Best Practices for Data Protection in Kubernetes

Learn how to protect data in Kubernetes with best practices. Use RBAC, encryption, secret rotation and secure usage to strengthen your cluster's security. Manage sensitive data, network policies and advanced secret solutions for a good Kubernetes security posture.

concept of access control using RBAC within the banking application context:

Now that we understand how to create and use Secrets in Kubernetes, let's explore some practices to enhance the security and management of secrets within your cluster.

In Kubernetes, there might be a potential security concern when secrets are stored in plain text in etcd (Kubernetes' data store).

This means that any user with access to the cluster can read these secrets while they are at rest.

To safeguard against this, consider implementing the following practices to enhance the security and management of secrets in your Kubernetes environment.

1. Enforcing Access Control with RBAC

Imagine Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) as a digital bouncer, as the name suggests it allows you to define roles that have specific permissions, and then assign those roles to users or groups. This will enable restricting secret access to only those users or groups that need it

RBAC is enabled by default on Kubernetes 1.6 and higher

To use RBAC to control access to secrets, you first need to create a role that has the permissions you want to grant. For example, you could create a restrictive role that allows users to read secrets, but not write them. Once you have created the role, you can assign it to users or groups.

To assign a role to a user or group, you need to create a role binding. A role binding specifies the role that you want to assign, and the user or group that you want to assign it to.

As an example, RBAC can prevent unauthorized access to sensitive financial info in banking apps. Each user's access is restricted to relevant application areas. Unauthorized access attempts by users without the appropriate role are blocked.

Ideal Secure Practice: RoleBinding to ServiceAccounts:

When considering RoleBinding for secrets in Kubernetes, it's essential to align your access control strategy with microservice deployment patterns.

While it might be tempting to directly RoleBind a human user to a Role that safeguards a Secret, this practice may not align with the intended design. Often, Secrets are meant to be consumed by Deployments (pods) rather than human users. A more secure approach involves utilizing Kubernetes' ServiceAccounts.

For optimal security, each microservice deployment should operate with a distinct ServiceAccount. This enables precise control over secret access at the deployment level. RoleBinding can then be associated directly with the ServiceAccount, ensuring only authorized microservices can access the relevant secrets.

Example: RoleBinding for Secure Secret Access:

To practically implement RoleBinding and ServiceAccounts for secure secret access, consider this condensed example:

Define a ServiceAccount named "my-super-secure-app-SA":

apiVersion: v1
kind: ServiceAccount
  name: my-super-secure-app-SA
  namespace: commandk

Create a Role "view-banking-api-keys-secret" granting "get" permission to the "red-hot-bank-secrets" secret:

kind: Role
  name: view-banking-api-keys-secret
  namespace: commandk
- apiGroups: [""]
  resources: ["secrets"]
  resourceNames: ["red-hot-bank-secrets"]
  verbs: ["get"]

Bind the Role to the ServiceAccount via a RoleBinding:

kind: RoleBinding
  name: view-banking-api-keys-secret-binding
  namespace: commandk
  kind: Role
  name: view-banking-api-keys-secret
- kind: ServiceAccount
  name: my-super-secure-app-SA
  namespace: commandk

This setup ensures that only the designated microservice, represented by "my-super-secure-app-SA," can access the "red-hot-bank-secrets" secret within the "commandk" namespace. Following this approach aligns with least privilege principles and maintains robust security for sensitive secrets.

Some additional tips for using RBAC to control access to secrets:

  1. Use a separate role for each type of access that you need to grant. For example, you could create a role for reading secrets, a role for writing secrets, and a role for deleting secrets. This will help to keep your permissions organized and manageable.
  2. Use a monitoring service to track and analyze the activity and performance of your secrets. You can also use the monitoring service alerts to notify you of any issues or anomalies with your secrets
  3. Use the kubectl get role and kubectl get rolebinding commands to view the roles and role bindings in your cluster. This will help you to track what permissions have been granted to which users and groups.
  4. Use the kubectl auth can-i command to check if a user or group has a particular permission. This will help you to troubleshoot problems with access to secrets.

2. Encrypt Secrets at Rest and in Transit

Kubernetes uses a central data store called etcd to store all its persistent data, such as ConfigMaps and Secrets. This distributed key-value store is vital for keeping the cluster's state and configuration. However, etcd has a default behavior that creates a security risk: it does not encrypt the data it stores, including Secrets.

To avoid exposing sensitive information to unauthorized access, we need to encrypt the data at rest in etcd.

