defining access rules for policies, we need to think about which user is creating/updating the Pod. The user is different if a Pod is created directly through kubectl or through a deployment.

First we make sure, that any user has access to the default policy, which ensures that Pods will be unprivileged by default.

kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/default-psp.clusterrolebinding.yaml
kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/default-psp.clusterrole.yaml

Some Pods in the cluster, especially if kube-apiserver, kube-controller-manager, kube-scheduler or etcd are running inside the cluster, need privileged access. To ensure those services will still start after introducing the PodSecurityPolicy controller, we need to grant cluster nodes and the legacy kubelet user access to the privileged policy for the kube-system namespace. For this to work make sure you've --authorization-mode=Node,RBAC.

kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/privileged-psp.clusterrole.yaml
kubectl apply -f https://raw.githubusercontent.com/freach/kubernetes-security-best-practice/master/PSP/privileged-psp-nodes.rolebinding.yaml

Your network provider will also need privileged access. Depending on which you're using the used service account is different. For canal you need to create the following role binding.

kubectl create -n kube-system -f - <<EOF
kind: RoleBinding
apiVersion: rbac.authorization.k8s.io/v1
  name: privileged-psp-canal
  namespace: kube-system
  kind: ClusterRole
  name: privileged-psp
  apiGroup: rbac.authorization.k8s.io
- kind: ServiceAccount
  name: canal
  namespace: kube-system

With a kops setup you will also need a role binding for the dns-controller and kube-dns-autoscaler.

kubectl create -n kube-system -f - <<EOF
kind: RoleBinding
apiVersion: rbac.authorization.k8s.io/v1
  name: privileged-psp-dns
  namespace: kube-system
  kind: ClusterRole
  name: privileged-psp
  apiGroup: rbac.authorization.k8s.io
- kind: ServiceAccount
  name: kube-dns-autoscaler
  namespace: kube-system
- kind: ServiceAccount
  name: dns-controller
  namespace: kube-system

Before enabling the PodSecurityPolicy controller you should check your namespaces for Pods requiring privileged access and create role bindings accordingly. If you're certain all Pods are covered you can add "PodSecurityPolicy" to --admission-control=... of your kube-apiserver configuration and restart the API.

You can test your setup by creating a deployment like this:

kubectl create -f -<<EOF
apiVersion: apps/v1
kind: Deployment
  name: privileged
  replicas: 1
      name: privileged
        name: privileged        
        - name: pause
          image: k8s.gcr.io/pause
            privileged: true

If all is fine, the privileged deployment should fail to create the Pod.

Restrict "docker image pull" 🔥

Docker images are a completely uncontrolled environment. Everyone with access to the Docker socket or Kubernetes API can pull any image they like. Because of that many Kubernetes clusters secretly became Bitcoin miners, because of infected Docker images or Kubernetes security issues. The Docker plugin Docker Image policy plugin will help you with that problem. The plugin hooks into the internal Docker API and enforces a set of black and white list rules to restrict what images can be pulled.

Ultimately Docker is pulling an image, so securing Docker is considered a good approach but alternatively Kubernetes also provides a way. The AdmissionController provides the ImagePolicyWebhook through which a provided web service can intercept image pulls.

Kubernetes Dashboard 💥

Prio to version 1.8.0, the kubernetes-dashboard plugin was granted a service account with full cluster access to be able to see and manage all aspects of the cluster.

Verify that there is no ClusterRolebinding to cluster-admin left behind. Otherwise clicking SKIP on the sign-in page will grant full access.

kubectl -n kube-system get clusterrolebinding kubernetes-dashboard -o yaml

By default the dashboard is not exposed to the public Internet and it should be avoided to change that. Reasons why we could see with the Tesla hack discovered by RedLock.

If you're using a network provider plugin which supports network policies you should also block requests to the dashboard coming from inside the cluster (other Pods). This will not block requests coming through kubectl proxy.

kind: NetworkPolicy
apiVersion: networking.k8s.io/v1
  name: deny-dashboard
  namespace: kube-system
      k8s-app: kubernetes-dashboard
  - Ingress

Securing a Cluster (by Kubernetes project)

The Kubernetes project itself also has some notes on how to secure a cluster. See the Securing a Cluster chapter from the Kubernetes docs.

Cloud Provider Guide

Installer Guide


Thanks to all the contributors to this guide assuring good quality.

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