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The Madness of Manually Updating X.509 Certificates

The Madness of Manually Updating X.509 Certificates

August 16, 2021 | Anastasios Arampatzis

The use of X.509 certificates is rapidly increasing within organizations. This growth is largely driven by accelerated digital transformation and DevOps efforts. As the IoT expands, cloud platforms proliferate and virtual machines transcend the perimeter, machine identities—such as the ones defined by X.509 certificates—are becoming an ever-growing force to be reckoned with.

As the standard format of public key certificates, X.509 certificates are actually machine identities that both verify the identity of the certificate owner and allow the owner to receive communications only decryptable by them. Encouragingly, the 2021 Global Encryption Study indicates an increasing number of organizations are utilizing encryption to protect their digital assets. However, this is only a part-way solution if the encrypted keys and certificates are not themselves protected.

Discouragingly, many enterprises still opt for manual certificate management, even while investing heavily in PKI infrastructure, IT staff and state-of-the-art cybersecurity solutions. Given the scale of machine identities being deployed in large organizations, an automated certificate management solution would complete the security profile, guarding the certificate lifecycle from start to finish and ensuring the most value for resources invested.

Why manual certificate management is madness

There are several reasons that manually approaching the critical task of managing digital certificate is madness. The repeatable dependability of automation alone should be enough to convince enterprises to save on man hours and eliminate the risk of human error. If one certificate out of thousands falls through the cracks and expires, an organization could risk a critical outage like the ones leading up to major industry upsets, such as the Equifax and Marriott breaches. Lack of ownership and decreasing certificate lifespans are other contributing factors supporting automation in X.509 certificate regulation.

Increasingly, disparate departments across an enterprise are progressively more involved in downloading their own software, developing their own programs and requesting their own certificates. This can lead to the issuance of rogue ownership, a commonly held problem among 2021 Global Encryption Study respondents. Lack of centralized control or automated certificate request processes make it nearly impossible to track every certificate owner and hold them accountable to renew their X.509s before they expire and cause an outage jeopardizing the company. It also makes the audit process similarly unreasonable, if possible at all, and tangles the wires in what should be a unified PKI strategy.

As certificate lifespans perennially decrease to bolster security (the shorter a certificate’s lifespan, the shorter an attacker’s timeframe of attack), the more imperative it becomes to be vigilant in executing on-time renewals. On the one hand, this does limit the window of opportunity for compromise, but it also forces PKI administrators to renew expired certificates at an ever-increasing rate, which is often too much for some organizations. This scenario also statistically increases the chances for human error. Automating what is becoming a more difficult, rapidly changing process would ensure greater security of PKI infrastructure.

Dangers of manual X.509 machine identity management

In an environment where there are endless requests for digital certificates, across different departments, managed by different owners and each with their own expiration and renewal dates, manual certificate management really hurts. In short, it can be:

  • Time consuming. Massive spreadsheets consume unnecessary staff hours.
  • Error prone. Organizing and prioritizing thousands of digital certificates by hand leaves open a wide margin for human error.
  • Lacking in policy enforcement. Manually approaching policy leaves it in the hands of changing System Admins, not reliable PKI methodology.
  • Limited in visibility. Losing track of even one in a thousand digital certificates can leave your enterprise exposed should that certificate expire.
  • Lacking in security. Lack of ownership leads to keys being left in unsecured places, as opposed to centrally managed Hardware Security Modules (HSMs).
How automation eliminates madness and manual error

The first step to protecting your X.509s is being aware of where they are. Venafi TLS Protect gives visibility into all your TLS certificates and their private keys so you can centrally protect and manage them. I recommend using an automated solutions like Venafi’s to remove human error from your PKI management and automate certificate request and renewal.
While many organizations are struggling to keep up, certificate management best practices involve a much more proactive approach to safeguarding X.509 machine identities. Having an automated solution makes these practices possible and frees your IT staff to oversee protocols instead of manually executing route procedures. The benefits of automation include a more efficient approach to:

  • Gain visibility. Know where each certificate is, which machine it belongs to, and when it expires.
  • Maintain inventory. Store the results of your visibility scan and keep an up-to-date log.
  • Enforce policy. Maintain NIST standards and follow best practices such as renewing at 80% of a certificate’s validity period.
  • Protect private keys. Storing keys in a centrally managed location such as FIPS 140-2 standard HSMs removes human access, improving security. Automating workflows pushes certificates to the right machines, without human interference.
  • Provide end-to-end monitoring. Automate functions for certificate lifecycle management, monitor for gaps, and maintain visibility across multiple CAs and software. Venafi’s solution provides a dashboard allowing you to manage all automated X.509 policies from a single pane of glass.
Encryption is only the beginning

Increasing the use of strong encryption in digital keys and certificates is only the first half of creating a secured PKI environment. Without an equally state-of-the-art automated lifecycle management solution, the encryption can become irrelevant. An expired 4096-bit SSL key is just as ineffective as having no key at all. With thousands of machine identities being spun up across the IoT, in the cloud and within ever growing non-tangibles such as virtual machines and executables, relying on the same System Admin spreadsheet used 10 years ago to manage thousands of X.509 by hand really is madness.

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About the author

Anastasios Arampatzis
Anastasios Arampatzis

Anastasios Arampatzis is a retired Hellenic Air Force officer with over 20 years of experience in evaluating cybersecurity and managing IT projects. He works as an informatics instructor at AKMI Educational Institute, while his interests include exploring the human side of cybersecurity.

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