The Basics of CI/CD Security

Cody Queen - June 11, 2024

What is CI/CD security?

Modern software development depends heavily on continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) for faster and more reliable software delivery. The CI/CD pipeline is no longer a nice-to-have bonus for dev teams — any DevOps-practicing organization makes CI/CD a staple. This has two implications:

  1. The importance of the CI/CD pipeline makes it a lucrative target for threat actors
  2. Because it has a target on its back, securing your CI/CD pipeline is absolutely critical

CI/CD security protects not only the software applications you build with it but all of the peripheral operations that depend on it. In this post, we’ll walk through the basics of CI/CD security — why it’s important, where the vulnerabilities are, and considerations for implementation.

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What is CI/CD and the CI/CD pipeline?

CI/CD is a methodology that aims to integrate frequent code updates into a shared repository. Each change is tested and deployed automatically and immediately. The approach of integrating smaller changes more frequently minimizes integration problems and brings faster, iterative software releases.

Automation is a pivotal part of CI/CD. By using automated processes and tools, a DevOps team reduces the risk of human error and significantly speeds up the software delivery process — all while ensuring consistency and accuracy. With automation, software quality is better maintained from development to deployment.

This set of automated tools and processes is the CI/CD pipeline, and it’s tasked with systematically managing the flow of changes as code progresses from development to production. Here’s a closer look at the key components in the CI/CD pipeline:

  • Build: Compile the source code into a binary artifact, preparing it for the next stages of testing and deployment.
  • Test: Run automated tests — such as unit tests and regression tests — to verify that new features are working as intended and that new additions won’t break existing functionality or infrastructure.
  • Deliver: Stand up the application in a staging environment for QA testing and A/B testing to find any remaining problems, preparing the application for final deployment.
  • Deploy: Assuming all automated testing has cleared, the application is ready to be deployed into production.

The importance of securing your CI/CD pipeline

Many organizations focus all their security attention on the application itself, adopting secure coding practices, conducting vulnerability testing, and implementing best practice application security measures. Certainly, this attention to application security is to be commended. However, these same organizations often overlook the need to secure their CI/CD pipelines, and this can lead to catastrophic data breaches and unauthorized access. If there are vulnerabilities in your CI/CD pipeline, an attacker can exploit them to:

  • Inject malicious code
  • Manipulate builds
  • Compromise secrets and credentials
  • Abuse automated processes

When you fortify your CI/CD pipeline, you protect your software from being altered or accessed by unauthorized individuals, thereby maintaining the integrity and confidentiality of your systems. The threats against your CI/CD pipeline are constantly evolving, so you need robust security measures in place at every stage of the pipeline to proactively detect and mitigate potential attacks.

The repercussions of a security breach within the CI/CD pipeline can be severe. From a financial standpoint, things can escalate quickly. You’re likely to face immediate financial losses as you suffer operational disruption. Then, you’ll have long-term reputational damage, which will affect future revenues. If you proactively secure your CI/CD pipeline, then you’ll be in a much better position to prevent financial and reputational damage.

Securing your CI/CD pipeline does more than just protect you against threats. It also helps you  comply with regulatory requirements and build trust with customers. When you ensure that your pipeline adheres to security standards and laws, you prevent legal issues and regulatory fines. Additionally, you demonstrate to customers that your organization is committed to maintaining high security standards.

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Vulnerabilities in the CI/CD pipeline

Where might your CI/CD pipeline be vulnerable, and who would have an interest in exploiting these vulnerabilities?

Threat actors targeting your CI/CD pipelines may include individual threat actors, organized crime, and even state-sponsored groups. Their end goal in exploiting vulnerabilities may be to inject malicious code, steal sensitive data, or disrupt service operations. In addition to exploiting known software vulnerabilities, they may employ other methods such as phishing or activating insider threats to gain unauthorized access to your critical systems.

Access control is one of the primary areas where vulnerabilities can arise. When access control is flawed or entirely broken, this may lead to unauthorized access to your CI/CD toolchain or sensitive credentials. What does broken access control look like? You may have poorly managed permissions or over-privileged accounts. This can provide easy entry points for attackers, enabling them to manipulate the CI/CD pipeline’s operations and potentially access confidential information.

