The pitfalls of disregarding SSH key and SSL certificate management as a part of your PAM strategy

If password management is the only thing that comes to mind when chalking out a privileged access security strategy, then there's a good chance you still have a long way to go. Passwords, beyond a doubt, are noteworthy privileged access credentials. However, if you're relying on a conventional password manager to secure your business-critical systems, you may be missing half of the equation. Traditional password management solutions rely on password vaulting and access restrictions through fine-grained password policies, but turn a blind eye to other types of authentication identities capable of granting privileged access.

SSH keys, for instance, are machine-to-machine authentication entities that account for a huge portion of privileged access within a network environment. Even so, most IT departments put very little emphasis on key management best practices in comparison to password management. SSH keys are often randomly generated and used without any centralized mechanism to track their creation and usage. As a result, they quickly multiply and continue to go unnoticed within the network, exposed to risks of being exploited by malicious insiders. To add to the challenge, SSH keys never expire, which could result in perpetual unauthorized privileged access if they land in the wrong hands.

This is also the case with SSL certificates, which form the pillars of internet security in most organizations. Improper SSL implementation can cause a wide range of problems including website outages and security breaches—both of which could negatively impact your brand's reputation. Without automation, streamlining the life cycle management process for thousands of certificates deployed across hundreds of servers would be a daunting task.

Even with an unyielding password manager in place, cybercriminals have plenty of room to circumvent security controls and gain access to superuser accounts by capitalizing on these unaccounted for privileged identities.

Below are some major pitfalls that your organization is bound to encounter if you brush aside SSH keys and SSL certificates when developing your PAM strategy.

Uncontrolled numbers of SSH keys trigger trust-based attacks

According to a Ponemon report, the average organization houses over 23,000 keys and certificates, many of which grant sweeping access to root accounts. Without a centralized key management approach, anybody in the network can create or duplicate any number of keys. These keys are often randomly generated as needed and are soon forgotten once the task they are associated with is done. Malicious insiders can take advantage of this massive ocean of orphaned SSH keys to impersonate admins, hide comfortably using encryption, and take complete control of target systems.

Static keys create permanent backdoors

Security best practices recommend that SSH keys be periodically rotated to avoid the risk of privilege abuse, but huge volumes of unmanaged SSH keys make key rotation an intimidating task for IT administrators. Moreover, due to a lack of proper visibility on which keys can access what, there's widespread apprehension about rotating keys in fear of accidentally blocking access to critical systems. This leads to a surge of static SSH keys, which have the potential to function as permanent backdoors.

Unintentional key duplication increases the chance of privilege abuse

For the sake of efficiency, SSH keys are often duplicated and circulated among various employees in an organization. Such unintended key duplication creates a many-to-many key-user relationship, which highly increases the possibility of privilege abuse. This also makes remediation a challenge since administrators have to spend a good amount of time revoking keys to untangle the existing relationships before creating and deploying fresh, dedicated key pairs.

Failed SSL certificate renewals hurt your brand's credibility

SSL certificates, unlike keys, have a set expiration date. Failing to renew SSL certificates on time can have huge implications on website owners as well as end users. Browsers don't trust websites with expired SSL certificates; they throw security error messages when end users try to access such sites. One expired SSL certificate can drive away potential customers in an instant, or worse, lead to personal data theft for site visitors.

Improper SSL implementations put businesses at risk

Many businesses rely completely on SSL for internet security, but they often don't realize that a mere implementation of SSL in their network isn't enough to eliminate security threats. SSL certificates need to be thoroughly examined for vulnerabilities in configuration after installation. When ignored, these vulnerabilities act as security loopholes which cybercriminals exploit to manipulate SSL traffic and launch man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.

Weak certificate signatures go unheeded

The degree of security provided by any SSL certificate depends on the strength of the hashing algorithm used to sign the certificate. Weak certificate signatures make them vulnerable to collision attacks. Cybercriminals exploit such vulnerabilities to launch MITM attacks and eavesdrop on communication between users and web servers. Organizations need to isolate certificates that bear weak signatures and replace them with fresh certificates containing stronger signatures.

The comprehensive PAM solution

The above instances highlight how important it is to widen the scope of your privileged access security strategy beyond password management. It's high time for organizations to refine their privileged access management approach by replacing conventional password managers and disjointed identity access management solutions with a unified privileged identity management (PIM) program.

ManageEngine's PIM suite empowers IT administrators to manage all privileged identities from a single, unified platform. Built on a seamless integration of two top security solutions— Password Manager Pro and Key Manager Plus—this PIM suite serves as your one-stop solution for managing all your privileged identities.


Switch to a hassle-free unified privileged identity management experience with ManageEngine's PIM suite.

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