You know that adding secrets to your git repository (even a private one) is a bad idea, because doing so risks exposing confidential information to the world. But mistakes were made, and now you need to figure out how to excise confidential information from your repo. Because git keeps a history of everything, it’s not often enough to simply remove the secret or file, commit, and push: we might need to do a bit of deep cleaning.

Thankfully, for simpler cases, git provides commands that make cleaning things up easy. And in more complicated cases, we can use git-filter-repo, a tool recommended by the core git developers for deep cleaning an entire repository.

First and foremost, if there is reason to think that the secret has escaped into the world, and you can revoke the secret, do so. How to revoke a secret is going to vary quite a lot depending on what the secret protects. If you don’t know how to revoke it, you will need help from the owner of the resource protected by the secret.

Need to quickly see what scenario applies to you?
check out our cheatsheet flow chart below
Download the git history cheatsheet

Now, let’s consider different scenarios to see how to clean things up.

Have you pushed your work up yet?

NO

No? That’s great. Please don’t push it up just yet.If you have any uncommited work, we can use git stash to save it. This sets your work aside in a temporary “stash” so that we can work with the git repository without losing anything you haven’t committed yet. When we’re done cleaning things up, you can use git stash pop to restore your work.

YES

If you have already pushed a commit containing a secret, or just discovered a secret in your existing history, things get more complicated if there are other people working on this branch. If you work alone, there’s nothing to do at this point, you can skip to the next step. If you work as part of a team, things get more complicated because we need everyone to act in a coordinated way.

First of all, we need to determine who else is affected by the secret’s presence, because we’ll need to coordinate everyone’s actions. If the secret only appears in the branch you’re working on, you only need to coordinate with anyone else who is always working off of that branch. However, if you found the secret lurking further back in git history, perhaps in your master or main branch, you’ll need to coordinate with everyone working in the repository.

Let the others affected know that a secret was found that needs to be excised from everyone’s git history. When you edit the git history to remove a file, it can cause problems with your teammates’ local clones; moreover, they can end up re-inserting the secret back into the public repository when they push their work. So it is important that everyone affected is in sync for the excision to work. This means that everyone needs to stop what they are doing, close outstanding PRs, and push up work that’s in progress.

Now, let’s make a fresh clone.

  • Delete your existing clone in its entirety.
  • Make a fresh clone with `git clone [repository URL]`
  • Change into the project directory with `cd [project name]`
  • Download the entire repository history: `git pull --all --tags`.

The last step will look a little bit familiar. git pull tells git to grab updates from the remote repository, and apply them in the current branch (when it makes sense to do so, that is, when the local branch is set to track a remote branch). But git is smart, it doesn’t pull everything down, only what’s needed. This is where the --all flag comes in. This flag tells git to grab every branch from the remote repository. And the --tags flag tells git to grab every tag as well. So this command tells git to download the entire repository history, a complete and total clone. We have to do this, because it is possible that the commit containing the secret exists in more than one branch or tag. We need to ensure we don’t just scrub our secret from a portion of the repository history. As a result, this command can take a very long time, if the repository is very large.

Move on to the next step.

How complicated is the situation?

The secret is in the last commit, and there’s nothing else in the last commit

In this case, we can drop the last commit in its entirety. We do this with

git reset --hard HEAD~1

What does this command do? Let’s break it apart a little bit. git reset is how we tell git that we want to undo recent changes. Normally, this command by itself tells git to unstage anything we’ve added with git add, but haven’t committed yet. This version of resetting isn’t sufficient for our purposes. But git reset is more flexible than that. We can tell git to take us back in time to a previous commit as well.We do that by telling git which commit to rewind to. We can use a commit’s identified (it’s “SHA”), or we can use an indirect reference. HEAD is what git calls the most recent commit on the checked out branch. HEAD~1 means “the first commit prior to the most recent” (likewise HEAD~2 means “two commits prior to the most recent”).
Finally, the --hard tells git to throw away any differences between the current state and the state we’re resetting to. If you leave off the --hard your changes, including the secret, won’t be discarded. With --hard, the differences will be deleted, gone forever (which is precisely what we want!).

Once you’ve done a hard reset, that’s it! You’re done. Your work has been destructively undone, and you can pick back up where you were.

The secret is in the last commit, but there were other changes too

In this case, we don’t want to completely drop the last commit. We want to edit the last commit instead. Edit your code to remove the secrets, and then add your changes as usual. Then, instead of making a new commit, we’ll tell git we want to amend the previous one:

git add [FILENAME]
git commit --amend

We all know git commit, but the --amend flag is our friend here. This tells git that we want to edit the previous commit, rather than creating a new one. We can continue to make changes to the last commit in this way, right up until we’re ready to either push our work, or start on a new commit.

Once you’ve amended the commit, you’re done! The secret’s gone, you can carry on as you were.

The secret is beyond the last commit

It’s complicated

If you know you committed a secret, but have since committed other changes, things get trickier quickly. In anything but the simplest cases, we are going to want a more powerful tool to help us do a deep clean of the repository We’re going to use git-filter-repo, a tool recommended by the git maintainers that will help us to rewrite history in a more user-friendly way than the native git tooling.

A technical aside to those familiar with the concept of rebasing. (If you don’t know what that means, feel free to skip this paragraph.) All of the cases covered below can of course be managed using native git tools, particularly by rebasing. Sometimes rebasing is relatively painless, of course, but in the kinds of scenarios we're presenting here, rebasing is going to be a tedious and deeply error-prone process. This is why I am favoring purpose-built tools like git-filter-repo over rebasing. It is far better to avoid opening the possibility for making mistakes. From my own personal experience, recovering from a botched rebase is extremely time consuming, and often nearly impossible. Better to use the right tool for the job.

