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How Can I Secure My Kubernetes Cluster on GKE?

Google’s Kubernetes Engine is easy to get going with, but requires additional security controls. The documentation is hard to grasp as there are many features and changes that tie to specific Kubernetes versions that will require using beta feature enablement, as well as some out-of-date documentation that can catch people out.

There is also an outstanding bug that the Appvia team have raised on Kubernetes that is hit by GKE. This is an edge case situation if you end up running Pod’s directly and not Deployments and only happens if you enable pod security policies, (which we recommend doing for security reasons).

If you're looking at production and have sensitive workloads, we advise that you implement the following steps based on these problems you're (most likely) having with your Kubernetes clusters.

  • Securing your Kubernetes infrastructure
  • Securing your application containers
  • Securing sensitive data and application cloud services
  • Having good visibility (current and historic)

Securing your Kubernetes infrastructure

When you deploy a default Google Kubernetes Engine clustergcloud container clusters create <NAMEOFYOUR_CLUSTER>

with no additional options provided, you’ll get some sensible security defaults, these are:

  • Basic authentication is disabled
  • Encryption at rest for the Operating System (OS) image is enabled
  • Client certificate issuance is disabled
  • Secure Operating system (Using Container-Optimised Operating System; COS)
  • VM Integrity monitoring to protect from malware / rootkits
  • Restricted Service Account

So why did google enable these things by default? Essentially it means that:

  • You can only authenticate via Google Cloud Platform (GCP) Single Sign On (SSO) to the Kubernetes API, which means no basic authentication or client certificate can be used.
  • The operating system is locked down and container optimised with a limited and read-only root filesystem with integrity checks. Integrity monitoring of the OS is enabled, to protect against rootkits and malware.
  • The service account that the Kubernetes nodes are using is restricted and will only have privileges to access cloud services it needs, such as stackdriver for logging and monitoring.

The things you need to make sure you enable:

1. Enable secure boot to validate the authenticity of the Operating System and Kernel Modules. (If you decided not to use the default OS, then it might cause issues)


Using the virtual trusted platform module, VTPM to sign kernel images and the operating system means that authenticity can be established. It also guarantees that nothing has been tampered with or kernel modules being replaced with ones containing malware or rootkits inside.

2. Enable intranode visibility so you can see the data flowing between pods and nodes


Making sure that all traffic is logged and tracked between pods and nodes will help you identify any potential risks that may arise later on. This isn’t necessarily something you need to do for development, but, something you should do for production.

3. Put the Kubernetes API on a private network  


4. Put the node pool on a private network


5. Provide a list of authorised networks that should be allowed to talk to the API


Making your nodes and Kubernetes API private means it isn’t subject to network scans that are happening all the time by bots, hackers and script kiddies.

Putting it behind an internal network that you can only access via a VPN is also good, however, this is a much more involved process with GKE and isn’t as simple as a feature flag like the others. Read more about what is involved here.

Securing your application containers

Again, Google enables some default features to get you started, however, there are still gaps that you will need to fill. What do you get?

  • Managed certificates
  • Role Based Access Controls (RBAC)
What you need to enable
  • Pod Security Policies: This is Beta and requires you to inform Google that you’re wanting to run the cluster creation in beta mode:

gcloud beta container clusters create <YOUR_CLUSTER> --enable-pod-security-policy

  • Network Policies:

gcloud beta container clusters create <YOUR_CLUSTER> --enable-network-policy

This sounds great, but what does it actually mean? Basically, some of these roles are split into two, one is for application development teams to own and the other is for the cluster administrator.

Application developer
  • Set network policies at an application level so you only allow the right level of access i.e. AppA can talk to AppB but AppC can’t talk to either of them.
  • Have encryption to your service endpoint for your desired domain i.e.
Cluster administrator
  • Have the ability to control what users can do what and in what namespaces, (Role Based Access Control) i.e. Maybe Bob a Developer can do deployments, (create, update, delete), but can’t view secrets in namespace our-teams-app1-dev
  • Implement a deny all network policy for both egress and ingress (outbound and inbound). This can be controversial as it can catch teams out, so making sure you’re communicating this is key. It will, however, force teams to define network policies to get their application working.
  • Force an application deployment security stance with Pod Security Policies. This means preventing containers running in the cluster escalating privilege, mounting in devices (including binding to the host network) on the nodes or running more privileged kernel system calls.

