Keshav Malik

Keshav is a full-time Security Engineer who loves to build and break stuff.
He is constantly looking for new and exciting technologies
and enjoys working with diverse technologies in his spare time.
He loves music and plays badminton whenever the opportunity presents itself.

In today's fast-paced world of cloud computing and infrastructure as code (IaC), efficiently managing your resources and keeping them secure has become crucial. Terraform, an open-source infrastructure as a code tool, is widely used by DevOps teams to provision and manage cloud infrastructure. While Terraform provides a powerful, flexible, and easy-to-use platform, it also poses certain challenges when it comes to managing sensitive information, such as API keys, passwords, and other secrets.

Proper management of secrets is essential to maintaining the security and integrity of your infrastructure. Inadequate handling of secrets can lead to disastrous consequences, including unauthorized access, data breaches, and regulatory non-compliance.

This blog post aims to provide a comprehensive guide on secrets management in Terraform, offering insights into best practices, tools, and techniques to help you protect your infrastructure and keep your secrets safe.


Before diving into the depths of secrets management in Terraform, it's important to ensure that you have the necessary foundation to build upon. The following prerequisites will help you get the most out of this guide:

  • Basic understanding of Terraform: Having a fundamental knowledge of Terraform and its core concepts, such as providers, resources, and modules. You can start here:
9 Extraordinary Terraform Best Practices That Will Rock Your Infrastructure
This “best practices” article aims to tell you something you haven’t read a hundred times. This article won’t give you the answer to everything because there isn’t one right answer that fits all. It aims to make you think about your unique situation and make the best decisions in accordance.
  • Installed Terraform: To follow along with this guide and try out the examples provided, make sure you have Terraform installed on your local machine.
  • Access to a cloud provider account: Having access to a cloud provider's account, such as AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud Platform, will enable you to put the concepts and strategies discussed in this guide into practice.
  • Familiarity with basic security concepts: Understanding the fundamentals of information security, such as encryption, access control, and authentication. Here is an introduction to Identity and Access Management.

Understanding Secrets Management

Secrets refer to sensitive information such as API keys, passwords, access tokens, and encryption keys, which require restricted access to maintain the security and integrity of your infrastructure. Properly managing secrets is crucial to prevent unauthorized access and minimize potential security risks.

Types of Secrets in Terraform

In the context of Terraform, secrets can be classified into various types, such as:

  • API keys used for authentication with cloud providers and other services
  • Database credentials like usernames and passwords
  • SSH keys for secure server access

Risks of not managing secrets properly

Inadequate secrets management can lead to several potential risks, including:

  • Compliance violations: Many industries are subject to strict regulations regarding the handling of sensitive information, and failing to manage secrets properly can lead to hefty fines and reputational damage.
  • Unauthorized access: Improperly managed secrets can allow unauthorized individuals to access sensitive resources, resulting in data leakage and potential security violations.
  • Security breaches: Exposed secrets can be exploited by attackers to steal or tamper with data or even to completely compromise entire systems.

Understanding these risks underscores the importance of implementing effective secrets management practices in your Terraform deployments.

Also Read: Security in Infrastructure as Code with Terraform

Best Practices for Managing Secrets in Terraform

Managing secrets securely in Terraform is crucial to protect sensitive information and prevent unauthorized access. In this section, we will discuss several best practices for handling secrets in Terraform, including using environment variables, storing secrets in secure external storage, and encrypting sensitive data.

Use environment variables

Storing secrets as environment variables keeps them out of your Terraform code and version control systems. Environment variables can be easily accessed in Terraform using the var keyword. For example, to set up an AWS provider using an API key stored as an environment variable:

variable "aws_access_key" {}

provider "aws" {
	access_key = var.aws_access_key
	region     = "us-west-2"

To set the environment variable, use the export command in your terminal:

export TF_VAR_aws_access_key=<your_access_key>

Store Secrets in a Secure External Storage

Instead of storing secrets directly in your Terraform code or environment variables, consider using a secure external storage service designed for secrets management, such as HashiCorp Vault or AWS Secrets Manager. These services provide advanced features like access control, auditing, and automatic rotation of secrets. In the following sections, we will discuss integrating Terraform with Vault and AWS Secrets Manager in more detail.

