AWS Security Blog

Security considerations for running containers on Amazon ECS

If you’re looking to enhance the security of your containers on Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS), you can begin with the six tips that we’ll cover in this blog post. These curated best practices are recommended by Amazon Web Services (AWS) container and security subject matter experts in order to help raise your container security posture.

Before we jump into best practices, let’s look at the how the shared responsibility model works for Amazon ECS hosted on Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) infrastructure compared to AWS Fargate. The security and compliance of a managed service like Amazon ECS are a shared responsibility between you and AWS. Generally speaking, AWS is responsible for security of the cloud whereas you, the customer, are responsible for security in the cloud. AWS is responsible for the management of the Amazon ECS control plane, including the infrastructure that’s needed to deliver a secure and reliable service. In this post, we’re going to focus on the areas of ECS security that you will be responsible for and provide guidance on what you need to do to adhere to these ECS security best practices.

Figure 1 shows the shared responsibility model for Amazon ECS hosted on an EC2 instance, in which the customer has more security responsibility to cover than when using ECS on Fargate. For example, the ECS agent and the worker node configuration are the customer’s responsibility to govern, because the customer is managing the EC2 instance. Therefore, the customer will have to manage the ECS agent and worker node as part of their configuration and management operations.

Figure 1: Responsibility model for Amazon ECS hosted on an Amazon EC2 instance

Figure 1: Responsibility model for Amazon ECS hosted on an Amazon EC2 instance

AWS assumes greater responsibility for infrastructure security for Fargate, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Responsibility model for Amazon ECS hosted on Fargate

Figure 2: Responsibility model for Amazon ECS hosted on Fargate

In Fargate, each task runs in its own virtual machine (VM). No two tasks share the operating system or kernel resources. AWS manages the security of the underlying instance in the cloud and the runtime that’s used to run your tasks. It also automatically scales your infrastructure on your behalf, which is something you should take into consideration if you’re starting your container journey and deciding on your infrastructure options.

With that, let’s go through these six Amazon ECS security best practices.

1 – Manage ECS access with IAM policies and roles

AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) policies can help you control access to Amazon ECS. For this we recommend that you do the following:

  • Enforce least privilege when setting up policies for Amazon ECS resources – Use resource-level permissions to specify upon which resources you want to allow particular actions. For example, allow only a specific IAM role to stop a task that uses a specific task definition family on a specific ECS cluster. This role should be assumed only by IAM Users that need to perform this action in ECS.
  • Specify your task’s role – Make sure to define the right task role in your ECS task definition. The task role is used by your application in the task to make API calls to AWS services like Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). This allows you to run your tasks by using an IAM role that has only the necessary permissions, without complete access to all services and resources within your account.
  • Create automated pipelines – Use Amazon CodePipeline or one of your other preferred continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) solutions to create pipelines that package and deploy your applications into ECS clusters. This way, you limit the users’ actions and delegate them to the automated pipeline. For an example of how to create pipelines, see Automatically build CI/CD pipelines and Amazon ECS clusters for microservices using AWS CDK.
  • Audit Amazon ECS API access – Track and monitor your AWS CloudTrail logs to identify who has access to your Amazon ECS APIs and whether that access is still warranted. You can then delete the IAM users, roles, and groups that aren’t in use and review the policies that are in place. For more information, see the AWS security audit guidelines.

2 – Secure your ECS network

Network security is an important item to work on as part of applying best practices to secure your Amazon ECS environment. This area includes several sub-areas such as firewalling, traffic routing, and network observability. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Network segmentation and isolation – Amazon ECS tasks are configured to operate in different network modes. AWS recommends the use of awsvpc as the preferred network mode. This is because it’s the only mode that you can use to assign security groups to tasks. After you configure your task to use this mode, the ECS agent automatically provisions and attaches an elastic network interface (ENI) to the task. When the ENI is provisioned, the task is enrolled in an AWS security group. The security group acts as a virtual firewall that you can use to control inbound and outbound traffic. It’s also the only mode that’s available for Fargate tasks on ECS if you choose to go that route.
  • Use network encryption where applicable – Encrypting network traffic helps prevent unauthorized users from intercepting and reading data when that data is transmitted across a network. With Amazon ECS, you can implement network encryption in different ways, such as with a service mesh (TLS), using AWS Nitro system instances, using server name indication (SNI) with an application load balancer, or end-to-end encryption with TLS certificates. If your service is fronted by a public-facing load balancer, use TLS/SSL to encrypt the traffic from the client’s browser to the load balancer and re-encrypt traffic to the backend if warranted. For more information, see Amazon ECS encryption in transit.
  • Create clusters in separate VPCs when network traffic needs to be strictly isolated – You should create cluster workloads in separate virtual private clouds (VPCs) when network traffic needs to be strictly isolated. Avoid running workloads that have strict security requirements on clusters with workloads that don’t have to adhere to those requirements. When strict network isolation is mandatory, create clusters in separate VPCs and selectively expose services to other VPCs by using VPC endpoints. For more information, see VPC endpoints.
  • Configure AWS PrivateLink endpoints when possible – AWS PrivateLink is a networking technology that allows you to create private endpoints for different AWS services, including Amazon ECS. You should configure AWS PrivateLink endpoints when possible. If your security policy prevents you from attaching an internet gateway to your Amazon VPCs, then configure PrivateLink endpoints for ECS and other services such as Amazon Elastic Container Registry (Amazon ECR), AWS Secrets Manager, and Amazon CloudWatch. For more details, see the Amazon ECS Best Practices Guide.

