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Consensus at RSA Conference 2013: “PKI is Under Attack”

Consensus at RSA Conference 2013: “PKI is Under Attack”

March 4, 2013 | Kevin Bocek

At last week’s RSA Conference 2013 in San Francisco, a clear consensus emerged: attacks on the trust established by cryptographic keys and certificates are on the rise and important element in today’s threat landscape. In the Microsoft keynote, Scott Charney, corporate vice president for Trustworthy Computing, declared “PKI is under attack.” Charney explained how criminals are obtaining unauthorized digital certificates or misusing cryptographic keys to enable further attacks.


In the weeks leading up to RSA, criminals obtained valid digital certificates to spread banking malware. And the week before RSA, keys used by Bit9 to digitally sign whitelisted applications were misused, enabling subsequent attacks on Bit9 customer. These and other trust exploits were covered in detail in an educational webcast delivered by Paul Turner, Venafi’s VP of Products and Strategy.

These attacks coincided with the release of new research by the Ponemon Institute into the impact and cost of trust exploits that take advantage of failed key and certificate management. The 2013 Annual Report: Cost of Failed Trust found that all of the more than 2,300 respondents in mostly large enterprises had experienced at least one trust exploit. In his joint session with Boeing at RSA, Ponemon discussed how weak cryptographic exploits and CA compromises were found to impact every organization in the survey.

Ponemon was most surprised about the concern and alarm respondents have about future attacks on SSH. Critical to establishing trusted connections between administrators, machines, and other machines, SSH is the first and last line of control for IaaS cloud services from Amazon, Microsoft, and others. Ponemon said “the importance of SSH to the future of cloud computing” was the reasons why enterprises appear most alarmed by attacks on SSH compared to any other attack on key and certificate management. Criminals have already recognized the enterprise dependence on SSH and in the weeks leading up to the conference were found modifying SSH libraries that captured credentials for subsequent misuse.

While highlighting the rampant rise in attacks on the trust every business and government depends, Charney encouraged the packed keynote audience to “better manage key and certificates” to prevent these attacks. The Cost of Failed Trust research indicates that many organizations first need to start by understanding how and where keys and certificates are used. Over half of respondents believed their organization did not know how many keys and certificates are in use. This means that the average 17,000 keys and certificates used by servers, appliances, and cloud services reported in the research is likely underestimated.

Building an inventory is just one of the best practices Venafi customers helped develop and part of NIST’s July 2012 guidance on Preparing for and Responding to a CA Compromise. Taking these steps can place an enterprise on the journey to regaining the control over trust that presenters at RSA described as being so fragile today. While attacks are on the rise, there is reason for hope. Ponemon noted that almost two thirds of enterprises believe that if you “get key and certificate management right” then the security risks, along with the operational and compliance challenges of using encryption, will be solved.

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About the author

Kevin Bocek
Kevin Bocek

Kevin is Vice President of Security Strategy & Threat Intelligence at Venafi. He is recognized as a subject matter expert in threat detection, encryption, digital signatures, and key management, and has previously held positions at CipherCloud, PGP Corporation and Thales.

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