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Secret Management: A Definitive Guide with Best Practices

Imagine a world where your passwords, API keys, and encryption keys are effortlessly managed, securely stored, and seamlessly rotated. This is the promise of effective secret management—a critical component of cybersecurity.

For IT professionals, understanding the evolution and best practices of secret management is essential. This guide provides a deep dive into managing digital secrets, highlighting key strategies to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches. Equip yourself with the knowledge to protect your organization’s most sensitive information and ensure robust security across all systems. Let’s explore the best practices that define top-tier secret management.

1. Introduction to Secret Management

In the context of Information technology, a secret is any piece of sensitive information that works as a key that grants access to protected data within systems, applications, and various IT environments. A fast-paced software development environment depends on quick and seamless access to secrets. At the same time, any accidental exposure of secrets can severely threaten an organization’s security. Secret management is a collective term for the processes and practices adopted to maintain the security and availability of secrets.

These secrets can include 

  • Passwords
  • API keys and tokens
  • Encryption keys
  • SSH keys
  • Database credentials
  • Certificates

This post is aimed at discussing the risks associated with secrets, the impact of successful secret management on a company’s security and efficiency, and some secret management best practices.

1.1. The Importance of Secret Management

A 2021 report revealed that DevOps and IT teams across the United States spent 25 minutes a day managing secrets. Two-thirds of all the employees participating in the survey said their company has at least 500 secrets. The scale is quite similar in Europe as well. A well-crafted secret management strategy is essential for the seamless and secure movement of software development lifecycles.

Mismanagement of secrets can lead to secret leakage which is the exposition of secrets to unauthorized parties. Leakage in turn can result in

  • Exposition, corruption, or deletion of sensitive data
  • Delay in product releases
  • Loss of brand reputation
  • Fines and penalties due to non-compliance with security regulations

1.2. Evolution of Secret Management

Secret management has come a long way over the last three decades. In this section, we will trace the journey of secret management and find out how we arrived at the era of zero-knowledge encryption from a time when sharing secrets in plaintext was the norm.

We can break the evolution of secret management down into five eras starting with the nineties.

Secret management in the nineties

There is not a lot to mention about secret management in that era apart from the fact that there was hardly any. Hardcoding secrets into the code was the norm and people were quite comfortable sharing passwords and keys in plaintext. A lot of sensitive information was readily available to anyone who cared to look.

2000s – The age of  awareness 

The use of version control systems was in practice in the 2000s. However, secrets were often stored within the codebase exposing them to anyone with access to the repository. Around this time some homegrown secret management solutions were also coming into play but not with a lot of impact.

2010s – The age of encryption

The importance of encrypting secrets at rest as well as in transit was recognized across the board. dedicated secret management and password management tools started gaining currency. Steps were being taken to securely store secrets. Centralized access control was gaining momentum too.

2020s – Cloud, Automation, and all the good things

Cloud-native secret management tools have come to the forefront with capabilities like automated secret rotation and provisioning. Human involvement and therefore human error are minimized in the authentication cycles. Companies are leaning toward a more granular approach to identity and access management. 

The future of secret management

Zero-knowledge encryption stands as the strongest pillar of secret management in the future. It ensures that the very entity that stores the secrets isn’t able to decrypt them. Nevertheless, some platforms like Uniqkey have already adopted zero-knowledge encryption registering a giant leap into the future.

Zero-knowledge encryption aside, the future of secret management will also focus on end-to-end handling of all aspects of secrets from creation to auditing. Automation tools will be prevalent in terms of the management of secrets.  

2. Understanding Secrets

Earlier in the article, we defined secrets as pieces of information that work as keys to protected data. It can be a password used by employees to log into a specific application, it can be a key used to access a specific code repository, among other things. This section will focus on different types of secrets and the role they play in the evolving development environment. 

2.1 Types of secrets

Although this is not an exhaustive list, here are some of the more important types of secrets that IT and developer teams are likely to deal with.

2.1.1. Passwords

A password is a string of characters used to authenticate the identity of a user. It is the most common type of secret used regularly by people from all walks of life. Password theft is a common nuisance and password-related security incidents constitute 80% of all security incidents. 

2.2.2. API Keys

API keys are like passwords but for applications. When an application makes an API call, which is a request made by the application to access the data and functionalities tied to the API, the API uses the API key to verify the identity and the authorization level of the application. 

2.2.3. Encryption Keys

Encryption keys are used to scramble data using mathematical algorithms. The strength of encryption lies in the secrecy of the encryption key. 

