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What is secrets management?

Secrets management is the use of tools and techniques to securely store, manage and control access to an organization’s “secrets”. From dedicated storage and centralized key management solutions to fine-grained access controls and encryption methods, organizations use different strategies to protect their secrets from unauthorized access and potential exploitation.

How secrets management works

Secrets are like keys that authorized personnel can use to unlock access to sensitive data, critical systems and valuable resources. The objective of secrets management is to ensure that nobody other than authorized personnel can access these keys. Here’s how secrets management works:

  1. Users create secrets inside the secrets management tool. This can include passwords, pins, encryption keys, OAuth tokens, service account keys, SSH agent keys and SSL/TLS certificates.
  2. The tool uses encryption algorithms like AES to encrypt the stored data both at rest and in transit. Encrypting secrets ensures that even if malicious actors manage to gain unauthorized access to the storage infrastructure, the data remains unintelligible.
  3. Users define and enforce access control policies to regulate who can access, modify or retrieve the stored secrets. Typically, only administrators are allowed to access and modify secrets, whereas only authorized users are allowed to retrieve them.
  4. Users set up rotation policies to automate the process of secrets rotation.
  5. Users migrate any hardcoded secrets from source code files or repositories to the secrets management tool.
  6. Users deploy monitoring solutions to track the usage of secrets and detect any suspicious activities. In case of unauthorized access or misuse, these solutions can take corrective actions to mitigate risks.
How secrets management works

Secrets management tools

There is a wide array of secrets management tools, each catering to specific aspects of securing sensitive information. Here are a few examples:

Secrets vaults

These are dedicated repositories designed to store a broad spectrum of secrets, including username-passwords, API keys, master keys, public keys, private keys, cryptographic keys, certificates and SSH keys. They offer strong encryption, access controls and audit logging features to ensure the confidentiality, integrity and traceability of secrets.

Key management systems (KMS)

PPM tools focus on securing privileged credentials used by administrators, applications or services to access critical systems and resources. They offer features like secure storage, rotation and access controls for privileged passwords.

Privileged password management (PPM)

Privileged password management focuses on managing cryptographic keys used for encryption and decryption purposes. They offer secure key generation, storage, rotation and access control features, including the ability to encrypt keys using symmetric encryption for added security. A KMS is particularly suited for organizations heavily reliant on encryption for data protection.

Cloud-native secrets management

Cloud-native secrets management tools protect sensitive credentials in dynamic cloud environments. They provide features like seamless integration with multiple cloud services, automatic secretsrotation, secretsinjection and centralized policy management.

Open-source secrets management

For organizations seeking cost effective solutions, open-source secrets management tools can be a good fit. These tools offer core functionalities like secrets storage and access control, and can be customized per unique compliance needs, but often require extensive technical expertise to implement and maintain.

Active Directory (AD) management

AD management solutions are designed to specifically manage secrets within the context of AD environments. They offer features for managing passwords, service account credentials and other sensitive information stored within AD.

What are the features of secrets management?

Secrets are some of the most sensitive and security-critical information within any organization's digital infrastructure. Whether they are user passwords, API keys, SSH keys, LDAP passwords or database credentials, the exposure or misuse of these secrets can be catastrophic, potentially leading to data breaches, full system takeovers and reputational damage.

Let’s look at some typical features of secrets management tools:

Centralized secrets storage

Secrets are not scattered across different systems, or worse, hardcoded within your source code. Instead, they are stored securely within a centralized repository. This approach provides a single source of truth for all your secrets, making them easier to manage and track.

Protection against wide-ranging cyber threats

Effective secrets management protects an organization against a wide range of cyber threats and attacks, including tamper detection, malware and phishing attacks, accidental exposure, privilege escalation, data breaches and brute-force attacks.

Restricted access

Secrets management tools enforce granular access control over all kinds of sensitive data, including symmetric or asymmetric encryption keys, authentication tokens and root passwords. Access is granted according to the principle of least privilege, ensuring that only authorized users and applications with a genuine need are given

Automated rotation

Static secrets are a security nightmare. Secrets management systems automate the rotation of secrets at regular intervals or based on predefined triggers. This reduces the risk associated with compromised credentials, even if they fall into the wrong hands.

For example, consider a scenario where a private key is compromised. If the secrets management system automatically rotates the key, the compromised version becomes obsolete, i.e. malicious actors can’t use it to decrypt and access sensitive plaintext.

Integration with DevOps workflows

Secrets management, like many other privileged access management (PAM) offerings, can be seamlessly integrated into DevOps workflows. For example, you can use secrets management solutions to:

  • Inject secrets into different stages of CI/CD pipelines
  • Dynamically fetch sensitive data within Infrastructure as Code (IaC) scripts
  • Provide encrypted secrets to service meshes like Istio or Linkerd
  • Supply credentials to applications running within containers


From username-passwords to authentication tokens and certificates, secrets come in various forms, and are a crucial part of an organization’s digital security posture. Secrets management tools can help safeguard secrets from unauthorized use, and in turn, mitigate the risks of data breaches, sensitive data exposure and cyberattacks.

Secure your privileged accounts with One Identity PAM solutions

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