3 – ECS secrets management

Secrets, such as API keys and database credentials, are frequently used by applications to gain access to other systems. They often consist of a username and password, a certificate, or an API key. Access to these secrets should be restricted to specific IAM principals that are using IAM and injected into containers at runtime. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Use Secrets Manager or Amazon EC2 Systems Manager Parameter Store for storing secret materials – Securely storing API keys, database credentials, and other secret materials is crucial to help prevent accidental exposure and unauthorized access. AWS recommends that you store these secrets in Secrets Manager or as an encrypted parameter in Amazon EC2 Systems Manager Parameter Store. These services are similar because they’re both managed key-value stores that use AWS Key Management Service (AWS KMS) to encrypt sensitive data. Secrets Manager, however, also includes the ability to automatically rotate secrets, generate random secrets, and share secrets across AWS accounts. Additionally, Amazon ECS does not support versioned parameters in Parameter Store. If you need to implement any of these features, use Secrets Manager; otherwise, use encrypted parameters. Also, you can use tools like Chamber to manage secrets. For more information, see this Knowledge Center article.

4 – Secure the ECS task and runtime

You should consider the container image as your first line of defense. An insecure, poorly constructed image can allow users to escape the bounds of the container and gain access to the host. You should do the following to mitigate the chances of this happening:

  • Secure your container’s images – Escape to host is a well-known container threat technique where bad actors use unsecured container images to escape the bounds of a container and gain access to the underlying host. We recommend that you scan your container’s images before deployment. For images stored on Amazon ECR, you can use Amazon Inspector to scan your images, along with Amazon EventBridge to be notified to take actions to either delete or rebuild insecure images. This process is shown in Figure 3. You can find more details on how to create custom responses to Amazon Inspector findings with Amazon EventBridge in the Amazon Inspector User Guide.

    Figure 3: Sample architecture showing how to get notified of Amazon Inspector findings on a container’s image

    Figure 3: Sample architecture showing how to get notified of Amazon Inspector findings on a container’s image

  • Enable the ECR tag immutability feature – Threat actors could also try to push a compromised version of a container image into your Amazon ECR repository with an identical tag. A solution for this is to force a new tag for each new version of your image. You can do this by enabling the image tag mutability feature for your ECR repositories. You can find the Tag immutability setting on the Create repository page in the Amazon ECR console, under General settings, as shown in Figure 4.
    Figure 4: Enabling the tag immutability feature for your Amazon ECR repository

    Figure 4: Enabling the tag immutability feature for your Amazon ECR repository

  • Secure your containers and tasks
    • Define the USER parameter to use inside your container – Containers run by default as the root user, which doesn’t adhere to the principle of least privilege and can be misused. One recommendation is to make sure to run your containers as a non-root user by specifying the USER directive in your Dockerfile. You can enforce this when using a CI/CD pipeline by configuring the pipeline to fail the build if the USER directive is missing.
    • Don’t run your containers in privileged mode – Make sure to not run your containers in privileged mode, because in privileged mode the container has the same rights as the root user on the underlying host, which can be an issue if the container is compromised. You can use AWS Security Hub to detect containers that are running in privileged mode. Alternatively, you can use AWS Lambda to scan your task definitions for the use of the privileged parameter. Security Hub has a built-in control (ECS.4) to check whether the privileged parameter in the container definition of Amazon ECS task definitions is set to true.
  • Do not enable ECS Exec – Customers should not enable the ECS Execute condition key for production environments. Blocking the use of this key helps in preventing SSH access into running containers. You can block the use of the key by creating a policy that uses the ECS:Enable-Execute-Command condition key.
  • Secure runtime – For Linux containers, make sure to add or drop Linux kernel capabilities in the task definition. You can do this either by using linuxParameters and applying SELinux labels or by using the AppArmor profile, which is a Linux security module that restricts a container’s capabilities, such as accessing parts of the file system. When you’re using the Fargate launch type, each Fargate task has its own isolation boundary and does not share the underlying kernel, CPU resources, memory resources, or elastic network interface with another task.

