Understanding the secrets management lifecycle

Although the need to move away from secrets is real, achieving this transition requires careful planning and cannot be done overnight. This solution outlines a pathway for improving secret management practices while limiting the impact on systems in production. It also offers guidance for situations where the maturity level of some dependencies may not facilitate an immediate move to a secret-free implementation across the technology stack.

Understanding the complete lifecycle of a secret is key to interpreting risk and properly planning mitigation strategies for leaked secrets. It also highlights the pathway toward ensuring secrets remain as secure as possible. The lifecycle of secrets can be simplified with a shared understanding, and the main concerns of secrets are categorized in the following list:

  1. Creating securely: When creating a new secret, consider its complexity and intended usage.
  2. Storing securely: During and after the creation of a secret, it must be stored in a secure location with controlled access.
  3. Operationalizing: Secrets may be used in various places, and you must consider how to securely access and use secrets for each distinct case.
  4. Rotating: Consider several areas of concern when rotating secrets, including changes over time to prevent secrets from becoming well-known, and break-glass scenarios where there is high confidence that a secret has been discovered.
  5. Managing weak secrets: Control the complexity of secrets above a minimum threshold and ensure that this complexity is maintained over time.
  6. Revoking: Just as with identities, secrets management must consider pathways for removing access granted to a secret.
  7. Deleting: Ensure there is an established pathway to delete a secret when it is no longer needed, and to remove previous access levels across relying systems.
  8. Expiring: Secrets with a fixed lifetime improve other areas across the lifecycle, ensuring that if a secret is forgotten, it does not provide indefinite access lifetimes.

Independently, these various areas of the secrets lifecycle highlight unique concerns. Together, they form a complete picture of what must be considered to manage the secret's life. This also clarifies the complexity that is reduced as secrets are traded off for managed identities.

Visualizing the secrets lifecycle

To further visualize this lifecycle, follow a secret through the various areas and understand the complexity along the way.

Mermaid diagram #1

As the chart above shows, there is significant interlinking between the various concerns across secret management. Adequate secret management must account for all these cross-cutting concerns to ensure a secret isn't left unaccounted for and to manage secrets in a way that doesn't inject failure points into a system in production.

Designing a secret management plan and implementing logical architecture

Designing a secret management plan that considers the entirety of the secrets lifecycle ensures the best possible chance for tracking, using, securing, and managing secrets across the software ecosystem. Start by assessing all secrets at the same level of risk and view mitigation options within each discussed boundary and the system's logical architecture.

After exploring the secret lifecycle and understanding how different concerns interconnect, organize by integrating the secret management lifecycle into your software development process.

Mermaid diagram #2

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