The lifecycle of a secret — From creation, to use, to retirement, and everything in between

Or Fogel, Senior core-team software engineer, Entro
May 9, 2023

As organizations continue to embrace cloud-native architectures, managing their secrets becomes crucial. Think of it as a well-guarded vault in an action-packed heist movie. In the digital realm, that treasure is your sensitive information — API keys, programmatic passwords, and other data used to access critical systems and resources in the cloud. If these secrets fall into the wrong hands, it can be catastrophic.

This article explores the lifecycle of a secret, from creation to retirement, and the importance of secrets lifecycle management for organizations. 

1. Creation of a secret

As we embark on our journey through the lifecycle of a secret, let’s start at the beginning — the creation of a secret. 

Secrets come in various forms and are used for different purposes within an organization. Some common types of secrets include API keys, encryption keys, access tokens, connection-strings, and SSH keys. Creating foolproof security for secrets can get challenging due to human error, scalability issues, and the sheer complexity of cloud-native systems. 

While it is important to have a system in place to overcome these challenges, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:

  • Use automated tools for secrets management: Instead of manually copying and pasting secrets to a vault which can expose sensitive information, users should employ automated secrets management tools to securely transfer secrets to the desired vault or storage location. This minimizes the risk of accidental exposure.
  • Avoid saving secrets in downloaded files: When cloud services and vaults offer the option to download a file containing a secret, users should avoid saving these files on their system as these endpoints can pose significant security risks, especially if the file is forgotten or misplaced. Instead, users should securely store secrets in a designated vault or secrets management system.
  • Assign appropriate permissions to secrets: When creating secrets, it is essential to assign the correct level of permissions for authentication and access to the cloud service. Administrators should avoid over-provisioning privileges, as this can lead to security risks. Ideally, permissions should be set to the minimum required for the intended purpose and should be reviewed periodically to ensure they remain appropriate, and are revoked when not in use.  

 

To simplify your secrets management process, try Entro. Entro’s centralized platform allows for the secure creation and management of secrets, ensuring that only authorized personnel can access and transmit secret keys across cloud resources and services.

2. Storage of a secret

Once a secret is created, the next crucial step is securely storing it. Here are the three most common practices of storage: 

  • Having encrypted storage systems or secret vaults, such as HashiCorp Vault, AWS Secrets Manager, or Azure Key Vault
  • Using configuration files to store secrets, although this is generally less secure and not recommended
  • Storing secrets as environment variables can provide a level of security, but they may still be exposed through logs or debugging tools and those secrets are very hard to manage

However, to secure secret storage, experts recommend a three-pronged approach — use a dedicated secret vault, encrypt secrets at rest, and implement access controls at all applicable entry points. Users should implement Entro as the platform that seamlessly integrates with these vaults and other secret locations to provide secure and organized management and protection of secrets, leveraging advanced unified management, protection and access control measures.

However, it’s important to dispel the myth that storing secrets in a vault automatically guarantees their safety. While vaults do provide storage like a database, they do not actively monitor the secrets within, making it crucial to implement additional security measures.

3. Use of a secret 

Now that our secret is safely stored, the next step is utilization. The secure use of secrets is vital to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive resources and maintain the overall security posture of an organization. 

To ensure you are using secrets securely, implement proper access controls, limit the use of secrets to necessary operations, and monitor for any suspicious activities. 

One of the most common pitfalls we notice here is hard coding secrets in source code. Ensure your developers don’t do this or share secrets via insecure channels such as Slack or Confluence. To that end, Entro’s role-based access control and auditing functionalities track activities performed on secrets, ensuring secure usage while mitigating insider threats. While secret scanning tools can help detect exposed secrets in code, they don’t provide the context, such as what the secret secures, who has access to it, and how it’s being used. Entro uniquely offers this valuable contextual information, enhancing overall security.

