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GitHub Secret Scanning: An Easy Guide 101

GitHub is used by developers worldwide to store and share project code. It allows developers to create public repositories and collaborate on various projects. Founded in 2008, GitHub is a cloud-based service that provides hosting capabilities, and it was acquired by Microsoft in 2018. GitHub has a version control system that offers features like issuing […]

Mansi B.

Written by Mansi B.

September 29, 2023 | 6 min read

GitHub is used by developers worldwide to store and share project code. It allows developers to create public repositories and collaborate on various projects. Founded in 2008, GitHub is a cloud-based service that provides hosting capabilities, and it was acquired by Microsoft in 2018.

GitHub has a version control system that offers features like issuing software requests, bug tracking, task management, etc. It is open-source, accessible, and has over 372 million repositories. The creators of GitHub, however, should have taken security into account, and there can sometimes be compromises. Passwords can be stolen, and GitHub secrets can be relatively kept unsafe.

GitHub has a secret scanning partner program to analyze secret token formats and search for accidental commits. It can send the results of these scans to cloud service providers to verify endpoints. GitHub scans also prevent fraudulent usage of credentials and can be applied to public npm packages. Organizations can scan private repositories, view and manage secret scanning, and more. GitHub also has a secret alert service that accepts webhooks from GitHub that are known to house secret scanning message payloads.

This guide will cover everything you need about GitHub Secret Scanning and dive into the details.

Table of Contents:

  1. What is GitHub Secret Scanning?
  2. Why Is GitHub Secret Scanning Important?
  3. Features available for Secret Scanning in GitHub
  4. How GitHub Secret Scanning Works?
  5. How to Configure GitHub Secret Scanning?
  6. What are the GitHub Secret Scanning Best Practices?
  7. Pros and Cons of GitHub Secret Scanning
    1. Pros of Github Secret Scanning
    2. Cons of GitHub Secret Scanning
  8. How PingSafe Will Help in GitHub Secret Scanning?
  9. Conclusion
  10. FAQs

What is GitHub Secret Scanning?

GitHub Secret Scanning involves various security features that keep secrets safe within organizations. Some of these features are available as tools, while businesses that employ GitHub’s advanced security solutions enjoy unique advantages. 

GitHub secret scanning pulls secrets from the entire Git history of all branches in GitHub repositories.

Why Is GitHub Secret Scanning Important?

GitHub Secret Scanning is necessary because it prevents potential credentials leaks and helps define developers’ regex patterns. Everyone knows repos are at risk of sensitive data exposure, and hardcoding secrets into the source code is bad. DevOps teams use GitHub actions to automate workflows and deploy applications, and has a powerful built-in feature called secrets. It allows users to securely store and use values within the source code, but experts believe that more than using the tool is needed for adequate security. 

Third-party secret scanning tools are external services providing a safe, secure, and centralized way of managing and storing secrets in DevOps workflows. They provide greater flexibility than GitHub Actions secrets and offer additional features like greater storage capacities, higher storage limits, secret key rotation, access control management, auditing, versioning, etc.

Features available for Secret Scanning in GitHub

  • GitHub Actions secrets are visible only to GitHub Actions and not shown in the output logs or web interfaces
  • GitHub Secret Scanning can be used to store encrypted data files like SSH certificates and can be updated or deleted at any time
  • GitHub Actions Secrets follow specific security policies and encryption protocols that only authorized users can view and access

However, the default GitHub Secret Scanner has various limitations: 

  • The first is that there is a maximum size limit of 64 KB per secret, and only 100 secrets are allowed to be stored in repos 
  • An organization cannot store more than 1,000 secrets and lacks advanced security features such as secret key rotation, auditing, versioning, etc.
  • No cross-repository support is available, and organizations cannot sync, share, organize, or update secrets simultaneously across multiple workflows or projects.

How GitHub Secret Scanning Works?

Users can configure how they receive real-time alerts for scanning repositories for leaked secrets. The GitHub secret scanning feature can be enabled for any public repository that they own. Once it is switched on, GitHub scans any secrets throughout the entire Git history for all branches present within the GitHub repository.

Secret scanning will work for multiple repositories within the same organization.


How to Configure GitHub Secret Scanning?

  1. Visit GitHub.com and navigate to the repository’s main page
  2. Click on the Settings tab to pop up a dropdown menu. In the security section located on the sidebar, click on Code Security and analysis
  3. Check if GitHub Advanced Security is enabled. If it is not, click Enable.
  4. Click on Enable GitHub Advanced Security for this repository.
  5. Once this is done, secret scanning will be automatically enabled for the organization’s public repository. If there is an ‘Enable’ button found beside the Secret Scanning feature, you will have to click on it. You can turn off secret scanning by clicking on the Disable button.
  6. GitHub secret scanning also blocks commits that contain supported secrets and offers a Push Protection feature. You can click Enable for that if you want to review pushes manually.

