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Guide to Secrets Management

Secrets aren’t meant to be shared. Learn how organizations can best manage credentials and sensitive data to keep secrets out of the wrong hands.

Passwords, cryptographic keys, access tokens, cloud service credentials — whatever secrets your organization may have, they’re at risk of being compromised if they’re not sufficiently managed. However, implementing effective secrets management presents a significant challenge for organizations, because it requires the right combination of software applications, internal policies, and best practices. In this guide, we’ll dive into what secrets management should consist of and which solutions are worth investing in.

Contents

What Is a “Secret”?
What Is Secrets Management?
Why Is Secrets Management Important?
What Is a Secrets Manager or Secrets Management Solution?
What Are the Best Practices for Managing Secrets?
Start Building Your Secrets Management Solution with SSH


secrets management, passwordless, keyless, access management

What Is a “Secret”?

Secrets are more than just credentials — a secret can be any information used to authenticate access, secure confidential files, and validate identities as both human and non-human entities interact with other users, applications, and devices.

Think of secrets as the cogs in a wheel, with the wheel being a communicable entity. If two IoT devices, for instance, wanted to transmit data to each other, a chain of events must occur for the process to happen. This process usually involves validating secrets at every step to ensure that communication is safe, authentic, and stable. As each secret is confirmed, the cogs of both wheels start turning until they can function seamlessly with one another, performing the intended action.

Secrets come in all shapes and sizes, with varying responsibilities. They include:

  • Cryptographic Keys: Strings of lengthy, algorithm-generated numerical data primarily dedicated to encrypting and decrypting sensitive data.
  • User Credentials: User-generated or browser-generated usernames and passwords that validate users trying to access a suite of private information on the internet.
  • Certificates: Digitally signed documents that add enhanced authentication measures to accurately identify the validity of users, websites, and software. Ephemeral certificates are growing in popularity as an alternative passwordless option that provides extra security.
  • Cloud Credentials: Data used to authenticate users accessing items stored in a cloud environment. These are either generated by the cloud service provider or the user requesting its services and can include domain IDs, access and secret keys, standard username-password pairs, and more.
  • Database Connection Strings: Specially formatted bits of code harbored inside of software applications and used to communicate with databases. They include keyword value pairs connected by equal signs and separated by semi-colons, all in clear text format.
  • Access Tokens: Objects that carry and share authenticated user information to applications to trigger an application programming interface (API) request and enable users to perform particular tasks.
  • API Keys: Code that identifies and validates users requesting access to an application and enforces their access privileges.

What Is Secrets Management?

Secrets management focuses on data security and consists of many moving parts that come together to comprehensively manage and secure credentials, software programs, resources, assets, and machines. It can involve IAM and PAM integration, robust internal IT policies, informational hygiene practices, and other automated solutions that improve visibility, scalability, and control over how secrets are used and who has access to them.

Why Is Secrets Management Important?

Secrets are used in various cases, as we’ve already touched on in this guide, and serve as a thin digital security blanket shielding private communications and transactions from outside actors. They’re a first-level line of defense used to secure credentials against common threats like man-in-the-middle (MITM), brute force, and phishing attacks. However, secrets are only suitable for ensuring data security if they’re managed appropriately. 

Consider this — a user could have a highly complex, hard-to-crack password, but its efficacy goes to waste if that same user shares it with others via email or accidentally leaks it due to poor IT practices.

Often discouraged by the amount of groundwork that needs to be covered with secrets management, organizations may relax their approach to managing and securing credentials across their entire informational infrastructure. This significantly increases the likelihood of a breach ushered in by human error, which can cause severe disruptions down the line.

In IT landscapes, stolen secrets can lead to hacked accounts, identity theft, privacy violations, reputational damage, and catastrophic financial losses. In OT environments, the consequences of misused secrets can turn fatal, with malicious hackers inflicting physical damage by remotely controlling connected machinery.

You wouldn’t just place the keys to your safe, car, and home right at your doorstep for anyone to use — so why risk leaving your company’s secrets similarly exposed?

What Is a Secrets Manager or Secrets Management Solution?

