Beyond the basics: advanced insights into secrets management challenges

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
February 5, 2024

Cybersecurity is high stakes, and secrets management is the bedrock upon which your security architecture stands.  You know the drill — keeping those API keys, connections-strings, and certificates under wraps is crucial. But let’s not beat around the bush; this isn’t your typical ‘lock it and leave it’ scenario; it’s about maintaining an impenetrable defense in an era where threats evolve as rapidly as technology.

Whether cloud-based platforms like Kubernetes or traditional IT infrastructures, each presents its unique battlefield. Missteps in managing secrets aren’t just errors; they are breaches waiting to happen — a scenario every leader strives to avoid.

This article will discuss some common secrets management and security mistakes, including practices that might seem innocuous but can lead to catastrophic consequences. But don’t worry — we won’t leave you stranded without equipping you with the strategies to navigate and conquer these challenges confidently. This isn’t just another article; it’s your playbook for mastering secrets management across diverse terrains. From the common slip ups to the lesser-known traps, we will be diving deep.

Top 5 common secrets management mistakes

Alright, let’s dive into some common secrets management mistakes that can trip up even the savviest of teams:

    1. Hard coding secrets in code repositories: A classic blunder, hard coding secrets like API keys or passwords directly in code repositories is like leaving your house keys under the mat. It is convenient, and it is highly risky. Agile development environments are prone to this devastating mistake, as developers under time constraints might opt for convenience over security.
    2. Inadequate key rotation and revocation processes: In the digital world, static credentials are increasingly likely to be compromised over time.  For instance, a company using the same encryption keys for extended periods without rotation can provide an easy entry point for attackers, especially if the keys have been exposed in past incidents.
    3. On the flip side, rotating keys too frequently also causes operational issues. If a key is rotated every time it is accessed, it becomes difficult for multiple applications to access the key at the same time. Only the first application would get access, and the next ones would fail. This is counterproductive. You need to find the right interval for secrets rotation.
    4. Storing secrets in public places or insecure locations: Storing sensitive information like database passwords in configuration files that are publicly accessible, perhaps in a Docker image or a public code repository, invites trouble.
    5. Over-provisioning privileges for secrets: Granting excessive privileges for secrets is similar to giving every employee a master key to the entire office. Employees with more access than needed could unintentionally or maliciously expose sensitive information, leading to data breaches or other security incidents.

Lesser-known pitfalls in secrets storage and management

As we further explore the web of secrets management, let’s shed some light on some of the lesser-known, nuanced vulnerabilities that can profoundly impact you building a resilient digital infrastructure.

Improper secrets lifecycle management

Often overlooked, the lifecycle management of secrets is one of the major pitfalls to avoid. It involves creating and using secrets and regularly updating and eventually retiring them. Poor lifecycle management can leave outdated or unused secrets lingering in the system, becoming easy targets for attackers. For example, if not properly retired, a long-forgotten API key from a decommissioned project can provide an unintended backdoor into the system.

Ignoring audit trails for secrets access

Another subtle yet significant pitfall is neglecting the importance of audit trails for secret access, and without a proper auditing mechanism, tracking who accessed which secret and when is challenging. This oversight can cause hindrances in the process of secrets detection. For instance, without audit trails, it might go unnoticed if there’s an unusual pattern of access to sensitive secrets or if someone is mass downloading all of your secrets from the vault.

Failure to encrypt Kubernetes secrets

Let’s understand why the lack of encryption is a matter of concern by seeing how secrets are created in the Kubernetes ecosystem. These secrets are often only base64 encoded by default, which is just a hash that can be simply reverted, a thin veil of security, far from robust encryption. This vulnerability opens the door to potential breaches if these secrets are accessed.

Encrypting secrets at rest enhances security, and Kubernetes allows for this through configurations like the EncryptionConfiguration object, which specifies key materials for encryption operations on a per-node basis.

Using etcd as storage for Kubernetes

Using etcd as the storage for Kubernetes secrets without additional security measures may be one of your biggest secrets storage mistakes. The default setup has the encryption keys hanging out in the config file, a tempting target for any would-be digital intruders.

So, encrypting secrets before storing them in etcd and restricting access to etcd only by the API server can be helpful first steps. Certain managed Kubernetes providers often encrypt etcd secrets storage by default, which is a good security practice. Limiting access to etcd clusters to specific nodes and users is also essential, as unrestricted access can lead to significant security risks.

Issues with privileged access in Kubernetes

Granting excessive access rights in Kubernetes is like playing a video game on hard mode with no checkpoints. It’s risky. The platform’s built-in Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is designed to enforce the principle of least privilege, but it’s often underutilized. Properly configuring RBAC rules, like setting policies to restrict developers from creating secrets in specific namespaces, is crucial. This ensures that only eligible candidates’ certain secrets can reach them, reducing the risk of internal threats or accidental leaks.