First, install

git-filter-repo

Next, let’s assess the situation to determine which technique is right for your situation. Sometimes secrets are files, and sometimes secrets are lines of code. For example, if you accidentally committed an SSH key or TLS certificate file, these are contained in specialized files that you’ll need to excise. On the other hand, maybe you have a single line of code containing an API key that’s part of a larger source file. In that case, you want to modify one or more lines of a file without deleting it.

Git-filter-repo can handle both cases, but requires different syntax for each case.

Excise an entire file

To tell git-filter-repo to excise a file from the git history, we need only a single command:

git filter-repo --use-base-name --path [FILENAME] --invert-paths

The --use-base-name option tells git-filter-repo that we are specifying a filename, and not a full path to a file. You can leave off this option if you would rather specify the full path explicitly.

Normally, git-filter-repo works by ignoring the filenames specified (they are, as the name suggests, filtered out). But we want the inverse behavior, we want git-filter-repo to ignore everything except the specified file. So we must pass --invert-paths to tell it this. If you leave off the --invert-paths, you’ll excise everything except the specified file, which is the exact opposite of what we want, and would likely be disastrous. Please don’t do that.

Edit a file without removing it

If you only need to edit one or more lines in a file without deleting the file, git-filter-repo takes a sequence of search-and-replace commands (optionally using regular expressions).

First, identify all the lines containing secrets that need to be excised. You’ll also need to work out a plan for how you will replace those lines. Perhaps just deleting them is enough. But perhaps they need to be modified to prevent a runtime crash.
Next, create a file containing the search-and-replace commands, called replacements.txt. Make sure it’s in a folder outside of your repo, for example, the parent folder.

The format of this file is one search-and-replace command per line, using the format:

ORIGINAL==>REPLACEMENT

For example, suppose that you’ve hard-coded an API token into your code, like this:

AUTH_TOKEN=’123abc’

Now suppose that you’ve decided that it’s better to load the API token from an environment variable, as such:

AUTH_TOKEN=ENV[‘AUTH_TOKEN’]

We can tell git-filter-repo to search for the hard-coded token, and replace with the environment variable by adding this line to replacements.txt:

‘123abc’==>ENV[‘AUTH_TOKEN’]

If you have multiple secrets you need to excise, you can have more than one rule like this in replacements.txt.

Finally, assuming you placed replacements.txt in the parent directory, we invoke git-filter-repo with our search-and-replace commands like this:

git filter-repo --replace-text ../replacements.txt

Sometimes you might get an error saying you’re not working from a clean clone. That’s OK. Git-filter-repo is making irreversible changes to your local repository, and it wants to be certain that you have a backup before it does that. Of course, we do have a remote repository, and we’re working from a local clone. And of course we are very interested in making irreversible edits to our commit history—we have a secret to purge! So there’s no need for git-filter-repo to worry. We can reassure it that we are OK with making irreversible changes by adding the --force flag:

git filter-repo --replace-text ../replacements.txt --force

And now you have a clean git history! You’ll want to validate your work by compiling your software or running your test suite. Then once you’re satisfied that nothing is broken, move on to the next step to propagate the new history to your remote repository and the rest of the team.

Do you need to coordinate with your team?

No

If you only just added the secret, and haven’t pushed any of your work yet, you’re done. Just keep working like you had been, and no one will ever know. Don’t forget if you need to restore uncommitted work by popping it from the stash with git stash pop.

Otherwise, we’ll need to overwrite what’s on your remote git repository (such as GitHub), as it still contains tainted history. We can’t simply push, however: The remote repository will refuse to accept our push because we’ve re-written history. So we’ll need to force push instead. Moreover, if our re-writes to history affect multiple branches or tags, we’ll need to push them all up. We can accomplish all of this like so:

git push --all --tags --force

YES

If you work as part of a team, now comes the hard part. Everyone you identified as affected at the beginning of this process still has the old history. They need to synchronize against the revised history you just force-pushed. This is where errors can happen, and more importantly, where frustration can occur.

Ideally everyone pushed their work up before you edited the history. In that case, everyone can simply make a clean clone of the repo and pick up where they left off.

But if someone failed to push their work up before you re-wrote history, they’re going to find they have a number of conflicts that need to be resolved when they pull. Instead, they need to fetch the new history from the remote repository, and rebase their hard work on the re-written history. To do this:

git fetch
git rebase -i origin/[branchname]

If you aren't familiar with git fetch, this command tells git to download new data from the remote repository, but unlike git pull, it doesn’t attempt to merge new commits into your current working branch. So the fetch here is requesting all the newly re-written history.

I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about rebasing, but this is the one instance where it’s necessary. Once all the new history is pulled down, the developer will need to re-apply all their hard work on top of the re-written history. This is done by rebasing. Unfortunately, this can be a tedious and error-prone process, so care must be taken. For this reason, rebasing is out of scope for this tutorial. Instead, we recommend that you look at this tutorial for more information.

Conclusion

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve successfully and securely eliminated a secret or file from your git history. But it didn’t have to be this way. You can prevent all this headache with GitGuardian.

GitGuardian is an automated secret detection solution that integrates with your git repos to scan your code for secrets. GitGuardian first makes an initial scan to clean your history, then integrates with your devops pipeline to scan all incremental changes as they arrive and notify you before you have to do complex surgery! Try it out here.