A secrets manager centralizes access to an organization’s valuable assets while safely storing all sensitive data needed to use and configure them. It allows administrators to generate SSH keys and passwords, assign access roles, manage credentials, and dispose of secrets at the end of their lifecycle, closing any possible security gaps that might otherwise go unnoticed.

It is important to understand that a secrets manager alone can only do so much in today’s bustling, scalable, and highly interconnected IT and OT networks. Employees must also do their part to prevent common security pitfalls. Adherence to internal security policies, careful attention, and a well-established list of best practices is key to keeping everyone on the same page.

What Are the Best Practices for Secrets Management?

When it comes to data security, every individual has a role to play, even with a reliable secrets manager in place. These six best practices will help your organization make the most of your secrets management solution:

Categorize All Credentials

Organizing secrets by content type and use can help your team better manage credentials across your organization. For example, knowing where access credentials to business, personal, IT, health, and financial data are located allows administrators to troubleshoot an issue quickly and nullify secrets that have been stolen.

This practice also reduces credential clutter, providing a clearer picture of how each secret type is used throughout an enterprise. This is particularly useful for companies that rely on both in-house and cloud-based environments.

Minimize Privileged Circles

To best keep secrets private, it’s recommended that organizations limit the number of employees who have privileged access to a master list or have comprehensive roles within a secrets manager. This significantly diminishes the chance of human error and suspicious internal behavior occurring that may go unnoticed.

Moreover, this practice helps organizations better secure credentials from wandering eyes. Smaller privileged circles also make these users and their activities more visible, maintaining accountability and encouraging compliance with internal security policies.

Fortify Assets At Rest

Encryption during transactional events is an essential feature all organizations should look for in a secrets management solution, but encryption at rest is also important. Ideally, secrets should always be encrypted so that if they leak, they appear indecipherable. Otherwise, they remain in plain text format, making it far easier for hackers to misuse them.

Fine-Tune Access Permissions

Practice the principle of least privilege, which sets user permissions with just enough access to perform their authorized tasks. Many secrets managers also provide auditing tools to help administrators detect unauthorized secrets use and include permission settings for better threat prevention.

When it comes to identity credentials, try to switch up where and how you store them. Harboring usernames, passwords, and keys in the same places makes their location predictable, should a hacker breach your organization’s IT infrastructure.

Monitor Chains of Trust

Certificate chains of trust are afflicted with vulnerabilities at every touchpoint, making x.509 certificates and SSH keys crucial sources of validation and security as users connect to sites and servers.

However, it’s worth keeping an eye out for any gaps these tools may not fully address. Dedicate time to monitoring these authentication procedures regularly to prevent untrusted networks from being tapped into and cybercriminals from sneaking in.

Prioritize IAM and PAM Integrations

Identity and Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management (PAM) should work seamlessly with the secrets manager you choose to implement. While IAM focuses on strengthening identity authentication measures, PAM centers on the level of access a user is given once they are authenticated.

Since secrets management solutions involve safeguarding the sensitive data that’s exchanged and accessed through these processes, having seamless IAM and PAM integration automates security protocols to cover all vulnerable areas without compromising efficiency.

Start Building Your Secrets Management Solution with SSH

To help you start building a robust data security framework, SSH offers our PrivX Hybrid PAM for secure access credential management and our Universal SSH Key Manager (UKM) for SSH key maintenance and protection.

PrivX is highly interoperable, functioning flawlessly across multi-cloud environments and OT frameworks. It’s scalable, AI-driven, user-friendly, and cost-efficient, saving organizations time while providing reliable credential security. 

UKM automates key rotation, discovers vulnerabilities, and manages exhaustive key inventories with additional authentication features to restrict key access. Machine-to-machine interactions are also safely monitored with UKM — a common gap that many PAM solutions overlook. Moreover, both UKM and PrivX align with industry standards and regulations to keep your organization compliant.

Both PrivX and UKM leverage passwordless authentication, allowing you to manage your existing credentials while transitioning to a fully passwordless and keyless environment at a pace that suits you.

Together, they combine into a powerful Zero Trust Access Management solution.


Reach out to us today to learn more about how SSH can keep your secrets safe.