Thoughts about a secure enclave for Jenkins Pipeline 30 Apr 2019
jenkins pipeline opinion otto

Continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) projects might just be one of the hardest to lock down and secure. As system designers and implementors we must enable developers to automate their builds, tests, and deployments. And yet, in doing so, we also give those same developers the ability to bypass many of the boundaries we may have set up to secure our environments. If you give me the ability to automate my deployment with a script, I can think of a number of ways in which that ability can lead to information disclosure or other types of breaches. Jenkins Pipeline is filled with any number of problematic examples here the same feature can be looked at as empowering or as compromising. I believe the immense flexibility of Jenkins Pipeline also gives us a path to provide automation which is inherently more secure than some competitors. In this post, I’ll outline one such idea: a pipeline secure enclave.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to properly secure CI/CD workloads, and it’s genuinely a tough problem, as you may have noticed from some of my previously blog posts:

Many systems typically expose credentials to scripts via environment variables. Many tools, Jenkins included make a good effort to mask these credentials should some developer accidentally or maliciously attempt ot log them to the console output. As I have shown before, this simply does not adequately protect credentials. It’s possible to leak credentials by: piping them through some encoding before printing, archiving them as artifacts, sending them to a remote service, along with numerous slight variations on those three approaches. So long as a credential is exposed to code editable by developers, it is trivial to leak.

Unlike some of its competitors, I believe Jenkins Pipeline has the tooling necessary to provide a secure approach to utilizing credentials in the CI/CD process. My “secure enclave” proposal revolves around a key feature: Shared Libraries. With shared libraries, administrators can load common snippets of pipeline code into the master, for easy re-use within multiple projects. To learn more about some of the cool things you can do with shared libraries, I recommend Alvin Huang’s presentation from Jenkins World 2017.

A secure enclave for Jenkins Pipeline would rest upon the foundation provided by shared libraries, but require additional implementation to properly secure credentials:

  • An administrator would need to be able to bind credentials solely to the shared library. Right now there are system-level, and folder-level credentials in Jenkins. For system-level credentials, there is nothing which prevents my Jenkinsfile from utilizing a credential so long as I know the ID before hand.

    By allowing the credential to be bound solely to the shared library, then the credential would not be accessible to pipelines developed and used elsewhere in the master.

  • Utilizing the credential within the shared library would need to be done in a manner which does not allow arbitrary user code to be utilized. After all, if the shared library provides me a function to pass in code, which is then executed with access to the credentials, then we would have gained nothing.

    Invocations into the “secure enclave” methods would need to reject Closure types from being passed, and likely need to tag and track String/GString types to ensure those aren’t inadvertently passed to the sh step or interpolated into other strings. Suggesting this is a little out of my comfort zone, since I don’t fully understand how the workflow-cps engine underneath functions. I feel fairly certain that special-case tracking and handling of a CredentialsString would not be the gnarliest bit of object-hacking going on in CPS.

  • To further avoid inadvertent disclosure, Pipelines which attempt to use a secure enclave would need to use the Groovy sandbox, and should probably not be allowed any @NonCPS methods as well. Furthermore, a secure enclave must not be editable on Replay of a Pipeline except by a Jenkins administrator.

I believe this approach would provide a rigid set of constraints that would provide increased security for the use of secrets in a Jenkins environment, while still providing flexibility to developers and administrators.

That said, there is still a potential “escape” if an administrator is enabling code in this secure enclave simply access the credentials and immediately passes them into code defined by the repository:

void deployit() {
    checkout scm

    withCredentialsthCredentials([string(credentialsId: 'aws-secret', variable: 'AWS_SECRET')]) {
        sh './'

When thinking about this aspect of the problem, I was considering the potential to lock down a workspace, or only allow code in the secure enclave to interact with stashed or archived artifacts. These approaches still suffer from the same type of circumventions, I am not convinced that the problem is 100% solvable while still allowing developers to own the code running in their CI/CD pipelines.

The secure enclave approach is just one potential improvement to the security of Jenkins Pipeline. Perhaps a bit complex but I believe it would provide a more comprehensive layer of security atop Jenkins Pipeline.

Another, far simpler, approach would allow the binding of credentials to a Pipeline and some source control criteria. In my continuously delivered world, the master branch indicates a pre-existing level of trust and validation. Code in master often is trusted enough to be deployed to a staging or test environment. Relying on that pre-existing system of trust and only binding a credential, thereby making it available to the Jenkinsfile in the master branch, would be a simple improvement to the security of Jenkins Pipelines.

There is certainly still be potential for disclosures, but if I am already putting systems of trust around that merge to master, I likely have bigger problems if untrusted/unvalidated code is finding its way to the master branch.

Any way we look at it, I think Jenkins Pipelines and their treatment of credentials are quite lacking given the scope and severity of inadvertent disclosures which have happened over the past couple years. Additionally, none of the approaches I suggest above would be effective so long as the current system for adding global credentials and accessing them in pipelines are the “default” flow. Jenkins must make it more difficult to add and use credentials in insecure ways.