Containerization is not new in the IT world, but it's only in the past decade that it has become so popular.
As a result, there are still a lot of things that software developers need to understand to build secure applications and web software.
In this article, we’ll discuss a critical component of container security that’s crucial for all organizations and enterprises: secrets management.
We say container secret management is crucial because all businesses have some digital secrets whether they employ DevOps or DevSecOps.
Revealing Container Secrets
The most basic definition of a secret is anything you’d wish to keep hidden from public knowledge. In the context of container security, secrets refer to digital credentials that are used to authenticate privileged access to crucial components of the application infrastructure.
These include sensitive data and systems that malicious unauthorized actors would use to launch a cyber attack.
Secrets are all-over the IT ecosystem and are used continuously by automated systems (DevOps), employees, applications, vendors, servers, and customers among a wide range of other users.
While new secrets continue to pop up as container technology evolves, these are the most common types in most organizations:
- User auto-generated passwords
- Database passwords
- One-time passwords
- Private encryption keys
- SSH keys
- Authorization tokens
- API keys
- TLS, SSL, and other private certificates
Secrets Management Explained
As you may have guessed, secrets management refers to employing the right processes and tools necessary to protect sensitive aspects in the development, deployment, and storage of container-based applications.
The importance of secret management is obvious: it keeps secrets secret, but it does more than that in application security.
Passwords, tokens, and authorization keys are the most widely used and shared components in the application life cycle.
Because these secrets allow access to critical systems, data, and services, they make the entire project very vulnerable to attacks if they land in the wrong hands.
That’s why organizations have to ensure secrets management best practices to ensure secure management and transmission of these credentials.
Container Secret Management Best Practices
Here are 5 best practices that condense your attack surface while offering authorized users and applications flawless access to the necessary information:
Build a Culture of Rotating Secrets
One of the significant mistakes that organizations make is using a secret for too long. Regardless of how tight your secret management policy is, passwords and other access keys will eventually leak.
The blast radius of an attack due to leaked secrets will depend on how long malicious actors have been able to access secret data and systems.
Secret rotation essentially means replacing old passwords and access keys with new ones. When done regularly, this is one of the best practices for keeping your secrets valid at all times.
Avoid Manual Secret Management
When it comes to managing your secrets in containerization, there are a host of reasons why you’ll want to avoid the manual way.
First, manual secret management is often time-consuming, even in the simplest cases.
Secondly, if your organization has hundreds or thousands of passwords and keys to take care of, manual management becomes a burden on your security team and often leads to inconsistencies. Again, this approach is error-prone and may easily destroy your business.
On the other hand, automatic secret management tools are fast and more economic. The best secret management tools, such as HashiCorp Vault, AWS, and KeyWhiz, also make it possible to manage secrets centrally across multiple locations and domains.
Even better, these tools will rotate your secrets timely with minimal human intervention leading to consistency.
Don’t Hide Your Secrets in Container Images
Effective secret management requires resources and expertise.
Most organizations that fall short on these 2 end up embedding the passwords and keys on the code or baking it in the container image. There are 2 major reasons why this is wrong.
First, this practice is comparable to hiding your secrets in plain sight. The fact that the passwords can be accessed by anyone who has the code makes your applications a very easy target for attacks.
Secondly, embedding your secrets in the code means that you’ll have to redeploy it when you want to change the passwords. This makes it challenging to adhere to a regular secret rotation culture.
Don’t ignore KMS Data Encryption
There is only so much that a password-only-protected database can do to secure your data. While any secret management practice is better than none, relying on this approach alone means that your application is always one step away from a devastating attack.
That’s what makes it vital to make data encryption technology a part of your secret security strategy.
An encryption keyword management service creates several lines of defensive mechanism to protect your sensitive info. This approach ensures that there is an additional line of protection if one of the mechanisms is compromised.
Data encryption is a deep defense strategy that alters readable sensitive information (a.k.a plain text), making it unreadable. The unreadable data is called cipher text and can be deciphered by converting it into plain text. This is only possible if you have an encryption key.
Encryptions can be very tedious to generate and manage manually. That’s why it makes more sense to employ the readily available KMS tools, such as AWS, especially if you’re working with cloud-native containers.
Final Words on Secret Management Best Practices
There are a couple of challenges to effective secret management in most organizations today. The biggest of them all is the lack of secrets management policy.
Having a well-thought-through strategy helps in protecting sensitive passwords and credentials from their creation to deletion.
On the other hand, its lack thereof has led to the rampant password-related attacks, including the Wawa and the Marriot data breaches.
That being said, as you learn best practices for container secrets management, it makes more sense to enact a policy that ensures that your strategies are put into action. This way, it’s easy to detect a breach early enough and remediate it.