Attack Chain in Kubernetes

What is an attack chain in Kubernetes?

The term attack chain or attack path is commonly used in cybersecurity to describe the various stages an attacker implements to execute a successful attack against a system or network. Understanding an attack chain enables organizations to visually see how the different links in the infrastructure can be breached, how the weak links can be exploited, and the damage the system will suffer. It enables security personnel to smartly prioritize vulnerabilities in the system, remediate them, and harden the security.

Preventing malicious activities in the attack path

Cyber attackers have a series of predefined objectives when they try to gain access or breach a system. These include:

  • Disruption of services
  • Planting ransomware
  • Data theft
  • Establishing a backdoor
  • Supply chain exploitation
  • Damaging the brand

Breaking the attack chain ensures the prevention of all these objectives and keeps the infrastructure’s cybersecurity safe.

The four phases of exploiting a Kubernetes attack chain


In the reconnaissance stage, the attacker studies potential targets they can attack. The attacker finds vulnerabilities, discovers the different third-party platforms connected to the system, explores entry points, and more. During this phase, they can acquire login credentials and information, such as email ID, user ID, physical location, operating systems, software applications, and more. The more information the attacker acquires, the more sophisticated their attack can be, and the higher chance of the attack being successful. This phase takes place both online and offline.


After the reconnaissance stage, the attacker can gain entry to the system infrastructure. Once they do, their actions fall under the exploitation stage. In this stage, the cyber attacker will exploit the vulnerabilities and the weaknesses they found in the reconnaissance stage. Based on the attacker’s objective, they may deploy the malicious code in the victim’s system. The attacker can install tools, run a script, alter security certificates, or more. A few examples of exploitation include dynamic data exchange, local job scheduling, and scripting. 

Lateral & vertical movement

Lateral and vertical movement is how the intruder traverses within the network infrastructure. Lateral movement involves moving across different assets which are part of the same risk tier. For instance, moving from one workstation to another workstation. Vertical movement involves moving across different risk tiers. For instance, moving from the on-premises infrastructure to the cloud. Attackers tend to move laterally and vertically to expand the attack’s impact on the system. This could mean stealing sensitive information from different resources or causing malfunction of different assets. 


Exfiltration is the final phase in the attack path. At this point, the attacker begins extracting information out of the system. However, it is difficult to exfiltrate information from infrastructure with good cybersecurity. Thus, highly skilled intruders will remain in the system for months and slowly strategically remove information from one resource to another. They do so by using resources under less scrutiny as vessels for the exfiltrated information. Finally, it takes the sensitive data out of the system.

Overall, these are the four phases in the attack chain lifecycle. However, other models have phases such as weaponization, delivery, command and control, and more. These phases are extensions of the different stages in these models. For instance, weaponization and delivery refer to creating and launching malware, and the exploitation phase refers to the execution of the malicious code. However, these four phases define the attack chain comprehensively.

Why is it important to identify attack chains in Kubernetes?

The attack chain concept enables organizations to plan their cybersecurity strategy. It determines the various steps companies must take to elevate their security and their priority. An attack chain is considered broken if it fulfills the following objectives:

  • Block attackers by hardening vulnerable resources.
  • Prevent malicious and unauthorized users from accessing the infrastructure.
  • Ensure data from the system is not intercepted, accessed, saved, shared, altered, exfiltrated, or encrypted by cyber attackers.
  • Inhibit the attackers from moving through the network laterally.
  • Leverage threat intelligence techniques to mitigate attackers’ actions.

Defensive measures and mitigation

Any organization must set up defensive measures to break attack chains. They should accomplish the following goals:

  • Identify and break attack chains before the system can be compromised. 
  • Detect intruders’ presence as they try to gain access to the system.
  • Prevent breaching or penetration of the system.
  • Deny attacks in real-time.
  • Intercept and interrupt communications the malicious actor makes while in the system.
  • Degrade the impact of the malicious attackers’ actions. This includes mitigating attacks such as supply chain disruption, denial of service, and more.
  • Deceive the attacker by masquerading false information as sensitive/confidential data. This is possible by deploying decoy assets across the network.

How to prevent attack chains in Kubernetes 

Kubernetes infrastructure houses containerized applications, demanding seamless integration of security measures across CI/CD pipelines. This integration is essential to ensure system safety throughout the various stages of the DevOps lifecycle. Attackers often target vulnerabilities stemming from misconfigurations and improper access privileges.

A robust security strategy encompasses the following features:

  1. Automated Vulnerability Scanning: Regular vulnerability scans and CVE assessments empower DevSecOps personnel to prioritize and address critical issues swiftly. This proactive approach continuously reduces the attack surface and minimizes security threats.
  2. Compliance Automation: Streamlining compliance with security frameworks and standards, such as CIS and NSA, is essential for preventing security breaches and safeguarding sensitive data.
  3. Permissions and Privileges Management: Implementing Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) ensures that communication channels and access permissions are granted only as necessary, enhancing overall security.

These measures fortify the Kubernetes infrastructure against attack chains, promoting a secure and resilient environment.


Thinking in terms of attack chains enables organizations to approach cybersecurity smartly and strategically. It enables personnel to see the complete sequence of a possible attack, the different vulnerability points, how they can be exploited, and the potential damage the system faces. Attack chain exploitation has four phases, and the company’s cybersecurity personnel must set up measures across them to limit the attacker’s chances of succeeding.

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