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Why Manual Certificate Management Really Hurts

Why Manual Certificate Management Really Hurts

May 3, 2021 | Anastasios Arampatzis

Organizations use machine identities, such as SSL/TLS certificates and keys, to secure communications over the internet. Simply put, these machine identities provide end-to-end encryption of data in transit. In essence, organizations use these X.509 certificates across their entire IT infrastructure to protect corporate information and their customers.

Given the prevalence of these digital transactions in large organizations, certificate management has become paramount. One of the challenges of managing a rapidly growing number of certificates is that the expiration of even a single certificate can blocks access to the application that it was protecting. And this can cause an application outage that may be very costly, triggering ripple effects that disrupt the reliability of operations.

As digital transformation is well underway, and businesses automate processes to minimize costs and increase productivity, multiple cloud platforms, IoT devices, virtual machines and services are introduced in corporate networks. In response to this evolution, organizations need to identify new types of machines that are providing access to corporate data. As a result, we are witnessing an explosion in the number of machine identities that need to be managed by enterprises.

Certificate management can be painful

The level of trust instilled in digital certificates relates to the level of the protection of associated cryptographic keys. The 2021 Global Encryption Trends Study indicates that while there is an increasing number of organizations that leverage encryption to protect sensitive data, 56% of these organizations rate key management as very painful, which suggests respondents view managing keys as a very challenging activity.

According to the report, the top three reasons why the management of keys is so difficult are the lack of clear ownership of the key management function, lack of skilled personnel and isolated or fragmented key management systems. At the same time, the keys that are most difficult to manage are those used for the cloud and other external services.

The report findings in part reflected the poor choices and the weak policies of many enterprises in implementing an effective key management solution. Although more and more organizations are turning towards centralized, automated machine identity management solutions, many organizations are still using manual processes.

“Do you really want to hurt me?”

Certificates are not a “fire and forget” solution. These machine identities have their own lifecycle, which needs to be managed effectively. Once a certificate is installed, it must be continuously monitored for security issues that could break its validity, revoked, and replaced with a new one when necessary, or simply renewed before it expires to prevent an application outage.

Employing manual processes to manage the certificate lifecycle creates many painful areas, especially if we consider the expanding number of certificates organizations require to run their operations reliably and securely:

  • Time-consuming: Using spreadsheets to track certificates and looking through thousands of rows is a time-consuming exercise, and that can consume an inordinate number of staff hours.
  • Unreliable and error-prone: How effectively can you sort out the thousands of certificates your organization possesses? To further complicate matters, you need to prioritize them based on applicability, validity, and criticality. In addition, you need to setup early warning alerts for certificates that are due to expire or for any certificates that need to be revoked for any reason. Can you do all this manually? Even if the answer is yes, can you avoid the inevitable human error?
  • Inefficient policy enforcement: If you don’t understand and control who issues and owns certificates and keys, how can you enforce a corporate-wide certificate management policy? How can you audit that this policy is adequate?
  • Blurred visibility: Manual certificate management processes create blind spots and severely limit visibility into your trust structures, which can lead to certificates being left untracked. As a result, it can be extremely difficult—if not impossible—to locate certificates before they expire to prevent certificate outages.
  • Insecure private key storage: Lack of visibility into certificate ownership can also result in keeping associated private keys in unsecured locations instead of being centrally managed and protected. Insecure storage practices can leave organizations vulnerable to data breaches caused by compromised certificates and keys.
“Automatic for the people”

Businesses can overcome certificate management problems by establishing centralized, automated, and well-structured certificate lifecycle management processes. This will allow them to ensure that all development and operations teams are equipped with clear visibility and control over their PKI. These processes should be automated to remove the margin of error and implement a security infrastructure to handle your encryption needs.

The best way to validate that you are following the industry’s best practices in certificate management is to follow the NIST recommendations for TLS certificate management described in SP 1800-16. For maximum protection and efficiency, your organization should adhere to these recommendations. Better safe than sorry—it takes just one untracked certificate to break an otherwise solid machine identity management program. Case in point: preventing certificate outages is a lot simpler than dealing with their impact afterward.

The Venafi TLS Protect solution can help discover all your TLS certificates and corresponding private keys so you can protect these machine identities across your infrastructure. By automating the replacement of expiring certificates, you can eliminate outages and quickly respond to vulnerabilities, CA compromise, or other errors.

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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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