What are the GitHub Secret Scanning Best Practices?

Here are some of the best practices when it comes to scanning GitHub secrets:

  1. Prioritize New Secrets

It is essential to review recently submitted credentials before storing them in secrets. It helps keep the secrets count low for organizations and uses webhooks to direct new secret notifications to the right teams. Developers should receive adequate training documentation and distribute them before committing new secrets. Following up on alerts and implementing an advanced remediation process is critical for every secret type.

  1. Address Committed Secrets

It is crucial to address the most critical committed secrets and start reviewing older secrets. After identifying each secret type, developers should define and document the remediation process. They should also communicate any changes made to new users and establish guidelines for managing affected repositories.

Pros and Cons of GitHub Secret Scanning

Pros of Git Secret Scanning

Secret scanning is a valuable feature that helps organizations identify sensitive information and take steps to protect it. Using secret scanning tools assists companies in strengthening their entire cloud security posture. GitHub offers secret scanning for free on all public repositories and partners with cloud-based service providers to flag leaked credentials through its secret scanning partner program.

Open-source developers get free access to alerts about leaked secrets in code, track change, and take appropriate action. GitHub also added push protection for all its GitHub Advanced Security customers, with effect from April 2022, for proactively scanning secrets and preventing leaks before they are committed. Push protection for custom patterns is configured and applied on a pattern-by-pattern basis.

Below is a list of pros for GitHub Secret Scanning:

  • GitHub secret scanning is free for organizations of all sizes and grants public access
  • It offers added security and makes it extremely convenient to keep track of all secrets stored in public repositories
  • GitHub secrets scanning is much faster than manually reviewing individual lines of code
  • Healthcare, finance, and retail industries can encrypt sensitive information and ensure compliance with the relevant standards and regulations.

Cons of Git Secret Scanning

The following are the cons of GitHub Secret Scanning:

  • Threat analysis can take too long
  • False positives and false negatives may occur during secret detection
  • Can slow down development times
  • There is a chance of automatic build failures
  • Fewer lines are scanned when compared to third-party GitHub secret scanning tools
  • Extraction errors in databases and alerts in generated code
  • Secret scanning configuration for partner patterns on public repositories cannot be changed

How PingSafe Will Help in GitHub Secret Scanning?

PingSafe can help organizations with GitHub secret scanning by enabling the real-time scanning of secrets. It can detect over 800+ secret types across GitHub, GitLab, and BitBucket. The best part about GitHub secret scanning by PingSafe is that it ensures continuous compliance with the latest industry regulations. PingSafe supports compliance standards like PCI-DSS, NIST, ISO 27001, CIS Benchmark, etc.

PingSafe’s GitHub secret scanning is not limited to public repositories but can also scan private repositories. It can generate graph-based visualizations of ECS and Kubernetes clusters and detect configuration defects and drifts in container images.

PingSafe can monitor IaC scripts and supports TerraForm, Helm, Kubernetes, and CloudFormation templates. PingSafe also offers an advanced Cloud-Native Application Protection Platform (CNAPP) incorporating real-time GitHub secret scanning. The CNAPP tool also provides many other unique features that improve cloud security. PingSafe CNAPP includes Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM), Cloud Workload Protection Platform (CWPP), Infrastructure as Code (IaC) Security, Kubernetes Security Posture Management (KSPM), Secret Scanning, and Cloud Detection and Response (CDR).

Conclusion

While GitHub Secret Scanning can consume many resources, organizations must pay attention to it. Good GitHub secret scanning techniques can help prevent data breaches, protect customers, and minimize operational failures.

GitHub secret scanning is an essential cloud security component and helps identify code repositories’ defects. Without GitHub secret scanning tools, entities would be left vulnerable, which could result in severe consequences.

FAQs

What is GitHub secret scanning?

GitHub secret scanning involves using tools and processes for scanning secrets across public and private repositories. It scans secrets in code for defects, detects configuration drifts or changes, and makes plans for effective action and threat remediation.

 How do I scan for secrets in code in GitHub?

Users can use the default GitHub Secret Scanning feature to scan code secrets. Alternatively, they can use a comprehensive GitHub secret scanning tool like PingSafe for holistic security and protection.

How much does secret scanning cost on GitHub?

GitHub Secret Scanning, offered by GitHub, is entirely free. The PingSafe GitHub Scanning tool included with CNAPP starts at USD 2000 per month with the Starter Plan.

Is GitHub code scanning free?

GitHub code scanning is free for GitHub users by default. However, it can present various limitations addressed by premium paid tools like PingSafe.