Improving the Security of Privileged #Docker Containers

Privileged containers have been the reason for many discussions. There are security minded people who would like to eliminate them as well as technical people who need the feature to drive containerization. I’d like to show you how to be a technical person running a privileged container but honour security considerations by dropping capabilities as soon as they are not required.


Note that I will not cover the command line parameters of the Docker CLI to add and drop capabilities because this post is concerned with running privileged containers (started with --privileged) and dropping capabilities during runtime.

Removing capabilities

Let’s first take a look at the capabilities of any process launched in a privileged containers:

$ docker run -it --rm --privileged ubuntu:xenial bash
root@5037530d0cfb:/# getpcaps $$
Capabilities for `1': = cap_chown,cap_dac_override,cap_dac_read_search,cap_fowner,cap_fsetid,cap_kill,cap_setgid,cap_setuid,cap_setpcap,cap_linux_immutable,cap_net_bind_service,cap_net_broadcast,cap_net_admin,cap_net_raw,cap_ipc_lock,cap_ipc_owner,cap_sys_module,cap_sys_rawio,cap_sys_chroot,cap_sys_ptrace,cap_sys_pacct,cap_sys_admin,cap_sys_boot,cap_sys_nice,cap_sys_resource,cap_sys_time,cap_sys_tty_config,cap_mknod,cap_lease,cap_audit_write,cap_audit_control,cap_setfcap,cap_mac_override,cap_mac_admin,cap_syslog,cap_wake_alarm,cap_block_suspend,37+eip

Apparently, the list is not only long but also alarming. Capabilities like CAP_SYS_ADMIN allow for container to host breakouts. To mitigate this, you can drop all capabilities for a new child process upon launch by using capsh:

$ docker run -it --rm --privileged ubuntu:xenial bash
root@57382b271d8e:/# capsh --inh="" -- -c 'getpcaps $$'
Capabilities for `11': =

capsh modifies the list of capabilities for a new process. By specifying --inh="", the inheritable set of capabilities is empty. In the above case, the new process receives no capabilities.

Interestingly, when looking at the capabilities of a process running in a non-privileged container, you will notice that it still receives a list of default capabilities:

$ docker run -it --rm ubuntu:xenial bash
root@18163a06ddf1:/# getpcaps $$
Capabilities for `1': = cap_chown,cap_dac_override,cap_fowner,cap_fsetid,cap_kill,cap_setgid,cap_setuid,cap_setpcap,cap_net_bind_service,cap_net_raw,cap_sys_chroot,cap_mknod,cap_audit_write,cap_setfcap+eip

Even in such situations it may be helpful to drop most capabilities and retain one or only a few:

$ docker run -it --rm ubuntu:xenial bash
root@53cb00ce6c83:/# getpcaps $$
Capabilities for `1': = cap_chown,cap_dac_override,cap_fowner,cap_fsetid,cap_kill,cap_setgid,cap_setuid,cap_setpcap,cap_net_bind_service,cap_net_raw,cap_sys_chroot,cap_mknod,cap_audit_write,cap_setfcap+eip
root@53cb00ce6c83:/# capsh --inh="cap_sys_chroot" --user=nobody -- -c 'getpcaps $$'
Capabilities for `36': = cap_sys_chroot+i

For a deeper understanding of capabilities and capsh, I recommand reading the manpage for capabilities(7) and capsh(1).

Connecting the dots

By using capsh as explained in the examples above you can run a privileged container with an entrypoint which is responsible for performing tasks requiring special capabilities. Afterwards, the entrypoint can spawn a child process and can drop most or even all capabilities for subsequent processes. This approach provides a higher level of protection against malicious code.

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