2.2.4. Certificates

Digital certificates can authenticate the identity of a server or an application with the help of the cryptographic data contained in them. Certificates help servers and applications establish secure connections.

2.2.5. SSH keys

A Secure Shell (SSH) key is an authentication system that helps devices connect securely in the Secure Shell protocol. SSH keys come in pairs – a public key and a private key. The public key can be placed on a server whereas the private key is stored securely in the legitimate user’s machine. A connection is established only if a message encrypted by the private key can be decrypted by the corresponding public key. 

2.3 The lifecycle of a secret

The lifecycle of a secret starts with secret creation. A secret can be created manually or generated by a system. For instance, password managers can generate highly secure passwords for the users.

As soon as a secret is created, it has to be stored. In an ideal case scenario, secrets are encrypted and stored in secure secrets vaults with strict access controls. Storing secrets in plaintext or hardcoding them into the codebase makes the whole operation vulnerable to security threats.

The availability of secrets to authorized personnel is as important as their secure storage. Secure and seamless Distribution of secrets ensures efficiency and functionality. Nevertheless, a just-in-time approach to distribution is more prudent than sharing them permanently. Also, it should be ensured that the secrets are secure in transit.

The next stage is the rotation of secrets. Periodically decommissioning old secrets in favour of new ones mitigates the risk of secret leakage. 

Auditing the secrets constitutes a significant part of secret management. It is important to audit secrets to keep track of the people who access and use secrets. This access trail plays an essential role in spotting suspicious behaviour and investigating incidents.   

Swift revocation of secrets may be necessary in the case of a suspected breach or potential exposition. An enterprise should be able to quickly revoke secrets so that the vulnerability window may be narrowed down.   

2.4 The impact of secret leakage

With DevOps becoming the norm and microservices handling a sizable portion of the workload, teams are dealing with an ever-increasing number of secrets. Sometimes, for the sake of efficiency, necessary security protocols for storing and managing secrets are foregone. It can result in a disaster. Take the following scenario for instance.

ABC is a rapidly growing e-commerce company that depends heavily on microservices and cloud resources. The DevOps team uses a large set of API keys to automate deployments and access necessary resources. 

The API keys are stored within a configuration file on a team server. That means all the DevOps engineers who have the password for the server also have access to the API keys. While this may appear to be a decent arrangement made with ease of use in mind, it is not secure.

E, an engineer at ABC, gets a notification from the security analyst that a suspicious script is running on the company databases and it appears to be exfiltrating consumer data. It’s a severe case of data breach.

The employee revokes the secrets (the API keys in this case) immediately. On further investigation, it was found that a valid API key was used to access the database. The shared nature of the secrets negates any chance of pinpointing the culprit. It could be an insider job, someone accidentally exposing an API key to a public repository, or some malware living in the machine of one of the engineers. 

As a consequence of this hypothetical incident, the company, with mild variation based on local law, would have to notify customers about the breach, report to the regulatory body, launch an audit, and maybe pay a fine. The business downtime, reputation loss, and loss of clientele are collateral damages.    

Employing a secret management system or a secret manager can help businesses avoid the scenario described above. There are many types of secret managers, and it is very important to find the one that fits your needs.

3. Challenges of secrets management

The sheer number of secrets that teams deal with regularly poses a management challenge. Without the help of robust and reliable tools, it is almost impossible to create dynamic secrets, rotate secrets, and protect secrets. In this section, we’ll look at the key issues that make managing secrets difficult. 

3.1. Secret Sprawl

The uncontrolled growth and scattered storage of secrets is referred to as secret sprawl. Any development team without a steady secret management strategy is bound to face a secret sprawl at some point. 

The lack of visibility creates security risks whereas the scattered secrets increase the number of vulnerable attack surfaces. Overall, a secret sprawl is a nightmare for a software development crew.

Secrets hardcoded into the codebase, storage of secrets in plaintext, storing secrets in personal devices, and having sensitive information on configuration files with no access controls are some of the symptoms of a secret sprawl.

3.2 Secret Rotation

While rotating secrets is a necessary security practice, it comes with some challenges. First, updating the secret for all systems and applications that depend on it is a difficult task especially if it is done manually. Second, the systems might face downtime or temporary outages when the secret rotation process is underway. 

Moreover, ensuring backward compatibility of evolving secrets with older applications can pose a challenge too, 

3.3 Access control

Successful secret management calls for granular access control but that often comes at the cost of efficiency. Implementation of the principles of least privilege is easier said than done. With users with various levels of access needs and the involvement of third-party entities with specific access needs, a powerful centralised management mechanism like the one offered by Uniqkey becomes necessary. 

