GitGuardian Reports Careless Handling of Application Secrets


A new report, the 2021 State of Secrets Sprawl on GitHub, published today by GitGuardian, a provider of a tool for monitoring usage of application secrets, suggests developers are not especially good at keeping those secrets safe.

Based on an analysis of every single commit made to GitHub, the report finds there has been a 20% year-over-year increase in the number of secrets – such as application programming interface (API) keys, private keys, certificates, usernames and passwords – discovered on a public repository.

Developers, as they build an application, make secrets easily accessible as plain text for the sake of convenience. However, when those applications are deployed in a production environment, developers often forget to delete the secrets they stored in GitHub.

GitGuardian CEO Jeremey Thomas noted that cybercriminals are now actively scanning repositories looking for secrets that would enable them to compromise applications.

As the number of application development projects being launched increased, so too did the number of application secrets being stored in repositories like GitHub. The GitGuardian report notes 60 million repositories were created in the last year, representing a 35% increase over the previous year. GitGuardian claims it detected more than 5,000 application secrets per day. Most of those secrets have been detected in repositories that belong to developers (85%), while the other 15% belonged to organizations. The top four countries where secrets were disclosed were India, Brazil, the United States and Nigeria.

GitGuardian also notes it sent out 937,539 pro bono alerts to 558,086 developers last year that informed developers that application secrets were exposed. The mean time for GitGuardian’s algorithm to detect a leak is four seconds. The average mean time to response of a developer when informed of the issues is about 25 minutes, the report noted.

As a best practice, GitGuardian recommends not storing unencrypted secrets in git repositories, and that unencrypted secrets should never be shared via messaging systems like Slack. DevOps teams should also restrict API access and permissions.

As more attention is paid to how software supply chains are managed in the wake of some recent, high-profile breaches, there is no doubt the number of audits conducted will increase. Many of those auditors will specifically be trying to ascertain how application secrets are being managed. Developers may have to get used to a new, higher level of scrutiny, especially as DevSecOps practices become more widely adopted.

In the meantime, DevOps teams may want to review their dependency on public repositories. There are plenty of private repository options that provide most of the same source code sharing capabilities as a public repository. That may mean someone on the DevOps team is required to manage the private repository, but, given the fact that many regulatory bodies will soon be looking to make an example of organizations that don’t secure application secrets, chances are good those costs will be trivial compared to a fine that would be levied.

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