4. Exposure of a secret 

Sometimes, secrets can get exposed in various ways, such as through human error, misconfigurations, or malicious activities. For instance, an employee might accidentally commit a secret to a public code repository or leave it in a publicly accessible document. In the past, secrets have been exposed in high-profile incidents such as the Twitter data breach caused by a zero-day vulnerability that compromised the email addresses and phone numbers of approximately 400 million users.

In some cases, attackers might exploit vulnerabilities in applications or infrastructure to gain access to secrets. It’s essential to be aware of these risks and follow best practices to minimize the chances of exposure.

In November 2022, the Medibank data leak compromised the sensitive information of 9.7 million past and present customers, including confidential medical procedure data. 

Here are some best practices to minimize the risk of secret exposure:

  • Avoid hardcoding secrets in code or configuration files
  • Use secure storage solutions, such as secret vaults, for storing secrets
  • Regularly audit and monitor the use of secrets to detecting suspicious activities
  • Implement strong access controls and multi-factor authentication to restrict access to secrets

 

You can also rely on Entro as a safety net to help detect dark web leakage and provide early alerts. It also offers remediation of disabling exposed secrets and replacing them with new, secure ones. 

5. Rotation of a secret 

To enhance security and reduce risk, periodic secret rotation is vital. This process periodically replaces a secret with a new one, thus rendering the old secret invalid and mitigating the risk of unauthorized access due to secret exposure or theft.

As a best practice, it is advisable to define a rotation policy that specifies the frequency of rotations. Also, you can monitor for any anomalies during the rotation process. Entro helps with the secret rotation process, preventing attackers from using stolen secrets to gain unauthorized access and further enhancing security.

6. Secrets in CI/CD pipelines 

In CI/CD pipelines, secrets are used to authenticate and authorize access to various resources and services, such as code repositories, cloud services, and deployment environments. 

Some best practices for managing secrets in CI/CD pipelines include

  • Store secrets in secure vaults and injecting them into the pipeline only when needed.
  • Use role-based access control to restrict access to secrets within the pipeline.
  • Encrypt secrets in transit and at rest to protect them from unauthorized access.

Entro’s secrets lifecycle management in CI/CD pipelines ensures seamless integration with R&D teams’ workflows and existing systems while continuously monitoring and protecting those secrets for any misuse, anomaly or from threats.

7. Retiring of a secret 

Now, it’s time for the secret to meet the end of its lifecycle and retire. The retirement of a secret refers to the process of decommissioning a secret once it is no longer needed or after a predefined period. This is essential to reduce the attack surface and minimize the risk of unauthorized access. Secrets should be retired for many reasons including deprecation of systems or if an employee left the organization (in this case, even if you disabled the employee user, most often their secrets and access keys are still enabled)

Best practices for retiring a secret include:

  • Establish a clear policy for secret retirement, specifying criteria for when a secret should be retired.
  • Ensure that all instances of the secret are removed from storage systems, configuration files, and other locations.
  • Monitor the use of retired secrets to detect any attempts to access resources with the decommissioned secret.
  • Maintain an accurate record of the total number of active secrets within your system. Many organizations lack this crucial information, but with Entro, you can easily track and manage the complete count of active secrets, understand which secrets are not in use anymore and ensure better security and oversight.

Conclusion

Effectively managing the lifecycle of secrets is crucial for an organization’s security posture. By understanding the various stages and implementing robust practices, organizations can protect their sensitive information.

 

Entro offers end-to-end visibility into the entire lifecycle of a secret, with advanced features such as context-aware insights, anomaly detection, and controlled access. It is a comprehensive, agentless and frictionless solution that helps organizations stay ahead of cyber threats and ensure the security of their secrets keys and cloud-native environments.

Experience unmatched protection and secret security with Entro. Click here to learn more and start taking control of your secrets management today!

Reclaim control over your secrets

Get updates

All secret security right in your inbox

Want full security oversight?

See the Entro platform in action