~jpetazzo/Someone said that 30% of the images on the Docker Registry contain vulnerabilities

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This number is wonderful. Not because it’s high or low, but because it exists. The fact that it is possible (and relatively easy) to compute this metric means that it will be possible (and relatively easy) to improve it, among other things.

Disclaimer: I work for Docker, and while this post is not sponsored or approved by my employer, you are obviously welcome to take it with a grain of salt.

The original number was published on BanyanOps Blog.

For more information and another point of view, you can also read this infoQ article.

Counting vulnerabilities

First, let’s see how we can come up with those metrics. The process is rather simple:

That looks almost too simple, so let’s dive a little bit into the details.

Listing images

Listing official images is easy. They are all built using an automated system called bashbrew, using publicly available recipes. By the way, this means that if you want to rebuild the official images yourself, it is very easy to do so. (Keep in mind that some of those recipes include blobs and tarballs used for bootstrapping purposes; so sometimes you will have to go one step further to rebuild those blobs and tarballs.)

The recipes for all official images are available in the docker-library on GitHub.

Listing other images (the ones belonging to users and organizations) is harder. The hub doesn’t provide a way to list them all right now, so an acceptable workaround is to search for a very common word, e.g. a, and go from there. Of course, this requires some crawling; and you might end up missing a few users, but that will get you pretty close. (That being said, I’m told that the new registry API has something nice to make that task easier…)

Downloading the images

Downloading the images is trivial. If you want to do it without much fuss, just run a Docker daemon, and run docker pull username/imagename:tag.

If you want to get a tarball of the container filesystem, that’s easy: just run docker export username/imagename:tag. (Redirect your standard output somewhere, otherwise you terminal will be a sad panda.)

If you don’t trust the Docker daemon, you can also check the registry API (v1, v2) and download the layers through the API, then reconstruct the image from those layers. I’ll spare you the details, but as of today, layers are regular tarballs, and you can just unpack them in top of each other (in the right order) to reconstruct an image. Nothing fancy is involved; the only “trick” is to watch for whiteouts. Whiteouts are special marker files indicating that “a file used to be there, but it is no more.” In other words, if a layer has the file /etc/foo.conf but was removed in an upper layer, then that upper layer will have /etc/.wh.foo.conf, and the file foo.conf won’t show up in the container. It is masked by the whiteout, so to speak.

As it turns out, the amazing Tianon actually wrote a script to do exactly that, if you’re interested!

Auditing the images

There are a few different things you can do at this stage. The details are way beyond the scope of this post; but here are some of the things that you might want to do in a comprehensive security audit:

Things get particularly interesting in the context of containers, because it becomes easy (and convenient) to automate all those things with Docker. For instance, you can put your vulnerability analysis toolkit in /tmp/toolkit, then for each image $I, execute something like docker run -v /tmp/toolkit:/toolkit $I /toolkit/runall.sh.

(Note: this assumes that your toolkit is statically linked and/or self-contained, i.e. doesn’t rely on anything in your container image that might fool the toolkit itself. My main point here is to show that if you need to hammer your container image with a bunch of tests, you can do that in containers to make your life easier, and the overall process will be much faster than it would usually be if you had to make a full copy of the audited machine for each test.)

Improving the metric

Alright, so we run all those tests, and we find that an outrageously high number of images contain vulnerable packages. How can we change that?

For official images, the easiest path is to follow Docker’s security guidelines. Down the road, as the number of official images increases, Docker will improve this mechanism to automatically notify upstream security lists for official images.

For non-official images, you can check the Author field in an image:

$ docker inspect --format '{{.Author}}' bin/ngrep
Jerome Petazzoni <jerome@docker.com>

If the image comes from an automated build, you can look up its source repository, and contact them directly.

If you are directly impacted by the vulnerability, and want things to move faster, you can rebuild the image yourself, and/or investigate to see what’s needed to patch the vulnerability, and submit a pull request with the appropriate changes. The intent here is not to offload security to the end users, but rather to empower them to contribute to security if they are willing and able to do so.

Down the road, you can expect all those steps to be improved and streamlined. Automation will be built to reduce the friction around contacting the appropriate authority, and minimize the time required to release patched version.

But 30% is a lot, right?

It might sound like 30% of “vulnerable images” is a lot. That’s also what I thought first. But if you take a closer look, a large fraction of those images are older images, that are deliberately not updated.

What? Deliberately not updated?

Yes, and there are a couple of good reasons for that. The first one is (for some of them) parity with other media. Some distributions want version XYZ to be consistent across CD/DVD media, network installs, VM images, and containers. The second reason (which also explains the first reason) is repeatable builds.