5 – ECS logging and monitoring

Logging and monitoring your container’s activity can help you quickly identify and investigate security incidents in your AWS environments. For example, threat actors might have escalated permissions and have access to your root user. Here’s what we recommend:

  • Monitor your AWS account root user activities – Configure an Amazon EventBridge rule that detects your AWS account root user activities based on Amazon CloudTrail logs. For more details, see this blog post.
  • Monitor changes to your tasks and containers – Put appropriate events rules in place in Amazon EventBridge for the creation of and changes to your tasks and containers.
  • Monitor Amazon ECS scheduled tasks – If threat actors have enough privileges, they can abuse the ECS task scheduling feature to deploy containers that would run malicious code. Monitor this type of activity by using Amazon CloudTrail logs and get notifications. For more information about scheduling ECS tasks, see the Amazon ECS Developer Guide.
  • Monitor your container’s activity metrics – Another recommendation is to enable logging for your container and use Amazon CloudWatch to track activity metrics on your containers, such as CPU and memory utilization. This can help you detect if your resources are accessed and being used for malicious activities, such as launching DoS attacks. See Amazon ECS CloudWatch Container Insights for more information.
  • Use Amazon VPC Flow Logs to analyze the traffic to and from long-running tasks – You should use Amazon VPC Flow Logs to analyze the traffic to and from long-running tasks. Tasks that use awsvpc network mode get their own ENI. By setting tasks to use this mode, you can use VPC flow logs to monitor traffic that goes to and from individual tasks. A recent update to Amazon VPC Flow Logs (v3) enriches the logs with traffic metadata, including the VPC ID, subnet ID, and the instance ID. You can use this metadata to help narrow an investigation. For more information, see Amazon VPC Flow Logs. AWS cloud-native tools like Amazon GuardDuty inspect VPC flow logs and generate alerts and findings if unusual activity is detected.

6 – ECS security compliance

When using Amazon ECS, your compliance responsibility is determined by the sensitivity of your data, the compliance objectives of your company, and applicable laws and regulations. For example, with regards to the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), it’s important that you understand the complete flow of cardholder data (CHD) within your environment.

The temporary nature of containerized applications provides additional complexities when auditing configurations. As a result, customers need to maintain an awareness of all container configuration parameters, to make sure that compliance requirements are addressed throughout the phases of a container lifecycle. For additional information on adhering to PCI DSS compliance on Amazon ECS, see the Architecting on Amazon ECS for PCI DSS Compliance whitepaper.

One service that can help with monitoring Amazon ECS compliance is AWS Security Hub. You can use this service to monitor your usage of ECS as it relates to security best practices. Security Hub uses controls to evaluate resource configurations and security standards to help you comply with various compliance frameworks. For more information about using Security Hub to evaluate ECS resources, see Amazon ECS controls in the AWS Security Hub User Guide.

Conclusion

In this blog post, we presented a curated list of best practices for securing your Amazon ECS implementation. You can use these best practices as a starting point to increase the security posture of your ECS environment. You can always add, remove, or prioritize the best practice items based on your business needs and requirements. If you’re looking for more detailed guidance on securing ECS in your environment, we suggest that you take a look at Amazon ECS Security Best Practices.

If you have feedback about this post, submit comments in the Comments section below. If you have questions about this post, start a new thread on AWS re:Post or contact AWS Support.

Mutaz Hajeer

Mutaz Hajeer

Mutaz is a Senior Security Solutions Architect on the AWS Worldwide Commercial Sector Security Specialist team, working with customers in North America. Mutaz has been working within the cybersecurity field for 14 years and now focuses on threat detection and incident response services within AWS. Outside of work, he likes to coach, play, and watch soccer, along with spending time with his wife and three kids.

Ibtissam Liedri author

Ibtissam Liedri

Ibtissam is a Solutions Architect for AWS Financial Services. She assists financial services customers throughout their cloud journeys, helping them craft scalable, flexible, and resilient architectures. Ibtissam has an interest in cloud security with a focus on threat detection and incident response services within AWS and enjoys helping customers understand how to better build and secure their workloads.

Temi Adebambo

Temi Adebambo

Temi is the head of Security Solutions Architecture at AWS, with extensive experience leading technical teams and delivering enterprise-wide technology transformation programs. He has assisted Fortune 500 corporations with cloud security architecture, cyber risk management, compliance, IT security strategy, and governance. Prior to AWS, Temi served in various roles at Deloitte and PwC, providing consulting services in cybersecurity across industries.