Application Security

Secrets Management: Tools & Best Practice

Tools and best practices for secrets management

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Psst… can you keep a secret? If you’re working with confidential or sensitive digital information, your answer must be yes. But it’s a job easier said than done. Secrets management isn’t as simple as it sounds, and failing at the task can have enormous consequences for a company, its clients, and its reputation. So in this article, we’re sharing best practices and tools you can use to safeguard your secrets.

What is secrets management?

Secrets management refers to the practices and tools used to store, access, and distribute sensitive information securely. It’s a critical process to safeguard against data breaches, identity theft, and other security incidents. Secrets management employs encryption, access controls, auditing, and other security measures to ensure that sensitive information remains confidential and is only accessible to authorized individuals or applications. Secrets can be managed centrally with a key management system (KMS), with access controls enforced through identity and access management (IAM) systems, or they can be distributed and managed locally on individual machines or within specific applications or services.

What is a secret? 

In the context of secrets management, a secret is any piece of sensitive information that must be kept confidential and secure. This includes passwords, API keys, cryptographic keys, tokens, or other credentials used for authentication or authorization. Secrets may also include other types of sensitive data, such as financial or medical records, personally identifiable information (PII), or intellectual property.

Secrets need to be protected from unauthorized access or disclosure since they could be used to gain access to data or systems, or to impersonate a user or service.

Why is secrets management important?

On December 27, 2021, security engineer Daniel Hackmann was notified via email that an intrusion in his CircleCI account may have occurred, thanks to an AWS CanaryToken he had set up. The intruder likely triggered the decoy, which was in the form of an AWS key. Honeytokens, or decoys, can be employed in systems to identify and prevent intrusions and can be activated by attackers to signal potential security breaches. A week later, CircleCI recommended that its customers rotate their secrets following the security event—made possible with judicious secrets management. 

Secrets management is important as it provides for the security of sensitive information, ensures compliance with regulations, enables scalability, and facilitates collaboration.

  • Security: Secrets such as passwords, API keys, and cryptographic keys help secure applications, systems, and data. If compromised, bad actors can use these secrets to gain unauthorized access to resources or data, resulting in data breaches, identity theft, and other security incidents. 

  • Compliance: Compliance requirements such as GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI-DSS require organizations to protect sensitive data and provide auditable access controls. Secrets management can help companies comply with these requirements and provide evidence of their security controls.

  • Scalability: As applications and systems grow more complex, managing secrets becomes more challenging. Leveraging tools designed to automate and streamline secrets management better ensures secrets remain safe even at scale.

  • Collaboration: Secrets management provides a framework for multiple teams to access sensitive information and collaborate securely while still ensuring secrets are restricted to authorized users and applications.

Challenges of secrets management

Organizations will likely encounter challenges to secrets management. Some of these challenges are related to:

  • Complexity: Secrets management becomes increasingly complex when dealing with large-scale infrastructures and cloud-native environments. It becomes difficult to keep track of all the secrets in use across multiple systems and platforms.

  • Manual processes: Employing manual processes when managing secrets can be time-consuming and introduce errors, resulting in inefficiencies, increased operational costs, and security risks.

  • Revocation: Identifying and revoking affected secrets in the event of a security breach can be difficult, particularly in complex environments.

Six best practices for secrets management

Here are six best practices to consider so you can help ensure your secrets are safe while remaining efficiently accessible to authorized personnel:

  1. Centralize & standardize: Centralizing secrets management ensures consistency and standardization across the organization. A centralized approach makes managing secrets across different systems and platforms easier while providing visibility and control over sensitive data.

  2. Rotate keys and credentials regularly: Make it a practice to regularly rotate keys and credentials so that if the key leaks or is stolen, it’s only valid for a short time before it expires. Serverless secrets management, containers, and many other modern apps should be built with key rotation in mind. 

  3. Access control: Access to secrets should be granted only to authorized personnel on a need-to-know basis. Tightly guarding secrets minimizes the risk of unauthorized access and ensures secrets are only used for their intended purposes.

  4. Leverage automation: Automating secrets management reduces the risk of human error, increases efficiency, and improves security. Implementing automated processes promotes consistency in secrets handling and helps enforce internal policies.

  5. Audit: Audit secrets management activities at a regular cadence to detect and prevent unauthorized access and usage of sensitive data, while ensuring compliance with policies and regulatory requirements.

  6. Policies: Define and document secrets management policies so that all personnel understand their responsibilities and obligations concerning sensitive data. Provide regular review and training on the policies to keep team members updated on the latest protocols. 

The best secrets management tools

Tools can enable better secrets management (including helping in securing Docker secrets) at your organization. Here are four of the best we’ve found available.

  • Hashicorp Vault: A popular open source secrets management tool that provides secure storage and access to secrets. It supports multiple authentication and authorization methods and can be integrated with various cloud providers, databases, and other systems. Hashicorp Vault also provides a robust audit trail, dynamic secrets, and encryption as a service.

  • AWS Secrets Manager: A fully-managed service that helps you protect access to your applications, services, and IT resources. It enables you to rotate, manage, and retrieve secrets easily. AWS Secrets Manager automates secrets management and ensures secrets are always encrypted, secure, and available when needed. 

  • Google Secret Manager: Offered by Google, Secret Manager is a secure and convenient storage system for API keys, passwords, certificates, and other sensitive data. Secret Manager provides a central place and single source of truth to manage, access, and audit secrets across Google Cloud.

  • Azure Key Vault: A cloud-based service that provides secure storage and management of cryptographic keys, secrets, and certificates used by your applications and services. Azure Key Vault enables you to easily create, store, and manage keys and secrets, and you can use them to encrypt data and authenticate users. It also provides a range of security features, including role-based access control, audit logging, and integration with other Azure services.

Next steps: How Snyk can help with secrets management 

Snyk is best leveraged for auditing. Our solutions enhance software supply chain security & AppSec through actionable insights and recommendations on how to remediate vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by attackers looking to access your secrets.

Snyk Code scans your codebase to identify hard-coded secrets such as API keys, passwords, and other sensitive information. It can help you identify these secrets and suggest ways to securely manage them using a secrets management tool.

Snyk Container and Snyk Open Source can help you select the most secure base images and packages for your container. By scanning these components, Snyk can identify vulnerabilities and suggest alternatives to help reduce your attack surface and prevent exploits.

And Snyk IaC (infrastructure as code) can help reduce risk before and after deployment. It scans your infrastructure code for some types of hard-coded secrets, misconfigurations, and vulnerabilities, provides insights into security best practices, and suggests remediation steps to ensure your infrastructure is secure and compliant.

Schedule a live demo to see how Snyk can help keep your secrets safe. And be sure to review Best practices for Kubernetes Secrets management to take your cybersecurity to the next level.

Up Next

Application Security Controls Explained

In the security hierarchy, application security controls lie below standards and policies. Policies set the boundaries expected for application security and protection, while standards create rules for enforcing those boundaries.

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