Imagine that you have a problem with some servers running Ubuntu 12.04, but you can’t reproduce the issue with a new install of Ubuntu 12.04 (let alone 14.04). After investigating further, it turns out that the problem only appears on machines installed at a given time, with Ubuntu 12.04.2. If a container image is available for 12.04.2, you will be able to reproduce the bug; otherwise, you will have to fetch it from elsewhere somehow. That’s why the Docker Hub has images for some older versions in the exact state that they were when they were released - including security issues. That being said, we have put pretty big yellow police tape everywhere saying “LEGACY IMAGES - DO NOT CROSS,” so we hoped that it would be obvious that those images should not be included in a security metric…

Let’s hope that people will realize that next time they compute metrics on the Docker Hub.

Taking action - locally

We might be running vulnerable images! Halp! What do, what do?

There again, the situation isn’t as bad as it looks. When you (or anybody else) do your audit of those images (official, public, or private), the outcome is a list of images (as unique hashes) alongside with a “PASS” or “FAIL” status. (In the case of “FAIL” you hopefully have some details, e.g. “Seems to be vulnerable to ShellShock / CVE-2014-7187 and others)” or “Has package OpenSSL 1.0.1c / CVE-2014-0160.)

Webscale security audit

You can take this list, and compare it to the images you have locally. That’s where things get really interesting. By doing a simple (and cheap) match of your local images with this list, you will know instantly if you are running vulnerable images. That scales nicely to thousands or millions of hosts.

It also means that things can be decoupled nicely: your security auditor doesn’t need access to your production systems (or even to your development ones). They don’t even need to know what you are running: they perform an analysis on a broad range of images, and you consume the result. You can also have multiple security companies and compare their results.

What if my containers have been modified after creation?

For starters, you shouldn’t do that. If you need to upgrade something in a container, you should make a new image and run that image. OK, but what if you’ve done it anyway?

Then all bets are off, but at least we can find out that it’s happening. As part of the security audit, you can run docker diff on your running containers to find out if they have been modified. (Normally, the output of docker diff should be empty. Note that if you have started a container with a shell, or dropped into a container with docker exec, you might see a few modifications though. But production containers should not show any change.)

Protip: you can even prevent modifications, by running your containers with the --read-only flag. This will make the container filesystem read-only, warranting that docker diff will remain empty.

To inspect all your containers with a single command, you can do:

docker ps -q | xargs -I {} docker diff {}

(Courtesy of @diogomonica!)

What if I have built custom containers?

If you have built your own containers, I suggest that you push them to a repository. If it’s the public one, we’re back to the initial scenario. If it’s a private repository… Let’s check the next section!

What about private images and registries?

What if you are pushing private images? What if you are pushing on a local registry, or on Docker Hub Enterprise?

Things obviously get more complex. You can’t expect someone to magically tell you “image ABC is vulnerable to CVE-XYZ” if they never saw image ABC.

Here are a few things that can happen:


There are two things that I would like to emphasize, because I believe that they will yield to positive results in the security field.

  1. Having numbers is good. Once we have metrics, we can improve them. Docker takes security seriously, and you can be sure that we’ll work with the community and image maintainers to improve those metrics.
  2. Having an ecosystem and community like those around Docker and the Docker Hub make them amazing places to standardize. As Solomon pointed out in a few keynotes, one of the most important things in Docker is not the technology, but to get people to agree on something.

The last point means that Docker now has enough critical mass to justify the development of transverse tools (including security audit) that will benefit the whole ecosystem. The outcome will be an improved security - for everybody.

Docker cares about security

If you get the impression that Docker Inc. doesn’t care about security, you’re far from the truth. As pointed out above, we have a responsible disclosure security policy, and we have always been very fast to address issues that we were aware of. No software is exempt from bugs. Docker is written by humans, and even if some of them are amazing, they still make mistakes. What matters is how seriously we take security reports and how fast we address them; and I think we’ve been doing well on that side.

If you want to make your Docker install more secure, I recommend that you also check dockerbench. As I write those lines, it contains an automated assessment tool, evaluating a Docker host using the criterias of the CIS Docker 1.6 Benchmark. It checks a large number of things (e.g., that SELinux or AppArmor are enabled) and produces a report.

This is the first of many tools that Docker will produce or contribute to, to help you to run Docker safely without holding a Ph.D in container security or hiring Taylor Swift.

Also, we encourage public discussion, and security concerns are no exception! There is an interesting thread on the Docker Library repository about this topic.

Extra notes

I’ve been asked to clarify why containers are useful at all, if we don’t triple-check the provenance of all the things we run. Here are a few examples.

I guess you see the pattern here. Just because things come in a familiar form doesn’t mean that they are safe. But we can use Docker to improve security.

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.