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Organizations have secrets.

Not the kind you keep to yourself, but the type that permits access to critical business systems and sensitive information. Without protection, these secrets could fall into the wrong hands — and if that happens, it could lead to a costly, damaging security incident.

The good news? That’s where secrets management comes into play.

Read on to learn the ins and outs of secrets management, why it’s essential to your business, and best practices you can use to safeguard your assets from unauthorized access.

What is secrets management?

Secrets management is the process of managing digital authentication credentials, such as passwords and cryptographic keys, that protect access to computers, databases, services, and other systems critical to an organization's IT environment.

Secrets management aims to safeguard these assets — and the sensitive data they contain — from unauthorized access and exposure while allowing systems and authorized users to leverage them as needed.

There are many different types of secrets, but the most common include:

  • Passwords: As the most basic of the bunch, username-password credentials are a prime target for hackers. In fact, weak password management has been the root cause of many data breaches.
  • API keys: Application programming interfaces (API) are software intermediaries that allow two computer programs to communicate. API keys, by extension, authenticate and authorize access to those services and applications.
  • Encryption keys: As the name implies, an encryption key uses a cryptographic algorithm to encrypt and decrypt sensitive information. This type of credential is especially vital to data security, as it protects confidentiality.
  • SSH keys: Secure Shell (SSH) is an internet protocol used for managing networks, operating systems, and configurations. An SSH key secures remote communication between machines on an unprotected open network, enabling safe file transfer.
  • OAuth tokens: Open Authorization (OAuth) tokens allow users to grant access to websites, applications, and services without sharing their passwords.
  • Private certificates: Some digital certificates, such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificates, establish a secure connection between web browsers and clients. This allows users to safely transmit and receive sensitive data.

What is encryption key management?

Key management is a subset within the broader discipline of secrets management. But, instead of managing secrets altogether, it focuses specifically on encryption keys.

Although most organizations likely have multiple secrets that need protection, cryptographic keys typically receive the most attention. The compromise of a single encryption key can lead to widespread data exposure, affecting vast amounts of sensitive information encrypted with that one key.

Plus, key management often falls under strict regulatory and compliance guidelines across various industries and regions. For example, standards such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) have specific requirements for encryption and key management. Compliance with these regulations requires a dedicated approach to managing encryption keys distinctly from other secrets.

What is a secrets management system?

A secrets management system is a software solution designed to aid organizations in managing secrets across an expansive IT infrastructure. In short, secrets management software gives administrators the power to create and revoke credentials as customers and employees come and go, when they change roles, or if business processes and policies evolve.

With a centralized tool, organizations can view their secrets from one source of truth. This provides the visibility required to manage, monitor, and adjust access control policies and ensure secrets don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Why is secrets management important?

Secrets management is crucial because it protects sensitive data from unauthorized access, which can have severe consequences — data loss, financial impacts, reputational damage, etc. Proper management ensures that only authorized systems and users can access and use those secrets, maintaining data integrity, confidentiality, and security.

Effectively managing secrets isn’t just an operational responsibility, but can be advantageous to the organization overall. For example, a robust secrets management solution can:

  • Enhance data security by reducing the risk of unauthorized access to critical systems
  • Support application security by protecting API keys
  • Improve compliance with regulations and standards that mandate strict control and auditing of access credentials
  • Increase operational efficiency by automating the management, rotation, and monitoring of secrets
  • Minimize the impact of breaches by ensuring that compromised secrets can be quickly identified and revoked
  • Avoid the high cost of cybercrime, which has increased by at least 15% over the past three years

Challenges of secrets management

Despite its vast importance to enterprise data security, many organizations struggle to manage secrets effectively. The truth is there are many obstacles complicating their efforts. Here are some of the most common challenges in managing secrets:

Secrets sprawl

Secrets sprawl refers to a team’s inability to oversee secrets distributed throughout their infrastructure. Typically, sprawl is a result of organizations deploying many microservices across multiple environments. Because each service depends on one or more external resources, they may accumulate hundreds of infrastructure secrets, Kubernetes secrets, and so on.

