SSH keys play a vital role in machine identity management, granting root access and privileges to critical business functions for both users and machines. But they can easily become a source of vulnerability if not carefully tracked and managed. Many organizations learn too late that they have hundreds of thousands of SSH private keys they were previously unaware of, and most of these keys aren’t as tightly controlled as their level of privilege requires.
These SSH machine identities and the connections they enable have gained in popularity significantly over the last several years. Yet, SSH deployment and its related configuration can leave organizations vulnerable if not done securely. Let’s dive into the most imminent threat risks to SSH keys so you can be entirely prepared to avoid them.
Why SSH machine identities are at risk
SSH keys never expire
Unlike Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificates that include metadata like subject domain name, subject organization, issue date, expiry date, and more, SSH keys don’t include that data, so they’re difficult to track or manage, and they never expire. Because SSH keys never expire, when a system administrator leaves the organization or an IT automation process gets removed, related keys may still be located in various files and accessed by unauthorized users.
For these reasons, make sure to regularly rotate SSH machine identities to minimize the risks that can occur if these keys are left on your network indefinitely.
No visibility into where SSH keys reside
Most organizations have no insight into the number of SSH keys they’re actively using. Visibility is, in most cases, the starting point for improving SSH key management. Without this visibility across your organization, cybercriminals have a broad attack surface to exploit thousands or even millions of untracked SSH keys in enterprises.
No automated way to remove unused SSH keys
Without automated rotation, the number of SSH keys in your organization can build over time. This happens when your users copy and share SSH keys to simplify administration across systems, or keys aren’t removed after employees are terminated or reassigned.
No assigned responsibility for SSH key security
Most organizations allow their administrators to manage and configure their own SSH keys. When you entrust high levels of privileged access to folks who often have to prioritize speed and efficiency over security, you end up with inconsistent security controls, or worse, a compromise of privileged systems or data.
SSH mitigation difficult and time consuming
After an SSH key gets compromised and the attacker gains access, mitigating all SSH keys can be difficult. Most organizations don’t have an inventory of their SSH keys, and revoking all keys will more than likely stop certain critical IT processes.
Secure your connections with Venafi SSH Protect
SSH keys serve as machine identities, identifying and authenticating administrators and machines for critical business functions. But history shows how easy it is for organizations to lose track of SSH keys, which can lead to the misuse of privileged access on sensitive internal systems. Poor SSH configuration and management practices have left many organizations vulnerable to cybercriminals, insider threats, and failed audits—leaving IT and security teams without a clear understanding as to what went wrong.
Venafi SSH Protect allows you to discover and report on exactly how many SSH keys are active in your organization, where they’re being used, and who can access them. This is the full visibility you need to keep your organization secure.