Kubernetes supports various encryption solutions that can help us protect our Secrets. We can use managed services like AWS Key Management Service (KMS) or self-managed encryption keys to encrypt the data in etcd. Kubernetes has built-in support for these encryption mechanisms, making it easy for us to apply strong data protection measures.

By encrypting the data at rest in etcd, we enhance the security of our Kubernetes environment and lower the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive information.

Moreover, we should also use transport layer security (TLS) to secure the communication between Kubernetes components and etcd. TLS ensures that the data in transit is encrypted, preventing interception by unauthorized parties.

Comparing Encryption Methods in Kubernetes Secrets

Now that we've discussed the importance of encrypting data at rest and in transit within Kubernetes, let's take a closer look at the different encryption methods that can be used to protect sensitive information, particularly in the context of Secrets. Understanding these encryption mechanisms will help you make informed decisions on how to best secure your Kubernetes environment.

Below, we have a comparison of various encryption methods in Kubernetes Secrets, highlighting their key features and benefits.

Encryption MethodProsCons
Kubernetes Built-in Secrets (Unencrypted)- Simple setup and usage
- No additional tools needed
- Uses base64 encoding, not secure
- Some security features missing in etcd
Kustomize Encrypted Secrets- Leverages server-side encryption
- Supports GitOps workflows
- Requires custom decryption controller
- Needs additional tooling
Sealed Secrets- Strong encryption with public-key cryptography
- GitOps-friendly encrypted secrets
- Requires Sealed Secrets controller
- Complex setup compared to built-in secrets
External Secrets- Integrates with external secret management tools
- Supports various systems
- Requires External Secrets Operator
- May introduce additional costs
Hashicorp Vault- Granular access control and auditing capabilities
- Dynamic secrets for multiple clusters
- Requires separate deployment and configuration
- Learning and managing Vault's API

Core Difference: ConfigMap vs. Secret in Kubernetes:

Before diving deeper into best practices, let's revisit a fundamental distinction between ConfigMaps and Secrets in Kubernetes. While both serve as key-value stores, their management involves a critical security differentiation. ConfigMaps are designed for non-sensitive configuration data, often left unencrypted. On the other hand, Secrets are tailored for confidential information like passwords and API tokens.

A noteworthy security measure associated with Secrets is that when they are mounted onto Pods, Kubernetes employs tmpfs, a memory-exclusive filesystem. This approach ensures that sensitive data isn't inadvertently stored on underlying storage devices, aligning with Kubernetes' emphasis on maintaining confidentiality.

Understanding this core difference empowers you to discern when to use ConfigMaps for non-sensitive data and Secrets for confidential info.

Sample secret object that contains an encrypted password:

To illustrate the concept of encrypted Secrets, let's consider an example of a secret object containing an encrypted password. The password key in the secret object contains the encrypted password. The value of the key is base64-encoded, and you'll need to decode it before use.

apiVersion: v1
kind: Secret
  name: ck-secret
  password: Y2stcGFzc3dvcmQ=

You can decode the password using the base64 command-line tool. For instance, to decode the password from the example provided earlier, you can use the following command:

base64 -d

This will output the decoded password, which is ck-password.

Base64 encoding is a way to represent binary data with integrity, but it does not make it more secure. It is possible to decode base64-encoded data if you have the key used to encode it.

3. Rotate Secrets Regularly using Automation

Rotating secrets regularly using automation is a best practice to mitigate the risk of unauthorized access to sensitive data. It is important to rotate secrets on a regular basis, such as every 90 days. This will help to ensure that your secrets are not compromised if they are ever leaked.

There are a few different ways to rotate secrets using automation:

  • You can use a secrets management solution that supports secret rotation. Many secrets management solutions, such as CommandK, HashiCorp Vault, AWS Secrets Manager, and Azure Key Vault, support secret rotation. These solutions can help you to automate the rotation of your secrets, and they can also help you to manage your secrets securely.
  • If you prefer not to utilize a secrets management solution, you can consider an alternative method: crafting a custom script to manage secret rotation. You can effectively handle the process by scheduling this script to run at consistent intervals, such as every 90 days.

Here is an example of a custom script that can be used to rotate secrets:


# Get the current secrets
secrets=$(kubectl get secrets)

# For each secret, create a new secret with a new password
for secret in $secrets; do
  new_secret=$(kubectl create secret generic ${secret} --from-literal=password=newpassword)

  # Delete the old secret
  kubectl delete secret ${secret}

This script will first get the list of all secrets in your cluster. For each secret, it will create a new secret with a new password. The old secret will then be deleted.

