How to fix the great Docker security mess

Success story: Linux software package management

Docker securityWhen thinking about security in general, and Docker security in particular, it’s important to never forget the potential costs of devastating data breaches. You really need to ensure that EVERY deployment you launch should be as secure and reliable as possible. In the Linux world, one of the most powerful tools you can use is curated software repositories.

Package managers, such as Debian’s apt and Red Hat’s yum, verify the authenticity and the integrity of every package they make available for download. Since access to the repos is restricted to trusted and capable individuals, you can be confident that anything you install from official channels on your Ubuntu or CentOs system is safe.

This is how many (perhaps most) desktop and server deployments are currently run.

But if you download packages from uncurated repositories, manually add third-party keys to the keyring, or somehow build your system using a compromised operating system image, then all bets are off and there’s no way you can ever really know what you’re getting.

This is how many (perhaps most) Docker containers are currently run.

Docker security: the problem

Running “Docker Pull” itself will both download and install an image in a single step using an unsafe connection and offering no verification mechanism. Until 2013, running the Python package manager, pip, left your system similarly vulnerable.

All that assumes that the original source image or package you’re downloading is reliable. But, since anyone can upload anything to repositories like Docker Hub, npm, and pip, choosing a package can be more like playing Russian Roulette than optimizing Docker security (although Docker Hub does feature official registries for major distributions like Ubuntu and software like MySQL). This isn’t just theoretical: malware has already been found on a public repository.

Update: some months after this post was published, Docker introduced their Docker Content Trust – designed to address just this problem. Docker Content Trust is a system for verifying the identity of the publisher whose software you are pulling, ensuring that you are getting only properly signed images. As this is an opt-in feature, it will still be the responsibility of administrators to make sure they’re using only best practices, but at least best practices are now much more accessible.

Why do people treat Docker security differently?

The most significant difference is that the Debian and Red Hat software ecosystems are managed by a small group of expert and trusted people. As we already mentioned, anyone can upload anything to the Docker Hub, the npm repository, or PyPI, whose packages often come with dependencies that are automatically installed without even asking for permission.

The web is also full of guides suggesting very unsafe practices. The desire to create clean and simple routines to make software installation painless can easily lead to lines like this (an actual live example from GitHub):

Just imagine how this must warm the hearts of our good friends at the NSA!

Docker security: what to avoid

  • Just because a how-to guide – even from a well-known source – provides you with an installation script, don’t run it blindly: behind the scenes, it may fetch resources over unsecured channels. Be sure to read and understand every line of the script and be even more cautious if it requires administrative permissions.
  • Avoid “solutions” (like Python’s Virtualenv) that don’t properly isolate your system. These were designed for easing package management, not for Docker security.
  • Don’t trust packages, scripts, and advice from any source unless you’re sure that the admins properly understand and are committed to an appropriate level of security.
  • Don’t add repositories or keys from people you don’t trust.
  • To limit your exposure to risk, avoid deploying any software that you don’t absolutely require.

The right tools

  • If possible, build and maintain a local mirror as your private repository. This mirror should contain signed and verified versions of the packages you need and should be accessible only over secure transports. The Red Hat blog provides some excellent tips for Docker.
  • Enable all the security features offered by the package managers you do use. Pip for example can verify hashsums. After auditing a Python package, be sure to pass explicitly its hash to pip when installing it (remembering that the package may come with dependencies).
  • Install only software coming from known and trusted sources.
  • Where possible, use reproducible builds and audit them. Both Debian and Fedora are working on making more and more reproducible packages available. It may still be some time before this is widely applied, but it’s worth keeping it in your sights.

If you absolutely MUST run untrusted code, minimal Docker security demands that you use proper isolation via solutions like Apparmor/SELinux, LXC, unprivileged LXC, Qemu/VMWare/VirtualBox.

None of these approaches is perfect, and each has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, but with some careful tuning, they might be effective for you in the right combination.