Why 2012 is the year of Public Key Infrastructure

The IT security world has been shaken by a series of breaches that some say spells the death of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology. Comodo, Sony, RSA Security and other breaches have seen established and trusted organisations fall from...


The IT security world has been shaken by a series of breaches that some say spells the death of Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) technology.

Comodo, Sony, RSA Security and other breaches have seen established and trusted organisations fall from grace as they became victims of hacking. With Comodo and StartSSL in particular the resultant outcry has focused on the future of PKI.

I don’t accept, as some say, that PKI is dead or dying. Of course, working for a PKI vendor, you could argue I have to say that.

Nevertheless, I believe PKI is the best we’ve got. It will not be replaced any time soon - to argue otherwise is a waste of energy. In fact, I actually think that 2012 is the year of PKI.

Rather than rehash the various hacks and what went wrong, I’d like to focus on the critical role certificates and PKI play in securing data and authenticating systems across all types of organisations. And think of all the systems that now leverage PKI, including the traditional IT data centre infrastructure, public and private clouds, and an exploding number of mobile devices that require authentication, to name just a few.

Within a PKI, a certificate authority assigns each system or user a unique identity - a digital certificate - that allows the certificate holder to work within the protected environment. This allows organisations to let customers, partners, and employees authenticate to systems and users. I would argue, perhaps controversially, that PKI delivers a virtually seamless experience for users while providing trusted security.

And it is the word trusted that many of you will scoff at.

How can they be trusted?
To pretend that they’re infallible is churlish. Instead, what needs to be recognised is that the world we live in is imperfect and, a bit like a car, we need more than one security feature if we’re to prevent ourselves flying through the windscreen.

Let’s use the car analogy to illustrate the point. Cars have brakes to stop them in an emergency. Yet, all too often, there are accidents. Has anyone pointed the finger at the braking system and declared it dead? Of course not. Instead, the designers have worked tirelessly to improve the overall safety of vehicles, installing impact bars and roll cages, seatbelts, and an airbag just to make sure. An organisation’s security should be approached in much the same way.

To do this, we need to first understand the challenges faced. Depending on the IT environment where keys and certificates are being deployed, some or all of these risks may apply:

  • Certificates that are not renewed and replaced before they expire can cause serious unplanned downtime and costly outages.
  • Private keys used with certificates must be kept secure or unauthorised individuals can intercept confidential communications or gain unauthorised access to critical systems
  • Regulations and requirements (like PCI-DSS) require much more stringent security and management of cryptographic keys, and auditors are increasingly reviewing the management controls and processes in use.
  • The average certificate and private key require four hours per year to manage, taking administrators away from more important tasks and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year for many organisations.
  • If a certificate authority (CA) is compromised or an encryption algorithm is broken, organisations must be prepared to replace all of their certificates and keys in a matter of hours.
  • The rollout of new projects and business applications are hindered because of the inability to deploy and manage encryption to support the security requirements of those projects.

Manage Certificates Properly
As this highlights, certificate and encryption or private key management can be complicated. The fact that there are typically several people involved in the management of certificates and private keys makes the probability of error even higher.

By clearly defining roles and responsibilities so that everybody knows what they’re responsible for can significantly decrease the likelihood of failure and make it easier to work out how to improve processes when something does go wrong. In some areas, system administrators will manually enroll for and install certificates. In others, a central system may be used for automated installation.

The last thing you want as an organisation is to be running around trying to figure out who is responsible for a key or certificate when an issue arises. Compile a list of responsible groups and/or individuals for each key and certificate in your inventory and develop a method for keeping the information current.

Prepare for it
If you act on the principle that you’re going to be hacked - it’s just a matter of time - then at least you’ll be prepared should happens.

Just like brakes in a car, encrypt everything. Ensure that your encryption systems provide the security they are designed to deliver while simultaneously reducing operational risk and administrative workload. Finally, know where everything is.

PKI and SLL are sensible platforms for certificate management. Abolishing them and putting something else in their place is not feasible - the vehicle already exists and it is not going away anytime soon. Instead, organisations need to recognise the challenge of using them and decide how they’re going to handle the coming explosion in certificates.

Posted by Calum MacLeod, EMEA director of enterprise key and certification provider Venafi 

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