3.4 Challenges to Secrets Audit and Compliance

Secret audit and compliance are tied together. Businesses need to conduct periodical audits to demonstrate their compliance with relevant regulations. The process of auditing secrets comes with some challenges.

3.4.1. Limited visibility

Secrets are hidden by definition and auditors do not have direct access to them. A secrets management system that maintains detailed logs can solve this problem instantly, but without that, things can get messy.

3.4.2 Scattered and decentralised storage 

Secrets are often stored across devices, in personal files, or in browser-based password managers. Not only does this pose security risks but also creates challenges related to audits and compliance. A centralised platform for managing every aspect of secrets management can stabilise the situation. 

3.5 Managing secrets at scale

All the challenges we have discussed so far are tied to scale in one way or the other. Secret sprawl is the most concerning issue with secret management at scale. Here are some other issues. 

3.5.1 Fragmented control

Different teams using different methods to manage their secrets is a common occurrence. It leads to inconsistent security practices, unstable security posture, and difficulties in auditing.

While using secrets management facilities offered by cloud providers is a common practice, not all cloud service providers come with such solutions. Integration of all secrets across the company with cloud-specific secrets can also pose a challenge. Eventually, it makes getting a unified overview difficult. 

3.5.3 Incident response

Without a centralised approach to secret management, a quick reaction to a security incident is impossible. By the time you revoke all secrets tied to vulnerable surfaces or update all applications with new secrets, a lot of damage can be done. 

4. Best Practices in Secret Management 

Secret management is tied directly to the overall security posture as well as the efficiency of an enterprise. Hence, IT and DevOps teams need to adhere to well-defined best practices to alleviate the risk of secret leakage, password theft, credential theft, and intrusion.

4.1. 5 Secrets Management Best Practices for Enterprises 

  4.1.1. Implementing least privilege access

Access to networks, systems, and data should be granted only to people who need them to perform their roles and revoked immediately after the purpose is served. The easiest way to achieve this is by controlling access to secrets like passwords, API keys, encryption keys, etc.

4.1.2. Regular rotation of secrets

We have already talked about the importance of secret rotation. Companies need to employ automated secret rotation with centralised control to ensure that secrets are rotated without causing enterprise-wide ripple effects. 

4.1.3.  Encryption of secrets

Secrets need to be encrypted at rest and in transit. That means they must never be shared, stored, or transmitted in plaintext. Hardcoded secrets are to be revoked and avoided.

4.1.4. Detailed audit logs

Audit logs are extremely important not only to help during the demonstration of compliance with regulatory mandates but also to monitor access and identify suspicious behavior. Keeping detailed audit logs can help businesses prevent incidents and reach a favorable resolution quickly in the event of a breach. 

4.1.5. Backup and disaster recovery

Despite observing all security practices, breaches may take place. In such an event, key responsibilities must be assumed instantly, the process of revoking all secrets should be quick, and the company should have well-defined protocols to follow.

Backing up the secrets is also very important so that data can be retrieved and business downtime can be avoided in the case of a ransomware attack or any issues with the secrets management tools.  

4.1.6. Standardization and employee training

Creating clear and practical policies around secrets and training the employees to follow them makes it much easier for organizations to handle secret-related issues. Training the employees to observe best practices also enhances the overall security of an organization. 

5. Integrating Secret Management

Integrating secret management refers to the process of connecting a secret management solution with the tools and platforms within the IT ecosystem. It is a necessary step to attain unified control over all secrets spread across the company.

5.1. Integrating with CI/CD pipeline

Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (Delivery) pipelines or CI/CD pipelines lie at the heart of DevOps environments. The CI or continuous integration stage frequently merges code changes made by developers into a central repository. Each merge triggers a set of tests that run automatically to ensure the safety and functionality of the new code. Once the code passes the CI stage, it enters the deployment area where the new code is updated for staging, manual testing, or production.

A secret management solution integrated with the CI/CD pipeline ensures that the secrets required at different stages of code integration and deployment are injected automatically so that hardcoded secrets are not necessary.

5.2. Secret management in infrastructure as code

The success of Infrastructure as Code or IaC lies in the automation of processes. Traditionally, that would require the embedding of secrets within the IaC code. With integrated secrets management solutions, the IaC scripts can use placeholders to reference secrets from a central repository instead of embedding them in the code. It improves security and increases auditability.

5.3. Application-level integration

Application-level integration of secret management solutions refers to the process of connecting the secret management platform with individual applications so that the applications can access necessary secrets from a central repository through a secure channel. This eliminates the need to store secrets in the application’s local directory. 

