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SSH Keys: Overview and Best Practices

SSH Keys: Overview and Best Practices

ssh key
May 27, 2022 | Scott Carter

Safety and security are of the utmost importance in both personal practices and business practices. Knowing that your accounts and systems are safe and managed in an organized and protected manner will put you and all those you work with at ease. That’s why knowing about SSH keys —how they work, how you can implement them, and who you can trust to keep them secure—is imperative to keeping your organization’s private information protected from hackers.

Before we go into the details of what SSH keys are used for and how they can best be managed, first let's ask, what are they?  SSH keys are an authentication system that allows users to access encrypted connections between systems. In other words, it is the secure bridge between two systems that only allows users with certain code/keys to access said system. These keys are vital to having a safe and secure network of systems.

How Do SSH Keys Work?

SSH stands for Secure Socket Shell which means its basic use is to enable secure access to remote servers and devices over an unsecured network. It is highly recommended to use SSH keys. The difference between root SSH and SSH keys is that SSH can support basic password authentication, whereas SSH keys are a more secure authentication process when logging into an SSH server. This is because there is an encrypted connection between the systems which makes the data harder to hack and get access to. Having this extra safety provides confidence in knowing that your systems are safe from even the most aggressive attacks. SSH keys are proven to be a vital resource when it comes to managing systems securely. 

Private Keys and Public Keys What Are They?

When we’re looking at a physical house key, there are certain notches and patterns that link a key and a doorknob together. If you own the home, you want to be 100% certain that only those that you give a house key can have access. SSH keys work very similarly in that they typically come in pairs — a public key and a private key. The public key is linked to a system which then can grant system access to anyone who has a private key that matches the public key. Just like a physical key, there is specific code and encryption on each of the public and private keys.

For this type of authentication, you don’t necessarily need password access since it is already a more secure method, though it is recommended for additional security. This process of using SSH keys to share information further ensures that only people with the authority to access the systems are able to.

Know the Differences Between SSH and SSL/TLS

For SSL (also known as TLS) machine identities, the essential purpose is to secure connections between a website and a web server. Whereas SSH keys are used to create a secure connection between two individual remote systems over the internet.  SSH keys are overall better for this specific purpose due to their ability to be far more functional in that they are both symmetric and asymmetric in their encryption. SSL/TLS keys and certificates are typically used to manage high quantities of customers and data, whereas SSH keys are more specific to individual connections between clients and an organization's system.

How Should Organizations Manage SSH Keys?

It is crucial to manage SSH keys securely and effectively to ensure that they are working in favor of your organization. These keys are the bridge to a corporation's vital digital assets and need to be protected from those who were not given access. In addition to security, properly managed SSH keys are necessary to prevent SSH audit failures. Failing an audit can result in large fines and additional costs to clean up key sprawl.

Some main points to consider when managing SSH keys are:

  1. It is incredibly difficult to manually manage several hundred or thousand SSH keys alone. 
  2. Managing SSH keys properly will prevent SSH audit failures by regularly reviewing SSH entitlements, assessing risk, and avoiding compliance violations.
  3. Proper management of SSH keys will also monitor policy violations and track when a key was used and by whom. This tracking solidifies that whoever had the authorization to use your systems are actually the people they claim to be. 
  4. It is also important when organizing SSH keys to rotate them regularly to make them harder to exploit. In other words, you’ll want to replace old keys consistently for added security.
How Venafi Can Help With Your SSH Key Management

After understanding SSH keys and the importance of managing them properly, what can you do to be proactive about eliminating risk at your company? What if managing SSH keys the right way with no team or no experience is too much to take on? Venafi is a highly reputable organization that specializes in machine identity and SSH key management.

Some of the largest companies in the world have benefited from our expert management of machine-to-machine communication. If you have SSH keys that you need assistance managing, we have the SSH key management platform that will help ensure your systems are safe and secure. Want to learn more about how your organization can pass your next SSH audit? Download our solution brief on Preventing SSH Audit Failures.

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About the author

Scott Carter
Scott Carter

Scott is Senior Manager for Content Marketing at Venafi. With over 20 years in cybersecurity marketing, his expertise leads him to help large organizations understand the risk to machine identities and why they should protect them

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