The actual tools used by your CI/CD pipeline are also susceptible to vulnerabilities, especially through their dependency chains. If any component within your pipeline — and this can include everything from build compilers to deployment management systems — uses outdated or compromised software, this can open the door to security breaches.

Most commonly, vulnerabilities in the CI/CD pipeline simply stem from misconfigurations, insufficient security practices, or neglected updates. These vulnerabilities can be as varied as exposed sensitive information, unsecured server interfaces, or inadequate logging and monitoring. Each weakness provides a potential vector of attack that can compromise your entire pipeline.

How to secure your CI/CD pipeline

Here are some broad CI/CD tips and guidelines as your organization adopts practical and effective security measures. These tips will make it easier to implement and manage your CI/CD security over time.

  • Secure coding: Implement secure coding practices to reduce vulnerabilities in your code before it even gets to your CI/CD pipeline.
  • Regular security testing and scanning: Use a variety of security tests, including configuration and compliance scanning, infrastructure as code (IaC) scanning, and dependency scanning. Your CI/CD pipeline can automate these scans and tests to ensure the infrastructure setup associated with deployments is performed securely.
  • Secrets detection: Leverage automated tools that can alert you to exposed secrets within your pipeline. By mitigating this glaring issue, you’ll prevent data leaks.
  • Software supply chain security: Make use of a software bill of materials (SBOM) and its associated tools a part of your CI/CD workflow. This will ensure all software components are verified and secure prior to integration.
  • Tightening access control and permissions: Strictly manage access rights to your CI/CD pipeline, ensuring only necessary personnel and processes can interact with it. This will minimize the risk of insider threats and unauthorized access.
  • Using secure tools and environments: Choose tools for your CI/CD pipeline that meet high security standards and maintain a secure environment throughout the life cycle of the pipeline.
  • Update and patch management: Regularly update and patch all components within your pipeline to protect against known vulnerabilities and threats.

In addition to the above guidelines, implement continuous monitoring and logging of your CI/CD pipeline processes. Just as you would employ these techniques for detecting and addressing security issues in your applications, you should do the same for your CI/CD pipeline.

Finally, ongoing education and training for all DevOps teams is important. This will ensure your teams keep up with the latest security best practices and emerging threats.

Learn More

Read this blog to learn about CrowdStrike Falcon® Cloud Security capabilities that ensure organizations can protect their cloud workloads throughout the entire software development lifecycle and effectively combat adversaries targeting the cloud.  CrowdStrike Enhances Cloud Detection and Response (CDR) Capabilities to Protect CI/CD Pipeline

How CrowdStrike secures your pipeline

This article has outlined the fundamental practices for securing your CI/CD pipeline, focusing on proactive measures and essential security practices. Implementing these strategies ensures you’ll have a robust defense against potential cyber threats seeking to exploit your CI/CD pipeline. By protecting your CI/CD pipeline, you maintain the integrity and efficiency of your software delivery process. Protecting this process goes a long way toward protecting your applications.

CrowdStrike Falcon® Cloud Security significantly enhances the security of applications and the software development life cycle, including the CI/CD pipeline. It provides key CI/CD security capabilities in the pre-runtime phase, such as:

  • Ensuring safe delivery through the use of verified image policies
  • Aligning security, DevOps, and infrastructure teams via comprehensive reporting and dashboards
  • Integrating with developer toolchains, such as Jenkins, Bamboo, GitLab, and more
  • Providing complete coverage through automatically performed malware, secrets, and vulnerability detections with software composition analysis (SCA)
  • Improving IaC security through container image vulnerability scanning across AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud

By offering both pre-runtime and runtime protection and leveraging agentless technology, Falcon Cloud Security ensures that deployments are secure from the code stage to the cloud, protecting against a wide range of threats and reducing the complexity of cloud security management.

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Cody Queen is a Senior Product Marketing Manager for Cloud Security at CrowdStrike.