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Best Kept Security Secrets: Keeping secrets, the Secret Manager way

July 26, 2023
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Anton Chuvakin

Security Advisor, Office of the CISO, Google Cloud

Aswin Viswanathan

Product Manager

Can you keep a secret? Many people struggle to keep secrets. So do organizations. An organization’s digital credentials — its passwords, API keys, tokens, and encryption keys baked into its software code — are its vital secrets, used to authenticate access to protected resources and services.    

The security of these secrets represent one of the biggest risks that enterprises must manage when securing application infrastructure and environments. Fortunately, we have an important tool to help our customers better manage their secrets: Google Cloud Secret Manager

Secret Manager is a secure and efficient tool to centrally store, access, manage, and audit your organization’s secrets. As we noted in our April 2023 Threat Horizons Report, insufficient management of credentials and keys is now one of the top security issues facing cloud customers today. In particular, we have observed service account keys being used for everything from insider threats to cross-cloud breaches to intellectual property espionage.

Along with the increasing popularity of DevOps, secrets are used throughout development. In some cases, secrets are coded as plaintext into configuration files or directly into functions, where they can end up exposed in code repositories. If compromised, secrets can be used to gain unauthorized privileged access to enterprise data, infiltrate critical systems, and launch attacks.

Secret Manager can help organizations better manage their secrets even as concerns over potential security breaches grow. Organizations must consider the following four points during their secrets management risk analysis: 

  1. Secrets sprawl: As organizations move more workloads to the cloud, the number of secrets they need to manage increases exponentially. This can lead to secrets sprawl, where secrets are stored in a variety of different locations, making it difficult to track and manage them.

  2. Human error: Humans are fallible, and this is especially true when it comes to managing secrets. Mistakes, such as accidentally sharing a secret with the wrong person or the misconfiguration of a secret management tool, can have serious consequences.

  3. Compliance violations: Organizations that handle sensitive data are subject to a variety of compliance regulations, including PCI-DSS, SOC 2, HIPAA, and GDPR. Without proper management, secrets could lead to potential compliance violations. 

  4. Downtime: If secrets are not properly managed or rotated, it could lead to downtime for applications and services that rely on them.

Secret Manager can enable IT teams to keep track of secrets by providing a centralized place to store and manage them. You can access secrets directly from the Secret Manager console, or use the Secret Manager API or SDKs. Secret Manager is also designed to scale with your application. You can store as many secrets as you need without performance issues, and its API-first design lets you extend and integrate into other existing systems. 

Secret Manager integrations in Google Cloud

In many cases, developers save secret configuration details as plaintext in code for ease of use. There are two main risks associated with this approach:

  • Anyone with access to secrets can see and copy them. There is no way to enforce any auditing or access controls practices here.

  • It becomes difficult to move code between dev, test, and production environments.

Cloud-centered integrations supported by Secret Manager with other Google Cloud services in the software supply chain make it easier and safer to store and access sensitive information. 

The tool is about the secret information being made securely available in build or runtime.

Secret Manager integrations also can play a role in securing sensitive information in the software supply chain:

1. Integration with CI/CD systems used to build and deploy your software

Cloud Code integration can help developers build more secure applications by preventing hard-coding of sensitive configuration data such as passwords, credentials, and tokens in the codebase. It replaces them with secrets which can be programmatically fetched as required. You can create, access, and modify secrets directly from within your favorite IDE without having to navigate away from it. Integration is available for VS Code, IntelliJ, and Cloud Shell Editor.

Cloud Functions integration lets you access and expose secrets as environment variables or as a volume via the filesystem.

Cloud Build: To handle sensitive data in builds, you can store them in Secret Manager and then configure the build steps to access the information directly. In the build steps, you can associate the value of a secret to an environment and you can access this value via an environment variable from scripts or processes. Two common uses for fetching sensitive dependencies during build time are:

  • Storing Docker authentication credentials for pull/push of images to Docker hub.

  • Creating GitHub pull requests in response to builds.

2. Integration with runtime engines

Cloud Run: Native integration makes it easy to mount secrets in cloud run services. Using this integration, secrets can be made available to containers either as volume mounts or as env variables. Sensitive dependencies can be stored in environment variables, by referencing a secret name stored in Secret Manager instead of storing it as a plain text environment variable. This secret access operation can be done directly from the Cloud Run console without changing a single line of source code. 

If code reads secrets from a file instead of an env variable, the “mounted as volume” option can be used to make secrets look like files to the env vars. During service deployment, the service account used to run the containers are checked to see if they have the required permissions or not, preventing any unwanted access.

Kubernetes and GKE: The CSI driver-provider solution is an open-source work that provides integration with K8s. The driver lets customers centrally store their secrets in Google Secret Manager and consume them in a kubernetes native manner, as files mounted in K8s pods. The solution also comes with additional syncing capabilities. This method of consuming secrets also allows users to take advantage of SM's capabilities like versioning, managed rotation, default/CMEK encryption and cloud-focused integrations with other Google Cloud services. Work is currently ongoing to provide official support to the driver solution as a GKE component.

Is Secret Manager right for my organization?

Developers carry a big responsibility to protect the sensitive data they are entrusted to work with, and keep secrets out of their code. However, organizations also have a responsibility to provide the tools and solutions needed to help their teams deliver on these expectations. Secret Manager makes it straightforward for developers to store and manage secrets while improving security. 

To learn more about Secret Manager, please review these resources: 

Read the previous Best Kept Security Secrets blogs here:

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