Encrypt sensitive data

When storing secrets in remote backends or transferring them over the network, ensure they are encrypted. Many cloud providers offer Key Management Services (KMS) to encrypt and decrypt data. For instance, with AWS KMS, you can encrypt sensitive data using the aws_kms_secrets data source:

data "aws_kms_secrets" "example" {
  secret {
    name    = "db_username"
    payload = "your_encrypted_db_username_here"

  secret {
    name    = "db_password"
    payload = "your_encrypted_db_password_here"

resource "aws_db_instance" "example" {
  # ...

  username = data.aws_kms_secrets.example.plaintext["db_username"]
  password = data.aws_kms_secrets.example.plaintext["db_password"]

Utilizing Secrets Management Tools

Secret management tools can significantly enhance the security of your Terraform deployments by providing centralized, secure storage for sensitive information. Here we will discuss various secret management tools and provide step-by-step instructions for integrating them with Terraform.

Overview of secrets management tools

There are several secrets management tools available, each offering different features and levels of integration with Terraform. Some popular options include:

  • HashiCorp Vault: A comprehensive secrets management solution designed to handle a wide range of secret types, with tight integration with Terraform.
  • AWS Secrets Manager: A managed service provided by AWS that offers seamless integration with other AWS services and Terraform.

Integrating Terraform with Vault

HashiCorp Vault is a widely-used secret management solution that allows you to store, manage, and access secrets securely. To integrate Terraform with Vault, follow these steps:

1. Install and configure Vault: Follow the official Vault documentation to install and set up Vault on your local machine or a dedicated server.

2. Enable the kv secrets engine in Vault: Run the following command which allows you to store key-value pairs:

vault secrets enable -path=my-secrets kv

3. Write secrets to Vault: Store your secrets in Vault using the following:

vault kv put my-secrets/aws aws_access_key_id=<your_access_key> aws_secret_access_key=<your_secret_key>

4. Configure the Terraform Vault provider: In your Terraform configuration, set up the Vault provider and authenticate using a token or other supported authentication methods:

provider "vault" {
  address = "https://vault.example.com:8200"
  token   = "<your_vault_token>"

5. Access secrets from Vault in Terraform: Use the vault_generic_secretdata source to read secrets from Vault:

data "vault_generic_secret" "aws_credentials" {
  path = "my-secrets/aws"

provider "aws" {
  access_key = data.vault_generic_secret.aws_credentials.data["aws_access_key_id"]
  secret_key = data.vault_generic_secret.aws_credentials.data["aws_secret_access_key"]
  region     = "us-west-2"

Integrating Terraform with AWS Secrets Manager

AWS Secrets Manager is a managed service that helps you protect access to your applications, services, and IT resources. To integrate Terraform with AWS Secrets Manager, follow these steps:

1. Store secrets in AWS Secrets Manager: Log in to the AWS Management Console, navigate to Secrets Manager, and create a new secret containing your sensitive data (e.g., API keys and database credentials).

2. Configure the Terraform AWS provider: In your Terraform configuration, set up the AWS provider with the appropriate credentials:

provider "aws" {
  region = "us-west-2"

3. Access secrets from AWS Secrets Manager in Terraform: Use the aws_secretsmanager_secret_version data source to read secrets:

data "aws_secretsmanager_secret_version" "example" {
  secret_id = "arn:aws:secretsmanager:us-west-2:123456789012:secret:example-123456"

locals {
  example_secret = jsondecode(data.aws_secretsmanager_secret_version.example.secret_string)

You can now use the local.example_secret variable to access the stored secret as a JSON object. For example, if your secret contains a database username and password, you can reference them like this:

resource "aws_db_instance" "example" {
  # ...
  username = local.example_secret["db_username"]
  password = local.example_secret["db_password"]

Implementing Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) in Terraform

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) is an effective approach to managing access to sensitive information in your Terraform deployments, allowing you to grant permissions based on roles and responsibilities. In this section, we will discuss the fundamentals of RBAC and provide guidance on configuring RBAC in Terraform.

