In an era where cloud-native platforms have become the backbone of modern digital transformation initiatives, it's no secret that security incidents have become all too common. One often underestimated source of vulnerability comes from the use of self-signed certificates within Kubernetes environments. While self-signed certificates are cost-effective and easy to implement, these machine identities introduce several weaknesses and potentially open up attack vectors that can compromise the security of your cluster. Self-signed certificates are typically used by developer teams but are not signed by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA).
In this blog we will explore the particular use case where self-signed certificates are issued outside the security process, meaning the workload is deployed using PKI that does not comply with security policy and is operating without a validated root of trust. Using this definition we will explore the cybersecurity risks associated with self-signed certificates in Kubernetes environments. In addition we provide a strategy that any security team can use for threat mitigation, leveraging cloud native solutions from Venafi to ensure an auditable chain of trust exists for each and every workload deployed to a Kubernetes cluster.
But first let’s cover why self-signed certificates are inherently vulnerable when used to deploy application services into Kubernetes clusters.
Weaknesses of self-signed certificates in Kubernetes
Trust management complexity
One of the primary weaknesses of self-signed certificates is trust management. Unlike certificates issued by trusted Certificate Authorities (CAs), self-signed certificates aren't inherently trusted. Each service that needs to trust these certificates must be explicitly configured to do so. In Kubernetes, this introduces complexity that can lead to misconfigurations and oversight, making trust management more challenging for security teams.
Proper certificate revocation in Kubernetes can be very difficult to operate at scale, but even so, many companies still issue certificates with extended validity periods in Kubernetes and use Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs) as a security process. In this instance, deploying revocation safely for any self-signed certificate can be a significant undertaking which adds a lot of complexity when dealing with security incidents.
Short certificate lifespans
To mitigate some of the inherent risks, self-signed certificates often have shorter lifespans. While this can reduce exposure to threats, it also increases operational overhead due to the need for more frequent certificate rotations. Managing frequent certificate updates can be time consuming and error prone.
Lack of standard auditing
Self-signed certificates lack third-party auditing, which is a critical aspect of validating the integrity and security of certificates. Unlike certificates issued by public CAs, self-signed certificates do not undergo the same level of scrutiny, making them more susceptible to vulnerabilities.
Weaker algorithms and key sizes
Depending on the implementation, self-signed certificates can be generated using weaker cryptographic algorithms or smaller key sizes. While this is more of an operational risk than a systematic issue with self-signed certificates, it can still pose security concerns if not properly managed.
Self-signed certificates can contain non-standard extensions that may not be universally supported or could produce undefined behavior. This lack of standardization can introduce compatibility issues and security vulnerabilities in your Kubernetes environment.
Practical attacks on Kubernetes environments that misuse self-signed certificates
Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks
If there is no process to verify certificates and their root of trust, attackers can generate their own self-signed certificate and intercept communications between Kubernetes components or services. Attackers can also take advantage of this weakness to create convincing phishing sites or impersonate legitimate services within the Kubernetes cluster.
In certain scenarios, attackers could rapidly generate self-signed certificates to exhaust resources within your Kubernetes cluster. This is more related to poor configuration and might be considered an edge case, but it highlights the importance of securing certificate handling.
Self-signed certificates are more susceptible to tampering, especially if the signing process is done on the client side. Malicious actors may attempt to modify the certificate's content or manipulate the signing process, potentially leading to security breaches.
How to remove the security threat from self-signed certificates in Kubernetes
In this next section, we document a security scenario describing how a financial services company we have named as “FinCo” needed to significantly enhance the security of its Kubernetes operation and protect against attacks that can exploit self-signed certificates.
FinCo operates a multiple cluster Kubernetes operation where the security team discovered there is an extensive use of untrusted self-signed certificates. Following a security review of its Kubernetes environment carried out by Venafi Jetstack Consult, the FinCo environment lacked centralized policy enforcement, used limited trust validation, and ignored real-time monitoring in clusters and alerting.
