Organizations in all industries have secrets that need to be protected. The modern ID landscape is filled with secrets — passwords, encryption keys, cryptocurrency wallets, SQL connection strings, storage account keys, API tokens — and organizations are challenged with storing, managing, and protecting their secrets.
Let's define "secrets" as some knowledge or a piece of data that should be hidden from others, such as unapproved employees, unrelated business units, and competitors. Secrets are often used to encrypt data at rest and in transit. For example, a website will typically access encrypted data, process the information, and present the resulting information to a user in a browser. The data must be unencrypted for processing and transmission to the user.
If secrets aren't managed correctly, they can expose sensitive information that could wreak havoc on an organization, its network, and its data. Currently, 87% of executives lack confidence in their organization's level of cybersecurity, according to EY, a member firm of Ernst & Young Global Limited. Knowing where secrets are kept is the first step, which is easier said than done. They are likely fragmented and scattered everywhere across the organization and beyond: on premises, in the cloud, on servers, on devices, on clients, and even in code. A centralized approach to secrets management is vital for companies to protect their data and assets, while a poorly managed security approach could lead to breach, noncompliance, or outage.
12 Ways to Get a Handle on Secrets Management
Once secrets are located by performing an assessment and inventory, it's crucial to separate data from the secrets. For example, make sure the encryption keys that protect the data are separate from the secrets in a central, private repository with restricted access — such as a key management server with limited access to the public and by your employees. One recommendation is to use location to your advantage: secrets on-premises, data in the cloud. Be sure to keep data encrypted using keys and ensure keys are encrypted at rest.
Administration vs. Technology Solutions
The human element will always be the weakest link in any security protocol. Consider this: 80% of data breaches are caused by silly mistakes made by those responsible for managing secrets, according to Rashmi Jha, senior program manager at Microsoft. Here are some principles for tightening up your security:
Levels of Security
Depending on your resources, there are different levels of security to consider when protecting your organization’s secrets:
The Carrot or the Stick
Managing your organization's secrets is one thing, but what about the third parties that you work with on an ongoing basis? Will secrets management be defined by your vendor's application capabilities? If so, your vendors will be indirectly dictating your security posture. Application support is of utmost importance for the security of your secrets. You'll want to define your own secrets management goals, establish a baseline standard for today, and create a two- to five-year goal for your security standard. You will want to be in control and notify your vendors that they must support the standard or face replacement. Any new RFP and application selection process criteria will factor in new requirements before acquisition.
The Pitfalls of Poor Secrets Management
What happens if organizations have poor secrets management? It can lead to account and network compromise, information leaks, outages, compliance issues, data breach, loss of reputation — and even the business shutting down. Secrets management is an ongoing effort and it's important to follow the "trust but verify" approach.
Mark B. Cooper, President and Founder of PKI Solutions, has been known as "The PKI Guy" since his early days at Microsoft. Mark has deep knowledge and experience in all things public key infrastructure (PKI), including Microsoft Active Directory Certificate Services ... View Full Bio