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What CISOs Need to Know About Machine Identities and PKI

What CISOs Need to Know About Machine Identities and PKI

PKI, pki implementation, public key infrastructure
May 30, 2019 | Anastasios Arampatzis

The Chief Information Security Officer (CISO) is the executive responsible for an organization's information and data security. Key responsibilities include data loss and fraud prevention while developing identity and access management procedures to ensure that only authorized people have access to restricted corporate information assets.

A CISO’s goal is to continuously improve the corporate security posture. In order to achieve this, he/she makes sure that all security driven initiatives are being integrated smoothly into the organization’s structure. PKI is one of the “weapons” a CISO can have in his cybersecurity arsenal, but he/she needs to understand how to manage it effectively in order to reduce risk, cost and time.


What is PKI?

The Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is the set of hardware, software, policies, processes, and procedures required to create, manage, distribute, use, store, and revoke digital certificates and public keys. The PKI is the foundation that enables the use of technologies, such as digital signatures and encryption, across large user populations. PKIs deliver the elements essential to meet the needs for a secure and trusted business environment and the growing Internet of Things (IoT).

PKIs help establish the identity of people, devices, and services, enabling controlled access to systems and resources, protection of data, and accountability in transactions. PKI enables users and systems to securely exchange data over the internet and verify the legitimacy of certificate-holding entities, such as web servers, other authenticated servers and individuals. PKI enables users to authenticate digital certificate holders, as well as to mediate the process of certificate revocation, using cryptographic algorithms to secure the process.

The Challenge of IoT Identity Management

Organizations are digitally transformed by incorporating machines into a wider variety of their corporate IT environments. They're doing so primarily as a means of adapting to an ever-evolving world. Indeed, many organizations look to a growing range of new devices and applications to boost business efficiency, deliver value to customers, gain competitive advantage, and enhance their agility. Each of these machines requires a unique identity to operate securely within the enterprise. As the number of these machine identities increases dramatically, so does the difficulty of managing and securing them.

IoT initiatives are the backbone of those efforts. Huge amounts of data are generated by, and collected from a rapidly growing number of IoT devices. But there’s no point in collecting and analyzing data, and making business decisions based on it, if you’re not able to trust the devices or their data. For safe, secure IoT deployments, organizations need to embrace time-tested security techniques, like PKI, to ensure the integrity and security of their IoT systems.

Machines aren't just increasing in number. They are also diversifying in nature. IoT has introduced new physical devices like sensors and actuators that generally transmit and do not store information. At the same time, the cloud has given rise to "virtual" machines, or software which emulates more traditional physical machines such as desktops and servers, while DevOps has accelerated the cloud with self-contained runtime environments known as containers.

The explosion in the number and type of machines creates risks. Organizations must be able to identify, authenticate, and secure all the machines as well as their communication with other machines across the IT environment. That's difficult when devices and applications converse across multiple network ecosystems. As the IoT grows and becomes increasingly diverse, trust is paramount not only in industry and corporate applications, but also in consumer deployments.

Cyber Risks of Weak PKI Implementation

While in the past PKI was used to identify humans, nowadays it is used primarily to identify an ever growing number of machines. As we haven already seen, there are many challenges and it is nearly impossible for PKI professionals to satisfy them manually, especially at the speed and scale of today’s machine identities.

According to many studies, a worrying percentage of companies experience problems managing machine identities. While these companies see machine identity management capabilities as important, they struggle to execute on those capabilities because machine identities are not being tracked, and insufficient tools are being used to manage and protect them. Without the right technology solutions in place, such as enforcing policies, effective machine identity lifecycle management, and responding to machine identity security incidents at enterprise scale, this rapidly fluctuating environment can be perilous.

Traditional certificate management doesn’t meet the requirements of protecting today’s avalanche of machine identities. Orchestrating the creation, provisioning, rotation, renewal, and replacement of machine identities tasks manually is nearly impossible, given the rapid increase in volume of machine identities and the velocity of changes affecting them.

It is important to be understood that protecting machine identities is as important as protecting human identities. Manual PKI implementation is a weak PKI implementation. The hard truth is that if your PKI is poorly implemented, it can be easy for cyber attackers to access your sensitive data and wreak havoc.

PKI Implementation Requires Automation

While in-house PKI seems like the best solution in cybercrime prevention since PKI certificates can be issued and managed in a very efficient and effective manner, it has to be supported by automation. Automated provisioning of those PKI certificates, securely, without human intervention is the best solution to address the challenges discussed above. Certificates are like blood cells in a real biologic organism—they are being created, and they live and die. Their life should follow specific rules, be consistent and shouldn’t take up too much resources. Otherwise the whole organism gets sick or dies.

Automation can help companies alleviate their current challenges with managing machine identities by enabling firms to reap the following benefits:

  • Respond to security threats in a timely manner. Security incidents are inevitable, but automation is a critical asset to identify and respond to threats at machine speed so as to mitigate the risks posed from these threats as quickly as possible. Faster detection of breaches is an immediate benefit of effective and efficient PKI automation.
  • Reduce risk of data exfiltration. Once breaches are detected, automation and escalation capabilities can quickly terminate access, revoke certificates, rotate keys, and seal off breaches to minimize data loss.
  • Track identities and enforce policies efficiently. Companies could greatly benefit from automated processes that improve monitoring and management of machine identities, especially as the volume of identities continues to grow rapidly.
  • Reduce reliance on specialized skills for machine identity management. Automation can reduce the number of human touchpoints needed to manage machine identities and can help firms focus their resources and skills in specific areas where human interactions are required.
  • Reduce number of breaches. Although this could be a long-term effect, improved machine identity management can result in a measurable reduction in the total number of breaches. Being able to fix problems quickly is great but preventing problems before they happen is the ideal outcome.
  • Defend brand reputation and business continuity. The worst outcome of a security breach is the reputational damage. An automated and reliable PKI infrastructure can provide the utmost protection for your company’s information assets and technologies, defending in the best manner the company’s reputation.
  • Increase the trust level of your customers. With top PKI security, your business will be able to stand out to customers as a brand that provides unparalleled protection for their safety and privacy through reliable encryption and authentication technologies.
  • Reduce cyber risk and achieve compliance. Automation can help you apply intelligence to determine and assess the existence of risks and in order to employ a scalable machine identity management that can address shifts in the threat environment so as to reduce the risk of a security breach, facilitate business continuity in the event of a breach, and achieve compliance with all predetermined regulations and mandates.
  • Manage cost of operations and building the network. PKI automation helps control the costs and risks of expired certificates. As a trusted security platform it provides the required management resources to identify and monitor certificates, enforce policies, and automate remediation in order to effectively avoid outages and safeguard against external threats.
  • Secure DevOps lifecycle. Automated machine identity management in DevOps makes life easier for IT security teams and developers. Clients benefit from having more secure and agile application development and maintenance. Auditors can more easily see how certificates and associated processes are standardized and compliant. Certificates for expired entities can be easily found and removed. DevOps application outages are prevented with automated certificate renewals.

Learn more about Venafi PKI and machine identity management solutions today!


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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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