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What’s Your Secret – Best Practices for Managing Digital Authentication Credentials

What’s Your Secret – Best Practices for Managing Digital Authentication Credentials

By Morey Haber, CTO, BeyondTrust

Secrets management refers to the tools and methods for managing digital authentication credentials (secrets), including passwords, keys, APIs, and tokens for use in applications, services, privileged accounts and other sensitive parts of the IT ecosystem. While secrets management is applicable across an entire enterprise, the terms “secrets” and “secrets management” are referred to more commonly in IT with regard to DevOps environments, tools, and processes.

Challenges to Secrets Management

Passwords and keys are some of the most broadly used and important tools your organization has for authenticating applications and users and providing them with access to sensitive systems, services, and information. Because secrets have to be transmitted securely, secrets management must account for and mitigate the risks to these secrets, both in transit and at rest. But as the IT ecosystem increases in complexity and the number and diversity of secrets explodes, it becomes increasingly difficult to securely store, transmit, and audit secrets. Common risks to secrets and some considerations include:

  • Incomplete visibility and awareness of all privileged accounts, applications, tools, containers, or microservices deployed across the environment, and the associated passwords, keys, and other secrets. SSH keys alone may number in the millions at some organizations, which should provide an inkling of a scale of the secrets management challenge. This becomes a particular shortcoming of decentralized approaches where admins, developers, and other team members all manage their secrets separately if they’re managed at all. Without oversight that stretches across all IT layers, there are sure to be security gaps, as well as auditing challenges.
  • Hardcoded/embedded credentials: privileged passwords and other secrets are needed to facilitate authentication for app-to-app (A2A) and application-to-database (A2D) communications and access. Often, applications and IoT devices are shipped and deployed with hardcoded, default credentials, which are easy to crack by hackers using scanning tools and applying simple guessing or dictionary-style attacks. DevOps tools frequently have secrets hardcoded in scripts or files, which jeopardizes security for the entire automation process.
  • Privileged credentials and the Cloud: Cloud and virtualization administrator consoles (as with AWS, Office 365, etc.) provide broad superuser privileges that enable users to rapidly spin up and spin down virtual machines and applications at massive scale. Each of these VM instances comes with its own set of privileges and secrets that need to be managed.
  • DevOps tools: While secrets need to be managed across the entire IT ecosystem, DevOps environments are where the challenges of managing secrets seem to be particularly amplified at the moment. DevOps teams typically leverage dozens of orchestration, configuration management, and other tools and technologies (Chef, Puppet, Ansible, Salt, Docker containers, etc.) relying on automation and other scripts that require secrets to work.
  • Third-party vendor accounts / remote access solutions: How do you ensure that the authorization provided via remote access or to a third-party is appropriately used? How do you ensure that the third-party organization is adequately managing secrets?
  • Manual secrets management processes: Leaving password security in the hands of humans is a recipe for mismanagement. Poor secrets hygiene, such as lack of password rotation, default passwords, embedded secrets, password sharing, and using easy-to-remember passwords, mean secrets are not likely to remain secret, opening up the opportunity for breaches. Generally, more manual secrets management processes equate to a higher likelihood for security gaps and malpractices.

Best Practices & Solutions for Secrets Management

While holistic and broad secrets management coverage is best, regardless of your solution(s) for managing secrets, here are 7 best practices you should focus on addressing:


  • Discover/identify all types of passwords, keys and other secrets across your entire IT environment and bring them under centralized management. Continuously discover and onboard new secrets as they are created.
  • Eliminate hardcoded/embedded secrets in DevOps tool configurations, build scripts, code files, test builds, production builds, applications, and more. Bring hardcoded credentials under management, such as by using API calls, and enforce password security best practices. Eliminating hardcoded and default passwords effectively removes dangerous backdoors to your environment.
  • Enforce password security best practices, including password length, complexity, uniqueness expiration, rotation, and more across all types of passwords. Secrets, if possible, should never be shared. If a secret is shared, it should be immediately changed. Secrets to more sensitive tools and systems should have more rigorous security parameters, such as one-time passwords, and rotation after each use.
  • Apply privileged session monitoring to log, audit, and monitor all privileged sessions (for accounts, users, scripts, automation tools, etc.) to improve oversight and accountability. This can also entail capturing keystrokes and screens (allowing for live view and playback). Some enterprise privilege session management solutions also enable IT teams to pinpoint suspicious session activity in-progress, and pause, lock, or terminate the session until the activity can be adequately evaluated.
  • Extend secrets management to third-parties and ensure partners and vendors conform to best practices in using and managing secrets.
  • Leverage threat analytics to continuously analyze secrets usage to detect anomalies and potential threats. The more integrated and centralized your secrets management, the better you will be able to report on accounts, keys applications, containers, and systems exposed to risk.
  • Embrace DevSecOps – With the speed and scale of DevOps, it’s crucial to build security into both the culture and the DevOps lifecycle (from inception, design, build, test, release, support, maintenance). Embracing a DevSecOps culture means that everyone shares responsibility for security, helping ensure accountability and alignment across teams. In practice, this should entail ensuring secrets management best practices are in place and that code does not contain embedded passwords in it.

The right secrets management policies, buttressed by effective processes and tools, can make it much easier to manage, transmit, and secure secrets and other privileged information. By applying the 7 best practices in secrets management, you can not only support DevOps security but tighter security across the enterprise.

About the Author

What’s Your Secret – Best Practices for Managing Digital Authentication CredentialsWith more than 20 years of IT industry experience and author of Privileged Attack Vectors, Mr. Haber joined BeyondTrust in 2012 as a part of the eEye Digital Security acquisition. He currently oversees BeyondTrust technology for both vulnerability and privileged access management solutions. In 2004, Mr. Haber joined eEye as the Director of Security Engineering and was responsible for strategic business discussions and vulnerability management architectures in Fortune 500 clients. Prior to eEye, he was a Development Manager for Computer Associates, Inc. (CA), responsible for new product beta cycles and named customer accounts. Mr. Haber began his career as a Reliability and Maintainability Engineer for a government contractor building flight and training simulators. He earned a Bachelors of Science in Electrical Engineering from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

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