The secret zero problem in Kubernetes

Talking of mistakes in Kubernetes secrets management, the Secret Zero problem might be the biggest. Secret zero refers to the reliance on an initial ‘master’ secret or key, which is used to access or decrypt vaults or other secrets. If this master key is compromised, it can lead to a cascade of security breaches, effectively unlocking every other secret it protects.

Many secrets management and vaults solutions rely on a primary master key, creating a vulnerable point. Addressing the Secret Zero problem involves implementing layered security measures and avoiding dependence on a single key for multiple assets, thereby decentralizing risk and enhancing overall security resilience.

Corrective strategies for fixing secrets management errors

A proactive and strategic approach is no longer optional in addressing secrets management mistakes. Here are some of the key strategies to effectively remedy the pitfalls discussed above:

    • Secrets Inventory: It is imperative that you know the exact number of secrets within your systems, and where they exist. Most CISOs are unaware of this vital information and are unprepared for a secrets attack.

    • Secrets classification and enrichment: Not all secrets are created equal. Some protect confidential information while others protect more mundane operational information. Security strategies should consider this when responding to secrets attacks. This is only possible if you create rich metadata around each secret to know which resources it protects, what its priority level is, who has access to it, and more.

    • Implement robust encryption: Strengthen your encryption practices—Encrypt sensitive data using strong cryptographic methods, especially secrets at rest and in transit.

    • Refine access control: Apply the principle of least privilege rigorously. Ensure that access to secrets is tightly controlled and regularly audited. In Kubernetes, managing data access effectively is achieved through RBAC, which assigns access based on user roles.

    • Continuous monitoring and auditing: Establish a robust monitoring system to track access and usage of secrets. Implement audit trails to record who accessed what data and when aiding in quick detection and response to any irregularities.

    • Automate secrets management: Utilize automated tools for managing secrets. This can include automated rotation of secrets and integration with identity management systems to streamline access control. Plus, make use of secret rotation to bolster your management routine further.

    • Review policies frequently: Stay informed about new threats and adjust your strategies to maintain a strong defense against evolving cybersecurity challenges.

Putting a stop to false positives

Reducing false positives in secrets management is critical for maintaining operational efficiency and ensuring security teams can focus on genuine threats. Here are a few actionable steps to help you on that front:

    • Advanced detection algorithms: Utilizing machine learning and secrets context analysis can distinguish genuine secrets from false alarms, increasing the accuracy of detection systems.

    • Comprehensive scanning tools: Employing tools that combine various detection methods, such as regular expressions, entropy analysis, and keyword matching, can effectively reduce false positives.

    • Regular updates and feedback loops: Keeping scanning tools updated with the latest patterns and incorporating feedback from false positives helps refine the detection process.

    • Monitoring secrets usage: Tools like Entro, which monitor secret usage across the supply chain and production, can identify suspicious behavior. This helps in understanding the risk context around each secret, further eliminating false positives. Such monitoring is crucial in discerning actual threats from benign activities, ensuring security teams focus on real issues.

What a proper secrets management approach looks like

A comprehensive approach to secrets management transcends mere protective measures, embedding itself into an organization’s IT infrastructure. It begins with a foundational understanding of what constitutes a ‘secret’ and extends to how these are generated, stored, and accessed.

The proper approach involves integrating secrets management into the development lifecycle, ensuring that secrets are not an afterthought but a fundamental part of the system architecture. This includes employing dynamic environments where secrets are not hard-coded but injected at runtime and where access is rigorously controlled and monitored.

As mentioned earlier, it is essential to take inventory of every single secret within your organization and enrich each of them with context about what resources they protect and who has access to them.

Vaults can be misconfigured to give users or identities more access than they need or to allow them to perform risky activities like exporting secrets from the vault. You need to monitor all secrets for these risks for an air-tight defense.

Following secrets management best practices is about creating a culture of security mindfulness, where every stakeholder is aware of the value and vulnerability of secrets. By adopting a holistic and integrated approach, organizations can ensure that their secrets management is robust, resilient, and adaptable to the evolving cybersecurity landscape.

Parting thoughts

In sum, navigating the complex world of secrets management is no small feat. It’s one big mountain from encrypting Kubernetes secrets to refining access controls. Enter Entro, a platform adept at addressing these secret management challenges, dealing with secret sprawl or the intricacies of secret rotation. Entro provides detailed context and insights, guiding decisions on when and how to rotate secrets.

Are you worried about false positives overwhelming your team? Entro’s sophisticated monitoring capabilities focus on real threats, eliminating the noise of false alarms. And the proactive strategies we discussed? Entro incorporates them effortlessly, offering a single pane of glass for comprehensive secret discovery, prioritization, and risk remediation.

Ready to elevate your secrets management game and leave the worries behind? Click here to learn the extent of Entro’s transformative impact on your organization’s secrets management practices.

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