With no secrets hardcoded into the application’s code base, security is improved. It also increases the overall manageability of secrets tied to the applications.

5.4. Automated secret injection

Automated secret injection is a process tied to all types of secret management integration. Secret management platforms allow CI/CD pipelines or applications to call specific secrets from a central repository and inject them securely into the environments where they are needed. This eliminates the need for hardcoding or manual insertion of secrets. That in turn eliminates human error and chances of leakage.

6. Secret management and regulatory compliance

Organisations that store and process consumer data are governed by several regulatory standards depending on the industry and the region of operation. For instance, any organization dealing with the data belonging to European citizens is governed by the GDPR. All regulatory standards take secrets management into account in varying degrees. 

6.1. Requirements for compliance with different regulations

Secrets like database passwords and API keys are like the gatekeepers of sensitive, personally identifiable data belonging to individuals. Hence, secret management is directly related to maintaining compliance with regulations. 

6.1.1. GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) does not have explicit mandates related to secrets management, however, the general principles of the GDPR necessitate steady secrets management.

The GDPR mandates that the security and integrity of data be thoroughly maintained with adequate security measures in place to ensure the same. This is impossible to achieve without a well-founded strategy for secrets management. 

Moreover, the GDPR requires businesses to maintain easily demonstrable audit trails and access controls. That’s another area where secrets management solutions are necessary.

6.1.2. HIPAA

Just like GDPR, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) doesn’t have explicit instructions related to secrets management. Nevertheless, the administrative, technical, and physical safeguards mandated by HIPAA for the protection of PHI or protected health information necessitate robust measures for secrets management. 

For instance, secure storage and rotation of secrets along with strict access controls are necessary parts of the administrative safeguards.   

Access controls and encryption of secrets are necessary elements of the technical safeguards mandated by HIPAA. 

6.1.3. PCI-DSS 

Payment Card Information  Data Security Standards or PCI-DSS imposes very strict standards of operation on any company that stores and processes payment card data like credit card numbers, CVV, expiration date, and personal details of cardholders. 

Strict access controls, clear audit trails, and centralized management of secrets play a crucial role in maintaining compliance with PCI-DSS.

6.2. Secrets management and data privacy laws

The collection storage and use of personal data are regulated by different privacy laws like GDPR (Europe), and CCPA (USA), among others. Apart from these, there is the EU Cybersecurity Act that works as an important piece of legislature to govern the overall security of systems and networks. The upcoming Cyber Resilience Act (CRA) is also poised to add more dimensions to the existing legal framework for governing secret management.

The key elements of privacy laws that play into shaping secrets management boil down to

  • Strict access controls and implementation of least privilege
  • Access monitoring mechanisms
  • Keeping audit trails
  • Encryption of data and secure storage and management of encryption keys
  • Audits and security assessments.     

7. Choosing a secret manager

We have already established the necessity of employing a robust secrets management solution for strengthening the overall security and functionality of development processes and companies as a whole. It is important to note that the right secret manager can make a lot of difference. 

Each business has its own needs and it’s best to compare multiple tools to find out the best suit for your purposes. Here, we’ll mention some qualities you should look for while choosing a secret manager.

7.1. Ease of integration

Integrating the secret manager with your CI/CD pipeline, IaC, and other relevant platforms is central to the successful implementation of a secrets management strategy. You must look for a tool that integrates with a range of platforms with ease and functions in tandem with them without requiring a lot of human intervention.

7.1.2. Reduction of human intervention

In line with the previous point, you need tools that reduce the need for human participation in the authentication and access management processes. We have already mentioned automated secret injection in the context of CI/CD integration. Employees should also have just-in-time access to secrets without ever having to type them in or store them manually. 

7.1.3. Zero-knowledge encryption

 Zero-knowledge encryption is the ultimate weapon against data exposition. A secret manager who can verify the identity of the possessor of a secret without knowing the secret can not be hacked into revealing the secrets to a malicious actor either. Uniqkey brings Zero-knowledge encryption to secret management creating the ultimate solution for enterprises across Europe.  

In the conclusion

Secrets management constitutes a very significant part of information and network security even though it is not discussed as much as password management, attack surface monitoring, firewalls, and other security practices.

With stronger and more stringent security regulations being adopted across the globe, it’s of the essence for businesses to employ high-quality secret management solutions and observe the best practices diligently across the board. Employee training is going to play just as important a role in achieving this as choosing the right secret manager.  


Uniqkey is the perfect password management solution for teams and businesses. Built with high usability in mind, Uniqkey makes it easy for employees to adopt secure password habits, raising company-wide security in a simple and effective way.