The art of secrets rotation — mastering automation and strategies

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
October 31, 2023

Imagine you’re a secret. Yes, you read that right. You’re a secret, a piece of sensitive information, a digital whisper passed between servers in the dead of night. You’re the key to the kingdom, the password to the vault, the access token to the database. You’re important, you’re powerful, and you’re… well, you’re a bit of a gossip, aren’t you? Because when it comes to cybersecurity, even secrets can’t stay secret forever.

Welcome to the world of secrets rotation, a critical task of updating secrets like you. Just as Benedict Cumberbatch morphs into Sherlock Holmes in one place and Doctor Strange in another, secrets may change their ‘disguises’ through rotation, but their essential role and identity in your cybersecurity strategy remain consistent.

This practice is not just about changing passwords — it’s about creating, using, storing, and refreshing secrets systematically. It’s a proactive measure to keep systems secure, kind of like changing locks regularly to keep the bad guys guessing.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into the concept of secrets rotation, its importance, and how it contributes to a robust cybersecurity framework. So buckle up, dear secret, because we’re about to embark on a whirlwind tour of your life and times!

What is secrets rotation?

Just when you, our dear secret, thought you could get comfortable, we’re here to tell you it’s time for a change. When it comes to cybersecurity, comfort equals complacency, and complacency equals risk.

Secrets rotation is like a game of musical chairs for your digital secrets. It’s the process of changing secrets — like passwords, API keys, and tokens — on a regular basis to keep those pesky cyber criminals guessing. Why? Because if a secret stays the same for too long, it becomes a sitting duck for hackers. You need to be updated, well, much like a Caeser cipher.

The mechanics of secrets rotation

Now that we’ve established what secrets rotation is and why it’s as important as remembering your wedding anniversary, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. How does secrets rotation work?

Source: Unsplash

Well, think of secrets rotation as a relay race. You, the secret, have been running this race for a while, holding the baton of responsibility. But now, it’s time to pass the baton to the next runner. In secrets rotation, this is exactly what happens. You, the current secret, pass the baton to a new secret, and that secret does the same — a process repeating at regular intervals or under specific conditions, like if a breach is detected.

And just like a relay race, the transition needs to be smooth. You don’t want to drop the baton during the handover, do you? That’s where automation comes in. But more on that later.

Strategies for effective secrets rotation

Secrets rotation isn’t just about changing your secrets regularly. It’s about doing so in a way that minimizes disruption, maximizes security, and fits seamlessly into your existing workflows. So, how do you keep your secrets fresh and ready for the relay race of secrets rotation?

Proactive rotation

This strategy involves rotating your secrets on a regular schedule, regardless of whether a breach has occurred. The idea is to limit the amount of time a secret can be used maliciously if it falls into the wrong hands. The frequency of rotation can vary depending on the sensitivity of the secret and the potential impact of a breach. For example, a secret that provides access to a critical database might need to be rotated more frequently than a secret that provides access to a less critical system.

The two-secrets strategy

Also known as the dual secrets strategy, this approach involves having two secrets active at the same time during the rotation process. When it’s time to rotate a secret, a new secret is created and added to the system, but the old secret remains active for a short period. This allows any systems or processes that are using the old secret to switch over to the new secret without any downtime. After a certain period, the old secret is deactivated.

Zero downtime rotation

In some cases, it’s critical to ensure that systems remain available during the secrets rotation process and it’s before that time that you must implement this strategy.

Source: freepik

Here, you carefully coordinate the creation of new secrets, the updating of systems to use the new secrets, and the deactivation of old secrets to ensure that there’s no point at which a system is unable to access the secrets it needs.

All in all, the key is to choose a strategy or set of strategies that provide the right balance of security and usability for your situation.

Automation in secrets rotation

Automation plays a crucial role in secrets rotation. It not only ensures regular rotation but also reduces the risk of human error, which can lead to security vulnerabilities.

Automating secrets rotation involves setting up systems or using tools that can automatically generate new secrets, distribute them to the necessary systems or services, and retire the old secrets. This process can be triggered at regular intervals or in response to specific events, such as a suspected breach.

Various tools today provide APIs that can integrate secrets rotation into your existing applications and services. They also often include features for managing the lifecycle of secrets, tracking the usage of secrets, and alerting you to potential security issues.

Best practices in secrets rotation

There are numerous best practices that can help ensure that your secrets are managed securely and effectively. Here are some key ones:

The one-stop secrets shop: centralized secrets control plane

In the bustling metropolis of IT infrastructure, secrets can be found hiding in every nook and cranny. In fact, it’s pretty standard for organizations to have five or more vaults stashing secrets away.

Try to assemble all your secrets on a singular platform. Now, this doesn’t mean cramming all your secrets into one vault — quite the contrary. It’s about having a unified, holistic view of all those vaults, regardless of their number or the secrets they hold.This makes it possible to more easily track and control who has access to your secrets and at the same time analyze their usage patterns. Plus, when it’s time to replace your secrets, there’s only one place where you have to do it. Neat, right?

Access control lists (ACLs)

Now that we have a centralized control plane, let’s talk about who gets the VIP pass. With Access Control Lists (ACLs), you can decide who gets to see your secrets. This is a pre-emptive measure to prevent people from accessing your data without permission and reduce the risk of your secrets being leaked.

Dynamic secrets

Dynamic secrets are a fun trick. These are the kind of secrets that are generated on-the-fly for a specific purpose and disappear after a short while. This reduces the risk associated with a secret being compromised, as even if an attacker gains access to a dynamic secret, it will soon become useless.

Reclaim control over your secrets

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