Why secrets scanning alone is not enough to protect your secrets

Eldan Achunov, Senior core-team software engineer, Entro
May 3, 2023

In the iconic movie “The Dark Knight,” the Joker famously said, “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it!” Unfortunately, this approach is all too common when it comes to secrets management. Many organizations use scanners for secrets detection, but when they find one, they don’t know what to do with it.


The truth is, secrets scanning alone is not enough to protect your organization’s sensitive information. It’s like the Joker chasing after cars without a plan — it may seem like the right thing to do, but it’s not an effective strategy. To truly protect your secrets, you need to have a comprehensive approach to secrets management.

What is secrets scanning?

Before we discuss what secrets scanning can’t do, let’s talk about what it can — it scans your system to identify any secrets that might be exposed or vulnerable to attack. This includes hardcoded secrets in code repositories. Secrets scanning is an essential component of a comprehensive secrets management solution. 


Even scanners can help organizations quickly identify exposed secrets and prevent potential security breaches by detecting secrets that may have been accidentally or unknowingly exposed. Furthermore, secrets scanning helps maintain compliance with security standards and regulations, such as PCI-DSS and HIPAA. Compliance with these regulations is crucial for organizations that handle sensitive data or payment information since failing to comply can result in severe consequences, including hefty fines, legal action, and not to mention, reputation damage.

The limitations of secrets scanning

Secrets scanners often rely on known patterns and signatures to detect secrets. This means that if a secret is not identified as a known pattern, it may go undetected, leaving your organization vulnerable to attack.

Secondly, these tools only find exposed secrets but don’t tell you how serious the problem is, who can access the secret, or how to fix it. So, organizations have to investigate and respond manually. 

Again, take brute force attacks, for example. These attacks involve trying multiple passwords or keys until the correct one is found. Verizon’s 2022 Data Breach Investigations Report shows that hacking, including password brute-forcing, is still the main way attackers breach systems. More than 80% of hacking-related breaches involve either brute force attacks or using lost or stolen credentials. Secrets scanning won’t detect this type of attack because the attacker isn’t stealing the secret key from an exposure point — they’re simply guessing.

And let’s not forget about the human factor. According to PhishingBox, 82% of all security breaches involve the human element. Social engineering attacks like phishing rely on tricking people into revealing their secrets. No amount of secrets scanning can prevent these types of attacks because they involve human interaction rather than technical vulnerabilities. 

Additionally, secrets scanning tools may generate numerous false positives due to their reliance on pattern matching to identify potential secrets. While these tools can effectively detect secrets based on predefined patterns, they may not be able to determine the current status or validity of the identified secrets. For instance, a scanner may flag a secret that has already been disabled, rendering it harmless. However, the tool will still treat it as a potential threat, contributing to a high volume of false positives. This can lead to alert fatigue, making it challenging for security teams to prioritize genuine threats and allocate resources efficiently.

Additional steps you can take to protect secrets

In the digital age, secrets are like keys that unlock sensitive resources such as databases, APIs, and cloud services. But if those keys fall into the wrong hands, you’re looking at data breaches, financial loss, and a hit to your reputation that’ll take a miracle to recover from. 


That’s why it’s important to understand what exactly a secret grants access to, and which secrets are the most critical to protect. For instance, a secret that provides access to customer data or financial systems is considered high priority, while a secret that only provides access to development environments is considered low priority. By understanding the value of secrets and the impact of their exposure, you can take the necessary steps to protect your sensitive information and safeguard against security breaches:


  • Maintain a comprehensive secrets inventory: Create and maintain a complete inventory of all secrets within the organization, including API keys, passwords, tokens, and certificates. This helps ensure visibility and control over sensitive information.


  • Implement automatic secrets discovery: Employ automated scanning tools and manual processes to discover and identify secrets throughout your organization’s infrastructure, including source code repositories, configuration files, and databases.


  • Evaluate secrets context: Assess the context of each secret to determine its importance, usage, and potential impact if compromised. This information can help prioritize protection efforts and inform access policies.


  • Implement secrets rotation: Regularly rotate secrets to minimize the impact of a potential compromise. Establish a schedule for rotation based on the sensitivity and risk associated with each secret.


  • Monitor secrets usage: Set up secrets monitoring and alerting mechanisms to track the usage of secrets in real-time. This can help identify anomalies, potential misuse, or unauthorized access attempts.


  • Establish a centralized secrets management system: Adopt a centralized secrets management solution to securely store, manage, and distribute secrets across your organization. This can streamline access controls, enhance security, and simplify audit processes.

Entro’s holistic secrets security platform

While secret scanning can be useful in detecting sensitive information, it cannot be the sole means of protection. The limitations of secrets scanning, such as its ineffectiveness in detecting zero-day vulnerabilities and social engineering attacks, highlight the need for a comprehensive security strategy. This strategy should include maintaining a complete inventory of all secrets within the organization, implementing both automated and manual processes for secrets discovery, and evaluating the context of each secret to prioritize protection efforts. 


Furthermore, it is essential to establish a regular rotation schedule for secrets, monitor their usage in real-time, and adopt a centralized secrets management system to securely store, manage, and distribute secrets across the organization. It’s essential to recognize that cyber threats are constantly evolving, and a one-size-fits-all security approach is ineffective. By following the best practices outlined in this post, you can improve your secrets management and reduce the risk of breaches in the future.   


Given how important secrets management is, you should check out Entro’s secrets management solution for comprehensive visibility into every secret, including context on usage and potential exposure. With agentless API integration and rotation of secrets, Entro has everything you need to protect your organization’s most valuable assets. Entro doesn’t just show you which secrets are exposed, but more importantly, it gives you all you need to take the right action to respond to an exposed secret. 


It goes beyond simply identifying exposed secrets and helps provide organizations with the necessary tools and insights to take appropriate action in response to an exposed secret. Some of its key features include locating every occurrence of a secret, enabling the secure transfer of secrets to a designated vault immediately after creation (without human intervention), and identifying the owner and users of each secret to get more context. 


Furthermore, Entro helps determine the severity level of an exposed secret, allowing security teams to prioritize their response efforts accordingly. By offering these comprehensive capabilities, Entro empowers organizations to effectively manage and protect their sensitive information, minimizing the risks associated with exposed secrets. That makes all the difference in secrets management. 

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