I occasionally write about encryption in Ruby, yet somehow I haven’t managed to cover my friend Ara’s Sekrets gem.

Sekrets provides a simple interface to create and manage encrypted files in Ruby. It’s raison d’être is to make it reasonably painless to store sensitive data, API keys and the like, in Git repos and then access that data inside your Rails app, both in development and production.

Like all good gems, it just need to be added to your Gemfile:

gem 'sekrets'

And followed up with bundle install. This will add a couple of rake tasks, start with:

rake sekrets:generate:key

This creates a .sekrets.key file in application’s root directory. It contains a randomly generated password and is what will allow us to automatically decrypt the encrypted configuration file. If you work with a team, you might want to replace that password with something more easily communicated, just do so before you run the next step.

We want this file to exist in development, and to be available to our deploy, but putting it in the Git repo would defeat the purpose, so this step also adds .sekrets.key to your .gitignore.

To reiterate, .sekrets.key should not be committed to your repo.

Next run:

rake sekrets:generate:config

This creates config/sekrets.yml.enc, encrypted with the key in .sekrets.key and sets up config/initializers/sekrets.rb.

config/sekrets.yml.enc is an encrypted YAML file. This is where you store whatever data we wish to keep secret:

api_key: 42
the_list_of_my_enemies: ['Bob','Kevin','Stuart']
winter_is_coming: true

You can edit the file with:

sekrets edit config/sekrets.yml.enc

Or view it with:

sekrets read config/sekrets.yml.enc

The initializer sets up a global constant SEKRETS. If the .sekrets.key file exists, then it’s populated with the values from config/sekrets.yml.enc:

=> {"access_key_id"=>"XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX",

(SEKRETS is actually a Map, a kind of smart Hash, so you can also get values by method SEKRETS.aws or SEKRETS.winter_is_coming?)

Now all that sensitive data your app needs is in the repo and moves around with it. However, if someone gets access to the repo, without the key, they still don’t have access to your secrets. All you need do when bringing on a new developer is have them put the key in the .sekrets.key file on their local machine.

That takes care of development, what about production? Sekrets gives you two options. First, you can set SEKRETS_KEY in your web servers environment, in much the same way people typically make sensitive information available outside of their code base. Alternatively, if you use Capistrano, you can add require 'sekrets/capistrano' to your Capfile. This adds a task that copies the .sekrets.key to the server on deploy.

With either method, when the App boots, Sekrets will find it’s key, decrypt the config file and set up the SEKRETS constant.

It should be obvious, that your sekrets, sorry, secrets are only as secure as your server. Someone with access to the server can recover the SEKRETS_KEY environmental variable or .sekrets.key file and use it to decrypt the sekrets.

However, this is really no different than the common approach of putting sensitive things, like API keys, in the web server environment and accessing them through ENV in the app. In fact, setting SEKRETS_KEY in environment is exactly the same approach.

Ultimately, if sensitive data is on the server and in a form that can be accessed by your software, then it’s only as secure as the server. Sekrets doens’t solve that problem. What it does do is get that data under revision control in a secure way and simplify sharing that data between developers. And that’s a big win.