You can schedule this script to run on a regular basis, such as every 90 days. This will ensure that your secrets are rotated regularly and that your sensitive data is protected.

It is important to make sure that the script is secure and properly implemented and does not backfire to be a vulnerability.

4. Audit and Monitor Secrets in Kubernetes

Auditing and monitoring are essential for maintaining the security of a Kubernetes cluster. Through auditing, you can pinpoint any suspicious or unauthorized activities within the cluster. Simultaneously, monitoring the cluster enables the detection of any alterations to its configuration or state, which could indicate a security breach.

I. Identify suspicious or unauthorized activity:

Audit logs can help you identify any suspicious or unauthorized activity in the cluster, such as:

  • Users creating or deleting resources that they should not have access to.
  • Pods accessing resources that they should not have access to.
  • Changes to the cluster configuration that were not authorized.

II. Detect changes to the cluster configuration or state:

By monitoring the cluster, you can detect any changes to the configuration or state of the cluster that could indicate a security breach, such as:

  • Pods being created or deleted.
  • Resources being created or deleted.
  • Changes to the network configuration.
  • Changes to the security configuration.

III. Gather evidence of a security breach:

If a security breach does occur, audit logs and monitoring data can be used to gather evidence of the breach. This evidence can be used to investigate the breach and to identify the root cause

There are a number of tools that you can use to audit and monitor Kubernetes security. Some popular tools include:

  • Auditbeat: Auditbeat is a lightweight tool that can be used to collect audit logs from Kubernetes clusters.
  • Kibana: Kibana is a visualization tool that can be used to analyze audit logs from Auditbeat.
  • Loki: Loki is a log aggregation tool that can be used to store and analyze audit logs from Kubernetes clusters.
  • Prometheus: Prometheus is a monitoring tool that can be used to collect metrics from Kubernetes clusters.
  • GitGuardian: Employ this tool to detect hardcoded secrets in your codebase, ensuring secrets are not inadvertently exposed.

5.  Safeguarding Sensitive Data in Practice:

While implementing secrets within your codebase, there are crucial aspects to consider beyond their mere storage. Developers must exercise caution to prevent inadvertent exposure of sensitive information.

  1. Log Statement Protection: Be vigilant to avoid including secrets in log statements. Logs, if not appropriately managed, can persist indefinitely and even be shipped to external systems. Including secrets in logs significantly heightens the risk of exposing them. Implement effective log filtering mechanisms to prevent this potential vulnerability.
  2. Data Store Design: Carefully design your data store schemas to prevent secrets from being cached inadvertently. Depending on the caching mechanisms in use, sensitive data might end up being stored in the cache unintentionally. Ensure that proper data sanitation practices are in place to mitigate this risk.

6. Implementing Network Policies

You can use network policies to control how pods in your Kubernetes cluster communicate with each other. This can be helpful for securing your cluster and preventing unauthorized access to sensitive data.

here is an example of how to implement network policies in k8s secrets:

kind: NetworkPolicy
  name: my-secret-network-policy
      app: my-secret
  - ports:
    - protocol: TCP
      port: 8080
      targetPort: 8080
  - to:
    - podSelector:
          app: my-database

This network policy allows pods with the label app: my-secret to communicate with pods with the label app: my-database on port 8080. All other traffic is denied.

Breakdown of the different parts of the network policy:

  • apiVersion specifies the version of the NetworkPolicy API that is being used.
  • kind specifies the type of resource that is being created. In this case, it is a NetworkPolicy.
  • metadata contains the name and labels of the network policy.
  • spec specifies the rules for the network policy. In this case, the podSelector field specifies that the network policy applies to pods with the label app: my-secret. The ingress field specifies that pods with the label app: my-secret can only receive traffic from pods with the label app: my-database on port 8080. The egress field specifies that pods with the label app: my-secret can only send traffic to pods with the label app: my-database on port 8080.

7. Leveraging Secret Management Solutions

Consider employing dedicated secret management solutions that offer advanced features to enhance secret protection, such as CommandK or Hashicorp Vault.

CommandK: The Secret Management Solution Built for Kubernetes

CommandK is a secret management platform that helps you store and manage sensitive data in a secure and compliant way.

CommandK offers a number of features that make it a powerful secret management solution, including:

  • Centralized Dashboard: Manage all of your secrets across all your Kubernetes deployments in one dashboard, manage integrations and monitor health
  • Granular Access control: RBAC and ABAC
  • Compliance Adherence: You get audit logs for every action done on the platform and see who does what
  • Quick Onboarding: You can set up and start using CommandK to manage secrets in less than 5 minutes

Ready to start using

cmdk image