What is Secret Sprawl

Secret sprawl refers to the uncontrolled proliferation and management of sensitive information, such as passwords, encryption keys, or API tokens, across an organization’s digital ecosystem. 

This phenomenon often arises when organizations lack a centralized and robust system for securely managing and tracking secrets. As a result, these crucial pieces of information may be scattered across various applications, repositories, or even within unsecured communication channels, posing a significant risk to the organization’s overall security.

Why Is Secret Sprawl an Issue?

In secret sprawl scenarios, sensitive data becomes challenging to track, monitor, and secure effectively. This can lead to a range of security issues, including unauthorized access, data breaches, and compromised systems. Two prominent examples illustrate the concept of secret sprawl:

Unmanaged Credential Storage

  • In the absence of a centralized credential management system, organizations may witness the proliferation of usernames and passwords stored in an uncontrolled manner. For instance, employees might resort to storing login credentials in unencrypted text files on their local machines or in shared folders without proper access controls. This practice not only increases the risk of unauthorized access but also makes it difficult for security teams to monitor and update credentials systematically.

Decentralized API Token Handling:

  • In modern software development and cloud-based environments, API tokens play a crucial role in authenticating and authorizing applications. However, secret sprawl can occur when development teams generate and manage API tokens independently, without a unified system. This decentralization can lead to tokens being embedded in source code, configuration files, or even shared openly among team members. As a consequence, the organization loses visibility and control over these tokens, potentially exposing critical APIs to unauthorized access.

Accessibility Issues

  • For your organization, having the information (passwords, API keys etc.) available when needed is crucial to maximize efficiency. However, as more secrets are created and spread throughout your organization, they can become difficult to manage and keep track of. This is especially true of large organizations. This means that your employees will often need to spend a lot of time searching for data that should be readily available, reducing efficiency and increasing time taken to get work completed. 

Employee Churn

  • When employees leave an organization, they may take sensitive information with them, such as passwords or access keys, which can be used to gain unauthorized access to systems and data. This can be especially problematic if the organization does not have a structured offboarding process in place to revoke access to these secrets when an employee leaves. When it comes to DevOps the issue is even greater. DevOps tend to create ad hoc secrets, or secrets with over-permissions. Additionally, new employees may not be aware of all the secrets that exist within an organization, which can lead to a further lack of visibility and control over these secrets.

Preventing Secret Sprawl

Secret sprawl introduces significant security challenges, making it imperative for organizations to implement effective mitigation strategies. This includes:

  • Adopting centralized secrets management solutions, such as vaults or key management systems, to consolidate and secure sensitive information. 
  • Regular audits and monitoring for unusual or unauthorized access to secrets are also essential to detect potential security threats.
  • Encrypting secrets adds an additional layer of protection, ensuring that even if unauthorized access occurs, the intercepted secrets remain unreadable and unusable.
  • Regularly scanning code repositories and configuration files for embedded secrets helps identify and remediate any accidental or unauthorized exposures.
  • Understanding the full context of where and how secrets are used is essential to implementing effective security measures, preventing inadvertent exposures and ensuring comprehensive protection against secret sprawl.

Additionally, organizations should enforce robust policies and educate employees on secure practices for handling sensitive information. This involves promoting the use of secure password managers, implementing least privilege access controls, and conducting regular training on the importance of safeguarding secrets.

Reclaim control over your secrets

Get updates

All secret security right in your inbox

Want full security oversight?

See the Entro platform in action