Your CI Pipeline has the Skeleton Key to your Infrastructure

Continuous integration is a must-have for technology companies these days. Developers expect to be able to push code via git and have the resulting code automatically built, tested, packaged up, and in the case of continuous delivery, deployed. Even infrastructure changes are increasingly transcribed in code using tools like Terraform and then planned and applied via CI.

If companies aren’t careful, the result is just one part of their infrastructure having the master key for the rest of it, becoming a lucrative target for adversaries.


As companies seek to decentralise from monoliths towards microservices, however effective that trend du jour actually is at improving scaling, the management of infrastructure and deployments is centralised to counter the surge of complexity caused by orchestrating many smaller services.

This can hardly be worse than developers deploying from their laptops, which really doesn’t scale as companies grow. The server can be more focussed than a developer’s laptop, narrowing possible attack vectors. That said, developer devices generally aren’t publicly exposed to a network and accessible via a domain name that is probably trivial to enumerate and running CI services like Atlassian Bamboo or Jenkins, both of which have been riddled with security holes in the past. This is the reality for larger, more “enterprise” companies that have chosen to not migrate to newer cloud-hosted, container-based tools like TravisCI or CircleCI.

Even for the hip companies that have, one set of credentials to such services can expose the secrets of all of them. TravisCI supports defining secrets in the web browser that can anyone logging in can alter unless the administrator has segregated access on a need-to-know basis. It also supports encrypting secrets with a Ruby Gem on a developer’s device, but that requires quite a few developers to have access to the key if multiple team members are expected to manage the pipeline.


As DevOps advocates like to point out, it is a methodology and not a job title. It’s getting developers and operations communicating more efficiently and these days often leads to operations creating a “self-serving” architecture where developers needn’t fill out a form, hand it over to operations, and hopefully have their code running on production servers months and months down the line. They should be able to define a Dockerfile, pair-program with a more operations-minded developer to knock out a Helm chart, and then push the code into CI, all resulting in a quick turnaround.

Centralisation is a common point of debate in information security circles. Centralising eases patching, monitoring, and allows security engineers to focus hardening against one place, but also puts many eggs in one basket. Decentralisation, if done well, can isolate damage caused by compromises but can frustrate the aforementioned benefited areas of centralisation. Centralising software but decentralising the actual services and hardware can keep things easier to manage while creating isolation layers. For example, standardising on Windows 10 Enterprise for your server OS yet ensuring services run on separate instances can give the benefits of both. That said, a zero-day exploit against the Windows NT kernel can still end up wrecking all of the services, so just decentralising the instances but retaining software hemogeny is not a panacea. However, do we really want to deal with different OSes, unsynchronised logging systems, myriad monitoring solutions, and incompatible cloud providers when trying to narrow down a compromise origin? A balance must be struck.

Decentralising services and orchestrating them in a centralised way should be treated the same as centralised services unless fine-grained access controls and isolation layers have been set up in the orchestrator. Frankly, most CI setups do not have this. They should and most of their documentation encourages it, but most don’t have it in practice. Also, individual security controls on instances mean a lot less if you’ve centralised your provisioning onto a single cloud provider, say AWS, and the administrative credentials for that are compromised.


Locking down cloud provider accounts, especially administrators and the root account, has therefore become common practice as has the growth of using the more fine grained access controls the providers give us like AWS’s IAM service. Most CIs installations aren’t so rigouress. An awful lot of online tutorials say “put your infrastructure credentials into your pipeline so Terraform can setup the provider resources”. If SSH-based deployments are used like Ansible, SSH keys can end up in questionable places like inside the CI agent’s image, stored as reversible or overridable secrets, or even worse, put as plaintext into a repository somewhere.

Driving the point about centralisation home, it’s probably easier to compromise the CI to gain access to all services than it is to compromise each individual service one-by-one. Companies also tend to provide more access to the CI than to AWS; while AWS is seen as being for operations staff only, separate development teams self-managing CI setups is often lauded as being part of “DevOps culture” regardless of how accurate that claim is.


CIs give a lot of benefit to modern technology companies, so countering these problems by removing CIs will not and should not be the solution. Instead they should be secured as the sensitive systems they are: accessing secrets like AWS credentials and SSH keys should be done ideally through temporary tokens rather than hardcoded credentials; access should be provided on a need to know basis, giving smaller teams deployment access only to the projects they maintain rather than being a member of a generic “developers” access group; and the CI server itself should be hardened as appropriate for highly sensitive services.

If a team goes for a cloud CI rather than a self-hosted option, as is increasingly the case, they should have full confidence in their provider and have a plan for quick revocation of credentials and tokens should the cloud service get compromised.

Don’t harden your services only to leave the front door open to the tool with the key under the mat for the whole underling infrastructure.

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