They also faced challenges with manual certificate revocation. Overall, this scenario was deemed high-risk and exposed the Kubernetes operation to attacks which compromise machine identities in order to gain access to sensitive data and cause operational disruption. This is of course especially problematic for a financial services company where data security and regulatory compliance are crucial. To mitigate these risks, Venafi recommended the following point-plan needs using Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes as a primary solution to implement centralized policy enforcement, strengthen trust validation, enable real-time monitoring, along with other important security measures to safeguard their Kubernetes environment.
Enhancing security in FinCo's Kubernetes environment: Assessment and action plan
|Point plan for threat mitigation||Action plan|
|1. Transition to Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates|
- Use Venafi TLS Protect to replace self-signed certificates with machine identities issued by a trusted Certificate Authority (CA) using PKI that is validated by the security team.- Rely on a Public Key Infrastructure certificates that are known to the security team and which are much more robust in terms of trust and security.
|2. Centralized policy enforcement|
- Implement a centralized machine identity management system.- Enforce strict certificate policies with Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes to ensure that only certificates meeting the defined security standards are used.
|3. Strong trust validation|
- Configure services to perform rigorous trust validation.- Use TLS Protect for Kubernetes to remove certificates with lax trust validation settings, which can lead to vulnerabilities.
|4. Real-time monitoring and alerting|
- Implement real-time monitoring for certificate-related activities with Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes.- Leverage the included alerting systems to promptly detect any anomalies or suspicious activities.
|5. Automated certificate issuance and renewal|
- Use cert-manager to universally automate the issuance and renewal of certificates for all Kubernetes clusters.- Rotate certificates frequently to minimize the window of exposure in case of compromise.
|6. Implementing proper authentication mechanisms|
- Utilize strong authentication mechanisms for internal access to servers.- Rely on this authentication to help prevent unauthorized access in the first place.
|7. Use modern encryption protocols|
- Upgrade legacy services to use modern encryption protocols and stronger cipher suites.- Leverage these stronger certificate attributes to make it harder for attackers to force weaker ciphers.
|8. Segmentation and zero trust architecture|
- Implement network segmentation and a zero-trust architecture based on machine identity management.- Isolate critical services and limit lateral movement within the network.
|9. Incident response plan|
- Develop and regularly update an incident response plan specific to certificate-related security incidents.- Use Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes to identify, mitigate, and recover from such incidents.
|10. Security team training|
- Educate internally about the risks associated with self-signed certificates and the importance of adhering to security policies.- Use Venafi’s training to empower and upskill the security team.
|11. Regular security audits and penetration testing|
- Use TLS Protect for Kubernetes to improve the security audit process.- Conduct penetration testing to identify and address vulnerabilities in the environment and mitigate attack vectors.
|12. Continuous security monitoring|
- Use Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes to continuously monitor the Kubernetes environment for signs of compromise- Maintain up-to-date threat intelligence to stay ahead of emerging attack techniques.
Venafi TLS Protect for Kubernetes implements effective monitoring capabilities across multiple cluster environments which will identify and alert security teams when self-signed certificates are identified. Self-signed certificates in Kubernetes environments introduce weaknesses and practical attack vectors that can compromise the security and integrity of your cluster. While these types of certificates may be convenient and cost-effective, it's essential to weigh their inherent risks and consider enforcing policies to use certificates from trusted Certificate Authorities. These measures are critical to enhance the security of your Kubernetes deployment. Effective certificate management with modern machine identity management can provide a robust security strategy that is crucial for safeguarding your Kubernetes environment against cyber threats.
To gain a deeper understanding of how machine identity management can safeguard your environment against hidden vulnerabilities and threats, you can download our whitepaper which explores the threat vectors which target self-signed certificates. Additionally, you can use this paper to help your organization protect public ingress endpoints, identify and remove rogue certificate authorities, and prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. Our paper is written to give your security team the knowledge and tools to work in partnership with platform engineering teams to protect Kubernetes clusters from data breaches. Also, you can reach out to us now to talk to a security expert for a more general discussion on how we can help improve your Kubernetes security.