Understanding RBAC

RBAC is a security model that assigns permissions to users based on their roles within an organization instead of assigning permissions directly to individual users. This approach simplifies access management and improves security by ensuring that users only have the permissions they need to perform their job functions. The main components of RBAC are:

  • Roles: Collections of permissions that define what actions users can perform on specific resources.
  • Users: Individuals or entities that interact with the system and are assigned roles based on their responsibilities.
  • Permissions: Access rights that determine what actions can be performed on specific resources.

As you guessed, implementing RBAC in Terraform involves defining roles, assigning them to users, and managing permissions for accessing sensitive data, such as secrets.

Configuring RBAC in Terraform

To configure RBAC in Terraform, you can leverage features provided by your cloud provider, secret management tool, or Terraform Enterprise. The following example demonstrates how to configure RBAC using HashiCorp Vault:

1. Create policies in Vault: Define Vault policies that outline the permissions for each role. For example, you can create a policy that allows read access to a specific path within Vault:

# read-only-policy.hcl

path "my-secrets/data/*" {
  capabilities = ["read"]

To write the policy to Vault, use the vault policy write command:

vault policy write read-only read-only-policy.hcl

2. Assign policies to users: After creating the necessary policies, assign them to users by attaching the policy to an authentication method or a specific user:

vault write auth/userpass/users/john password="johnspassword" policies="read-only"

3. Access secrets in Terraform based on RBAC: Users can now access secrets in Terraform according to their assigned policies. For example, a user with the "read-only" policy can read secrets from the "my-secrets" path:

provider "vault" {
  address = "https://vault.example.com:8200"
  token   = "<user_vault_token>"

data "vault_generic_secret" "aws_credentials" {
  path = "my-secrets/aws"

By implementing RBAC in Terraform, you can ensure that users only have access to the secrets they need, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access and improving overall security.

Continuous Monitoring and Auditing

Continuous monitoring and auditing play a crucial role in secrets management, as they help identify potential security vulnerabilities, unauthorized access, and policy violations. In this section, we will introduce some tools that can assist in tracking Terraform secrets.

Tools for Monitoring and Auditing Terraform Secrets

There are several tools available that can help you monitor and audit Terraform secrets, including:

  • Cloud provider tools: Many cloud providers offer monitoring and auditing services, such as AWS CloudTrail, Azure Monitor, and Google Cloud's Stackdriver. These tools can track changes in your cloud resources and provide logs for analysis.
  • HashiCorp Vault: Vault includes built-in auditing capabilities, allowing you to track and log all access and modifications to secrets stored in Vault.
  • GitGuardian: GitGuardian is a powerful secrets detection tool that can automatically scan your code repositories for exposed secrets, including those in Terraform configurations. By integrating GitGuardian into your development workflow, you can identify and remediate exposed secrets early in the development process.

By implementing continuous monitoring and auditing in your Terraform deployments, you can enhance the security of your secrets management strategy and reduce the likelihood of unauthorized access or data breaches.


Managing secrets in Terraform is a critical aspect of ensuring the security and integrity of your infrastructure deployments. By following best practices such as using environment variables, storing secrets in secure external storage, and implementing Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), you can significantly reduce the risks associated with handling sensitive information.

Additionally, leveraging secret management tools like HashiCorp Vault and AWS Secrets Manager can provide advanced features that further enhance security.

Continuous monitoring and auditing, using tools like GitGuardian and its CLI tool ggshield, are essential in maintaining a secure environment and identifying potential vulnerabilities. The ggshield CLI allows developers, Site Reliability Engineers, and DevOps Engineers to scan Infrastructure as Code (IaC) configurations from the command line, helping to prevent misconfigurations from being deployed.

By adopting these practices and tools, especially integrating ggshield as a pre-commit check or CI pipeline integration, you can establish a robust secrets management strategy in Terraform, protecting your sensitive data and ensuring the security of your infrastructure deployments.

Learn how to use ggshield as a git hook with these resources:

Creating a pre-commit git hook to detect secrets
In this tutorial we are going to run through how to create a pre-commit git hook using GitGuardian Shield to detect secrets before they enter your repository.