Kubernetes as an application developer

Kubernetes can be a bit of a learning curve, there are technologies that make it simpler in terms of dependencies such as helm, that will allow you to deploy application dependencies with pre-defined deployments. But there is no real substitute from understanding the main components of Kubernetes;  Network Policies, Ingress, Certificate Management,  Deployment, Configmaps, Secrets and Service resources.

The main security components are network policies, secrets and certificate management. Network policies will allow you to control the traffic to and from your applications. Secrets are base64 encoded, so there is no real security in terms of how they are stored; therefore making sure the cluster administrator has enabled secret encryption, (as mentioned further down), will add that additional layer.

Certificate management will make sure the traffic to your service is encrypted, but if you’re communicating between services, then you should also add TLS between your applications. Having the cluster administrator install something like cert manager, will allow an easier way to encrypt between services. There are also services like Istio, but as that product does a lot more than just certificates, it can add more complexity than necessary.

Kubernetes as a cluster administrator

You want to make sure that development teams can’t deploy insecure applications or make attempts to escalate their privilege, mount in devices they shouldn’t or make unnecessary kernel system calls. Pod security policies offer a way to restrict how users, teams or service accounts can deploy applications into the cluster, enforcing a good security posture.

Role Based Access Controls and Pod Security Policies go hand in hand. Once you define a good pod security policy, you then have to create a role that references it and then bind a user, group and/or service account to it, either cluster wide or at a namespace level.

Things to note: GKE uses a webhook for RBAC that will bypass Kubernetes first. This means that if you are an administrator inside of Google Cloud Identity Access Management (IAM), it will always make you a cluster admin, so you could recover from accidental lock-outs. This is abstracted away inside the control plane and is managed by GKE itself.

We recommend the below to be a good PSP.  This will make sure that users, service accounts or groups can only deploy containers that meet the criteria below. This means that if anyone or thing that is bound to this policy, will be restricted on the options they can provide to their running applications.

kind: PodSecurityPolicy
name: default
#Define seccomp policies to only allow default kernel system calls
 annotations: docker/default docker/default
# Prevent containers running as privilege on the node
privileged: false
# Prevent containers escalating privilege
allowPrivilegeEscalation: false
   rule: RunAsAny
# Prevent using the host process network namespace
 hostPID: false
 hostIPC: false
 hostNetwork: false
# Don’t allow containers to run as root users inside of them
   rule: MustRunAsNonRoot
# Don’t allow containers to have privileged capabilities on files, allowing
# files to potentially run as root on execution or run as a privileged user
   rule: RunAsAny
   rule: RunAsAny
# Only allow the following volumes
 - configMap
 - downwardAPI
 - emptyDir
 - gitRepo
 - persistentVolumeClaim
 - projected
 - secret

If you wanted to create a role to use the defined PSP above, then it would look like something below, this is a cluster role as opposed to a standard role. To then make this enforced on say all authenticated users, you would then create a role binding to apply to the 'system:authenticated' group.

# Role linking to the defined PSP's above
kind: ClusterRole
 name: my-clusterrole
- apiGroups:
 - extensions
 - podsecuritypolicies
 - default
 - use

# Role binding to enforce PSP’s on all authenticated users
kind: ClusterRoleBinding
 name: my-cluster-rolebinding
 kind: ClusterRole
 name: my-clusterrole
- kind: Group
 name: “system:authenticated”

Remember that as this is cluster wide, any applications that may need more privileged permissions will stop working, some of these will be things Google add into kubernetes; such as kube-proxy, that runs in the kube-system namespace.

Read more on RBAC and PSPs if you need to get up to speed.

Securing sensitive data and application cloud services

We can break this down into two sections:

  • Encrypting your secrets inside of the datastore of Kubernetes (etcd). These could be anything from database passwords an application is using, to certificates or general sensitive data
  • How applications consume cloud services and how that access is managed

Encrypting your secrets in Kubernetes

The recommendation for encrypting secrets using google clouds KMS service, is to have segregated roles and responsibilities and to define a new google project outside of the google project that will host Kubernetes and applications. This is to make sure the encryption keys and more importantly the key that is signing the other keys, (envelope encryption), isn’t residing in the same project that could potentially get compromised.

