Organizations—from service providers, banks, and retailers to government agencies—were recently blindsided by the Heartbleed bug, a critical vulnerability in the OpenSSL cryptographic software library, which underlies trust for secure transactions worldwide. Attackers wasted no time exploiting the vulnerability, which allows them to extract private Secure Socket Layer (SSL) keys with absolute ease. They can read any of the sensitive information that customers have entrusted to the organization’s now-compromised security. To protect their data and their customers, organizations had to respond even more quickly than attackers. They had to assess their vulnerability, determine which systems were using OpenSSL certificates, and then take the steps necessary to re-establish trust, including updating OpenSSL, replacing certificates, and generating new keys.
Unfortunately, most organizations are ill-equipped to respond to trust-based vulnerabilities and threats—especially in such an abbreviated timeframe. As noted in a study by the Ponemon Institute, most enterprises have as many as 17,000 certificates but few control and secure those certificates, making it difficult for their IT security teams to find and replace vulnerable certificates. As a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) with over 25 years’ experience in IT security, compliance and identity management; with many of those years as an executive leader, I have spent a lot of time analyzing why companies aren’t protecting their precious cryptographic assets and how they can improve their security practices.
The oversight, I think, stems mainly from lack of awareness. Most organizations simply do not realize the extreme danger trust-based attacks pose. For many years, organizations have focused almost entirely on defense in-depth as a way of ensuring confidentiality, integrity, and availability (CIA). They rely heavily on Intrusion Detection System (IDS)/Intrusions Protection System (IPS) solutions to protect their systems and data from attacks. As effective as IDS/IPS solutions can be in mitigating attacks, many of these solutions cannot see into encrypted traffic, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to detect attacks that exploit certificates and keys.
Many organizations also fail to understand the importance of protecting their SSH keys—leaving them open to the same type of abuse Edward Snowden used to breach security at the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). SSH keys are a particularly easy target because SSH keys don’t expire and most enterprises don’t rotate their SSH keys. Further compounding their vulnerability, many organizations fail to track who has access to SSH keys. When administrators leave the company, they all too often take SSH keys with them, giving them ongoing privileged access to the organization’s systems.
With the sharp increase in trust-based attacks, organizations must modify their traditional CIA security models to include securing their certificates and keys. After all, certificates and keys are used to ensure confidentiality, permitting only authorized recipients to view protected data. If an attacker compromises a certificate or key, that confidentiality is no longer assured. And any IT security professional charged with ensuring availability must understand: controlling the keys and certificates on which systems rely prevents costly outages.
Organizations must take into account the critical role cryptographic assets play in ensuring confidentiality and availability because they can no longer afford to be blindsided by trust-based attacks. In my years as an IT security professional, I have assembled best practices for securing certificates and keys--practices that ensure that the trust organizations and their customers place in these vital assets is well-founded. Organizations must inventory their certificates and keys so that when a vulnerability is discovered, they can accurately assess their risk exposure. They must have policies and automated solutions for rotating keys so that they can quickly close the vulnerability. They must also be able to monitor the use of SSL and SSH keys so that they can detect suspicious behavior that flies under the radar of traditional IDS/IPS solutions.