This creates a complex web of secrets that teams can’t easily contain. To make matters worse, many businesses lack centralized secrets management, which means they don’t have any way of easily pinpointing a specific secret’s exact location. Without comprehensive oversight, they’re also unable to enforce consistent policies across systems.

Manual lifecycle management

Secrets have a lifecycle. Generally, it works like this:

  • Generation
  • Registration
  • Storage
  • Use
  • Rotation
  • Retirement/revocation.

The exact order of these phases may differ depending on the situation, but each is an important step in the overall secret management process. For example, failure to retire a secret when an employee leaves your company could result in a bad actor exploiting it in the future.

The problem? Without a secrets management solution, organizations rely on manual processes to share secrets, embed them in code, revoke them, etc. This isn’t only time-consuming, but prone to human error, which could lead to critical security gaps.

Hardcoded credentials

Applications and Internet of Things (IoT) devices are often shipped and deployed with hardcoded, default credentials. These are easier to crack, as hackers can use simple scanning tools and guessing tactics to gain access. This is an especially big problem for DevOps security, as many development tools have secrets embedded in files or scripts.

Take Uber, for instance. In 2022, the rideshare company experienced a data breach in which hackers broke into critical systems using hardcoded admin credentials found in a PowerShell script. The hack left many Uber employees unable to access essential business tools.

Monolithic security

Even if you have a dedicated tool for managing secrets, security isn’t exactly guaranteed. Traditional secrets management tools offer only a single repository for secrets and keys, which is akin to putting all your eggs in one basket.

This monolithic approach unnecessarily increases risk. If hackers breach the repository, they gain access to every secret it contains.

Secrets management best practices

Fortunately, effective secret management is easier if you simply follow a few best practices. Let’s review some of the most important concepts to keep in mind:

  • Centralized management: Using a centralized secrets system to manage all assets ensures consistent policy enforcement and auditing. Moreover, a comprehensive tool gives you the visibility required to simplify compliance, monitor secret access, identify threats, and revoke privileges whenever necessary.
  • Automated rotation: Automatically changing secrets at regular intervals or in response to specific events eliminates the risk of human error, such as a misconfiguration. Plus, it streamlines the management process and maximizes team efficiency.
  • Least privilege access: Ensuring that applications and users have access only to the secrets necessary for their function is a great way to minimize risk exposure.
  • Auditing and monitoring: Continuously tracking access to and use of secrets to detect and respond to unauthorized access attempts will help you respond in a hurry. Critically, it also creates an audit trail you use to demonstrate compliance.
  • Encryption of secrets at rest: Ensuring that all secrets are encrypted when stored is essential. This adds another layer of security, protecting the secrets even if unauthorized access to the storage location occurs.
  • Use of Hardware Security Modules (HSMs): Employing HSMs can provide a hardened, tamper-resistant environment for storing and managing cryptographic keys and other secrets. HSMs offer physical and logical protection against tampering, providing a secure root of trust for your critical assets. Also, token-signing and encryption keys handled outside the cryptographic boundary of a certified HSM are significantly more vulnerable to attacks that could compromise the signing and distribution process. HSMs are the only proven and auditable way to secure valuable cryptographic material and deliver FIPS-approved hardware protection.
  • Multi-factor Authentication (MFA): Implementing MFA adds an extra verification step before granting access to secrets management systems.

Improve secrets management with Entrust KeyControl

Entrust KeyControl is a secrets management tool that combines decentralized security with centralized management. It allows organizations to maintain stringent security measures across a distributed vault architecture while managing secrets from a central dashboard.

KeyControl provides the flexibility to adapt to various IT environments, supporting a wide range of encryption and tokenization use cases. It facilitates easy integration with existing IT infrastructure, enabling seamless and secure management of encryption keys and other secrets across the organization.

The result?

  • Stronger data security
  • Simplified compliance
  • Complete visibility
  • Full lifecycle protection

Discover the power of KeyControl and learn more about key management in our latest eBook.