Best practices for IaC and secrets security

Adam Cheriki, Co-founder & CTO, Entro
May 20, 2024
IAC and secrets management

You’re no stranger to the world of Infrastructure as Code (IaC). You’ve witnessed its transformative impact on application deployment and management. However, amidst all the excitement surrounding IaC, it’s common to overlook one critical aspect: the security of secrets.

We’ve all been there, tempted to take the easy route and hardcode our secrets directly into our Ansible playbooks or Terraform scripts. After all, it’s just a few passwords and API keys, right? What could possibly go wrong?

We recommend you don’t go down that rabbit hole because it’s a trap. Hardcoding secrets in your IaC is a surefire way to expose your infrastructure to all sorts of risks, from data breaches to financial losses.

But here’s the thing — you don’t have to choose between speed and security when it comes to Infrastructure as Code secrets security. With the right set of best practices and some nifty secret management tools up your sleeve, you can have your cake and eat it too. But first, let’s clear the air.

Why is it so difficult to maintain secrets security in the cloud?

Transitioning to the cloud opens up new possibilities for businesses, but it also presents unique challenges, especially in terms of security. Here are some of the key challenges in secrets management in the cloud:

  1. Secrets sprawl: As organizations move more workloads to the cloud, the number of secrets they need to manage increases exponentially. This can lead to secrets sprawl, where sensitive information is scattered across multiple locations, making it difficult to maintain proper oversight and control. For example, an organization might have API keys stored in a GitHub repository, database credentials in a configuration file, and encryption keys in a key management service, thus aggravating API security risks.
  2. Lack of centralization and standardization: Without a standardized and unified approach to managing secrets and non-human identities within IaC pipelines, organizations may struggle with inconsistencies and poorly maintained secrets. This lack of consistency can make it challenging to pinpoint the origin of a security breach or data leak.
  3. Inadequate access control: Access control is critical for protecting secrets. Without proper access controls, sensitive information can easily fall into the wrong hands. As an example, if a cloud storage bucket containing secrets is misconfigured to allow public access, anyone on the internet could potentially discover and use those secrets.
  4. Hardcoded credentials: Applications and DevOps tools frequently have secrets hardcoded in scripts or configuration files, which jeopardizes IaC and secrets security. If these files are stored in a version control system, the secrets become exposed.
  5. Infrequent rotation: Secrets that remain unchanged for long periods are more likely to be compromised through leaks, unauthorized sharing, or cracking by hackers. Secrets can leak through logs, caches, and debugging.
  6. Poor integration: Secret management should integrate with an organization’s overall security systems like identity and access management, logging, and incident response. Lack of integration makes it harder to monitor and audit secrets usage.
  7. Lack of automation: Given the dynamic nature of cloud-native architectures, containers and serverless functions may only exist for a few minutes or seconds making it difficult to automate IaC provisioning secrets management. This is further compounded by the fact that organizations use diverse tech stacks, and need secure secrets distribution at scale.

Why running a vault is not enough

Vaults are highly recommended and popular non-human identities and secrets management solutions that address quite a few challenges listed in the previous section by providing a centralized, encrypted store for secrets. However, it would not serve us right to call them a silver bullet given how they inherently don’t address the full lifecycle and exposure risks of secrets.

Even with a vault in place, secrets still exist and can have devastating consequences if the vault itself is breached. The blast radius may be reduced, but the threat is not eliminated. Moreover, as infrastructure scales and becomes more complex, managing a secrets vault can become a significant challenge in its own right. The proliferation of policies, roles, and access controls can quickly become unwieldy, making it difficult to maintain a strong IaC and secrets security posture.

It’s also critical to recognize that secrets vaults do not protect secrets after they leave the vault’s confines. When an application or user retrieves a secret, that unsealed secret is still vulnerable to exposure in logs, environment variables, command lines, and other artifacts.

To truly secure secrets in IaC, we must think beyond just the vault. Embracing ephemeral secrets, integrating with identity platforms, and continuously discovering and rotating secrets are all critical pieces of the puzzle.

Best practices for managing secrets in IaC

As IaC becomes increasingly popular, managing secrets and non-human identities securely is essential to protect sensitive information and prevent unauthorized access. 

