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Why SSH Is Key to Your IAM Strategy

Why SSH Is Key to Your IAM Strategy

February 16, 2021 | Anastasios Arampatzis

SSH keys are becoming more and more important for modern, cloud-based businesses seeking to enforce a strong Identity and Access Management (IAM) strategy. These businesses can no longer base their authentication mechanisms on insecure, legacy passwords. Passwords can be easily compromised using known tactics, such as brute force attack or phishing campaigns. This is where SSH keys come in.

What are SSH Keys?

SSH keys are used instead of passwords to authenticate users accessing servers. SSH keys work over the Secure Shell protocol and create an encrypted tunnel between the client and server. SSH keys are a pair of credentials, one public and the other private. The public key is placed on the server, while the private key is stored securely by the user who created it. When the user presents their private key to the server’s public key, a cryptographic connection is established, and the communication is authenticated.

In traditional business settings, SSH keys and the SSH protocol are used to provide data encryption and allow IT administrators to manage systems and applications remotely, deliver software patches, or execute commands.

SSH keys have become increasingly popular because they help to automate access to servers, backup data, and configure systems. Their design allows for cross-border authenticated connectivity, enabling users and administrators to take advantage of single sign-on functionality and move between accounts and applications without typing passwords.

SSH Keys Are Your Modern IAM Solution

Besides their traditional functionality, businesses are leveraging the benefits of SSH keys to establish strong IAM strategies and address the authentication challenges of borderless operational environments.

As part of their digital transformation efforts, businesses are using multiple cloud-based solutions, while at the same time maintaining on-premises legacy systems. In this hybrid computing environment, insecure passwords are not adequate. Passwords are notorious for being a source of complexity and fatigue when used in multiple computing environments. Users need to develop and memorize a handful of complex passwords, which can be easily compromised, creating holes in the corporate security posture.

Further, the proliferation of IoT connected devices creates many security and privacy challenges because these devices are not manufactured with security-by-design and privacy-by-design principles. While the industry is taking great steps towards hardening these connected devices, we still need to secure their communications. IoT can be found in many use cases, from medical devices to smart electricity meters to smart cars and traffic management. Should these devices be compromised or hijacked, the impact on our lives can be devastating.

Finally, the coronavirus pandemic has forced businesses to adopt work-from-home schemes. IT security teams face many challenges to secure and authenticate access to corporate systems and data from privately owned devices and networks.  How can you ensure that only authorized people and devices access your systems? How do you enforce a strong, passwordless authentication mechanism?

The answer to many of the above modern IAM challenges is the use of SSH keys. SSH keys offer a passwordless, single sign-on (SSO) access solution, enhancing user experience while enforcing authentication.

SSH Key Management is Essential

For all the above reasons, the number of SSH keys in businesses has skyrocketed over the past years. SSH keys grant access to privileged accounts on operating systems, but they also allow access to an increasing number of essential assets—production servers, databases, routers, firewalls, disaster recovery systems, financial data, payment systems, intellectual property, and patient information.

Despite their importance, most organizations fail to establish and enforce robust SSH key management policies. The root cause of weak SSH key management is the lack of visibility into the keys owned by an organization. Most organizations do not have documentation or an inventory of all trust relationships and the purposes for which the keys were created. Lacking knowledge of whether the need for each authorization still exists or should be removed, the SSH keys are left forgotten for fear of breaking business-critical processes.

As a result, the following security risks threaten the corporate posture:

  • Personnel that have rotated still have access to critical systems
  • Creation of unauthorized copies of the keys
  • Unmanaged keys granting access to critical resources
  • Lack of key rotation
  • Escalation of access privileges
  • SSH keys being used in both development and production environments
  • Broken cross-border trust relationships
  • Lack of policy compliance

Weak or ineffective management of SSH keys creates many security risks that adversaries are eager to exploit to compromise data or disrupt operations. The examples are numerous: TrickBot, CryptoSink, Kaji malware, and BalckEnergy underscore the importance of managing effectively SSH keys.


It is critical that you protect and secure privileged access for the thousands of SSH connections that enable your enterprise. Venafi’s SSH Protect discovers where SSH keys are in your environments, as well as the strengths or weaknesses of their configurations. Automated SSH key lifecycle management empowers you to secure and streamline your SSH keys and the connections they enable.


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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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