Docker build secrets and private npm packages

Multi-stage builds

On June 25th, 2018 I published a blog post on using Docker multi-stage builds to securely download private npm packages. At the time this was the most secure method for using .npmrc files in Docker builds.

Instead of rewriting that old post I’m publishing a follow-up post on Docker build secrets. This blog post assumes you’ve read my previous post on multi-stage builds.

Docker build secrets

In November 2018 Docker 18.09 introduced a new --secret flag for docker build. This allows us to pass secrets from a file to our Docker builds. These secrets aren’t saved in the final Docker image, any intermediate images, or the image commit history. With build secrets, you can now securely build Docker images with private npm packages without build arguments and multi-stage builds.

Enabling BuildKit support

To use build secrets you’ll first need to enable support for Moby BuildKit. If you don’t enable BuildKit you’ll get the error message Error response from daemon: Dockerfile parse error line 7: Unknown flag: mount when trying to use build secrets.

To enable BuildKit, run export DOCKER_BUILDKIT=1. If you don’t want to set this environment variable you can instead prepend docker build commands with DOCKER_BUILDKIT=1.

Docker 18.09 is the first version to ship with optional BuildKit support. Eventually, BuildKit will be the default Docker build engine.

Using Docker build secrets with npm tokens

Here’s a Dockerfile called Dockerfile-secure-secrets that uses build secrets to install a Node.js app using private npm packages. The full source code and instructions are available at

# syntax = docker/dockerfile:1.0-experimental
FROM node:8.11.3-alpine

WORKDIR /private-app
COPY . /private-app

RUN --mount=type=secret,id=npm,target=/root/.npmrc npm install


CMD ["node","index.js"]

To build this Docker image locally, run docker build . -f Dockerfile-secure-secrets -t secure-app-secrets --secret id=npm,src=$HOME/.npmrc.

This docker build command passes your local .npmrc file at $HOME/.npmrc to the RUN command. Then RUN --mount=type=secret,id=npm,target=/root/.npmrc adds your .npmrc file to /root/.npmrc on the Docker image. The npm install command then uses the /root/.npmrc file to access and install private npm packages.

You can check out the full syntax for --mount=type=secret in the Moby BuildKit documentation.

Verifying no secrets

To verify Docker build secrets didn’t leak our .npmrc file or npm tokens, run docker history secure-app-secrets.

Verifying docker build secrets

Verifying that build secrets did not leak our npmrc file or npm tokens

Docker build secrets do leave a 0-byte blank file in our final Docker image though. It leaves this file at the target destination for our secrets, in this case /root/.npmrc.

Empty file for mounted secrets

Empty file bug with Docker build secrets

This blank file is empty and so far there’s no evidence it can be exploited. It’s also a known issue from the Docker CLI pull request that added this feature in August 2018. I verified this bug still exists with Docker version 18.09.2, build 6247962.

Experimental support?

Though the --secret flag appears in a production version of Docker, there are a few hints that support is still somewhat experimental.

For example, the first line of a Dockerfile using build secrets must be # syntax = docker/dockerfile:1.0-experimental. Without this line you’ll get the error failed to create LLB definition: Dockerfile parse error line 6: Unknown flag: mount. This line enables the Docker CLI to use the “experimental Dockerfile frontend” for Moby BuildKit.

The build secrets launch blog post acknowledges that “secrets are currently not enabled in the stable channel of external Dockerfiles, so you need to use one of the releases in the experimental channel.” The Docker CLI pull request mentions this feature doesn’t use the stable default front end.

Even if the secrets CLI feature itself is stable, the external dockerfile it relies on is experimental. The syntax directive at the top of the Dockerfile feels like a hack or workaround that makes me feel uneasy about production usage.


Docker build secrets finally provide a secure way to use secrets in Docker images. Now multi-stage builds can be used for smaller Docker images instead of removing secrets.

Support for Docker build secrets still relies on an experimental Dockerfile frontend. As a result, Docker build secrets may or may not be ready for production use depending on your tolerance for risk.

I’ll update this blog post when Docker build secrets use a stable external Dockerfile frontend. We likely won’t have to wait long!