1. Data organization

It’s important to use an adequate directory structure that promotes better maintenance and understanding. For example, in Ansible, creating separate sub-directories like ‘group vars’, ‘vars’, and ‘vault’ can help keep things organized. If you’re using Hiera with Puppet, placing secrets used by few scripts at the top of the hierarchy and commonly used secrets at the bottom can enhance readability. Another helpful tip is to establish naming conventions for secret variables from the start, such as using a “vault_” prefix for Ansible vault variables. 

2. Access control

Access control is another critical aspect of non-human identities and secrets management, especially in the context of secrets management in zero trust architecture which can only be established through continuous monitoring and dynamic trust evaluation. As a first step, it’s crucial to implement the principle of least privilege. This means granting access only to those who absolutely need it and limiting the level of access based on their role. This includes restricting who can store and read secrets, and ensuring that only authorized individuals or machines can access sensitive information. 

Don’t make the mistake of giving everyone in your organization full access to your secrets vault. Instead, take the time to carefully consider who needs access and to what extent.

3. Comprehensive Logging

With well-implemented and thorough logging mechanisms, you can track all secret-related operations and gain valuable insights into who is accessing your secrets and when. This visibility goes a long way toward maintaining the Infrastructure as Code secrets security and detecting any suspicious activities. Just make sure to log events such as secret creation, retrieval, updates, and deletions, along with relevant metadata like timestamps and user information. 

Having a detailed audit trail can be a lifesaver in case of a security incident or compliance audit. It allows you to quickly investigate and respond to potential breaches and provides evidence of proper secret management practices.

4. Context-based secrets rotation

While rotating secrets timely is important, that isn’t the only factor at play. Effective secret rotation requires a deep understanding of the context surrounding the secret’s usage, including the systems, services, and individuals that rely on it. This means understanding who is using the secret, what cloud services or systems it is associated with, and the specific privileges and permissions required for that secret to function properly.

Before initiating a secret rotation, take the time to map out the dependencies and relationships surrounding the secret. And while it may be a daunting undertaking, it’s the only way to ensure that the secrets rotation process is minimally disruptive.

5. Look out for misconfigurations

Misconfigurations in IaC can quickly propagate and lead to security issues. For example, secrets security misconfigurations could be setting an S3 bucket to be publicly accessible, allowing anyone to read or write data. To mitigate this risk, regularly scan IaC files using tools that identify issues like overly permissive access controls, unencrypted data storage, or exposed ports. Integrate these scans into the CI/CD pipeline to catch misconfigurations early. Establish a baseline configuration and compare IaC files against it to detect deviations.

6. Avoid hard-coding secrets in IaC

One of the biggest risks with IaC is accidentally committing secrets into one of those repositories. This is dangerous because it means anyone with access to that repo now has those secrets. If the repo is public, it’s even worse — now your secrets are exposed to the whole internet. 

So, first off, instead of hardcoding secrets directly in IaC files, use a dedicated secrets vault. You can then reference secrets using variables or placeholders in the IaC code at deployment time where the IaC tool fetches the secrets and injects them into your code.

7. Enforce consistent governance across the toolchain

Securing the IaC code itself is important, but you also need to harden the whole CI/CD pipeline and toolchain that handles the code. Attackers increasingly target developers and DevOps admins to get access to these systems. A single compromised account can be disastrous if it has too much privilege.

Google’s SLSA framework provides specific guidance for securing the software supply chain. It focuses on making all changes transparent and reviewable. Each source and build platform should have logging, access controls, and a minimum security baseline. Changes should require approval from multiple parties.

Where do we go from here?

Maintaining Infrastructure as Code secrets security presents significant challenges. Inadequate access controls, secrets sprawl, hardcoded credentials, and infrequent rotation can expose sensitive data to unauthorized parties. Following the best practices listed above can significantly reduce the attack surface and minimize the impact of potential breaches.

However, implementing those can be a challenge, especially in complex IaC environments. Rotating secrets, for example, requires context about who is using the secret, what cloud service it accesses, and what privileges it needs. Without this vital information and usage patterns, effectively managing secrets becomes a daunting task. Here’s where Entro shines. 

Entro provides a holistic solution that addresses the complexities of IaC provisioning secrets management, without interfering with the work of R&D teams. By leveraging APIs and reading logs, Entro offers an out-of-band approach that seamlessly integrates with existing workflows and helps organizations effectively implement best practices and gain visibility into their secrets landscape. 

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