For encrypting secrets you need to:

  • Setup a new google project to implement segregation of duties (if necessary)
  • Create the master key ring and key inside that project
  • Only allow the GKE service account in the Kubernetes hosted project access to the key in the dedicated key project
  • Only allow just the right permissions (encrypt and decrypt) of the service account

The documentation on how to do this can be found here. But the main things to remember are:

  • The key HAS to be in the same location (zone) as the cluster (this is to reduce latency or loss of a zone)
  • Access permissions have to be correct for the service account
  • The binding is a KMS iam policy binding

Once this is setup you can pass the path to the key, to the command:


If any of the above is incorrect, you will get a 500 internal server error when you go to create a cluster. This could be the path is incorrect, the location is wrong or the permissions are not right.

Consuming cloud service inside of Kubernetes

There are four different ways to allow application containers to consume cloud services they might need i.e. Object Storage, Database as a service etc. Inside of Google Cloud. All of these have limitations in some way i.e. being less user friendly and unautomated for developers, (making developers wait for the relevant access to be provisioned) or have less visibility and more complexity in tying together auditability for Kubernetes and cloud administrators.

Less Developer friendly (unless automated) or Introduces Audit Complexity:

1. Workload identity, (this is still in Beta and is the more long-term direction Google are going in)

Require a constant process of managing google IAM as well as Kubernetes Service Accounts to tie them together. This means managing google IAM roles, policies and service accounts for specific application service lines as well as kubernetes service accounts. It does however improve auditability.

2. Google Cloud Service Account keys stores as secrets inside Kubernetes namespaces, (where the application will be living)

Similar to the above, but without the binding. This means provisioning a service account and placing it as a secret inside of the applications namespace for it to consume natively. This has the downside of not having full auditability within Google Cloud and Kubernetes.

3. Use something like Vault to broker between Cloud and Applications.

Using Vault provides an abstraction to cloud and will generate short lived access keys to applications. There is still a secret required to be able to speak to the Vault service however, hence, the permissions are still the same but just abstracted down one. It also disjoints audability between Google Cloud and Kubernetes.

More Developer Friendly:
Using the default service account node role of GKE (Google Kubernetes Engine)

Much simpler, but riskier. It would mean allowing applications to use the default node service account and modifying the role to cater for all the service policies applications would need, increasing the scope and capability of the node service account to most Google Cloud services.

All of these have limitations in some way, ie. being less user friendly and unautomated for developers or have less visibility and more complexity in tying together auditability for Kubernetes and cloud administrators.

Good Visibility: Current and Historic

Note: As of today, there is no access transparency on when Google accesses your Kubernetes cluster (Google Access Transparency). This could be problematic for a lot of organisations who want assurances around the providers data access.

When the cluster is provisioned, all audit logs and monitoring data is being pushed to stackdriver. As the control plane is managed by Google, you don’t get to override or modify the audit format, log or extend it to your own webhook.

It does however mean that you can search your audit logs for things that are happening inside of Kubernetes in one place, for example; to query all events against a cluster inside of a specific google project against your user ID, you can do the below:

gcloud logging read --project <your-project-id>
'timestamp>="2020-02-20T09:00:00.00Z" AND
resource.type = k8s_cluster AND
resource.labels.cluster_name = "<your-cluster-name>" AND
protoPayload.authenticationInfo.principalEmail = "<your-google-email>"'

From this point on you could take it further and add additional security rules, like setting custom metrics to alert when cluster admin changes are made or specific modifications are happening on roles, (cluster-admin roles).

Kickstarting your security

Security is something everyone wants, but as you can see it can be quite an involved process to achieve. It also requires domain knowledge to get enough context to assess the risk and what it might mean to your applications and business.

Security without automation can slow down productivity. Not enough security can put your business at risk. Enabling security features that require “Beta” feature enablement may also not be suitable for the business and only General Availability features are acceptable, which compromises on security.

As a general rule, hardening your clusters and enforcing secure ways of working with Kubernetes, Containers, Cloud Services and your applications will get you the best outcome in the end. There may be frustrating learning curves, but as things the industry matures, these will slowly be remediated.

Let us know how you have been doing security with Google Kubernetes Engine, Vanilla Kubernetes or other cloud vendor offerings.

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