No one ever said that managing machine identities was easy. It takes constant vigilance and a lot of proactive planning. Of course, you can make the process easier if you are equipped with the right tools. But I’ll save that discussion for another time.
As your PKI grows and you’re managing a much larger number of keys and certificates, you’re probably going to run into some common challenges; this is especially true if you’re transitioning from a traditional program to a next-generation machine identity protection program.
Below, I’ve outlined the four most common reasons why most security programs fall short in providing effective machine identity protection.
No one group owns the entire certificate lifecycle
One of the biggest challenges in machine identity protection programs is overcoming the way enterprises assign responsibility for the management and security of machine identities. In an ideal situation, your security team would provide services that deliver policy-enforced, secure, and reliable key and certificate management. You would then require the different lines of business to rely on these services to minimize risk and comply with policy on the machines they control.
However, what often happens is that each group that generates, uses, and maintains machine identities is left to determine how best to manage and protect them. Teams with different goals and skills decide how they’ll secure the machine identities they control.
Too many administrators have direct access to private keys
Private keys must be kept secret, and most of those used in machine identities are stored in files, often called key stores. The management and protection of these files and the keys they store is usually left to individual system administrators. This flexibility gives administrators direct access to the private keys when they need them, but it can also open the door to many actions that weaken overall security, such as making copies of private keys.
Giving system administrators direct access to private keys becomes particularly problematic when an administrator is reassigned or terminated. You should revoke and replace the keys (machine identities) controlled by previous administrators. Then they can’t be used by the ex-employee or anyone else—but most organizations skip this important security task because they can’t track keys in relation to administrative reassignments or terminations.
Limited visibility across the entire range of certificates
If you don’t have a complete and accurate inventory of your machine identities, you won’t have any way to understand exactly how your machine identities are being used. This lack of enterprise-wide visibility prevents you from detecting anomalous use of machine identities, which is an early indicator of a breach. Limited visibility and tracking can also lead to certificates unexpectedly expiring, triggering critical service outages.
To make matters worse, a lack of visibility can make it nearly impossible for you to track certificate ownership. If an administrator who controls a machine identity resigns, is terminated, or is reassigned, certificate ownership is in limbo. When one of these orphaned certificates expires, you’re left scrambling because you don’t have enough information about the certificate to respond quickly.
Lack of administrators with PKI expertise
When your administrators need advice about machine identities they control, they don’t have many experts that they can consult. Surprisingly, even in organizations with hundreds of thousands of machine identities, there are just a few encryption experts on staff who understand the intricacies of the machine identity life cycle. Even in the best circumstances, these experts can’t manage all the machine identities used across your enterprise.
To add insult to injury, the tools your organization uses to manage machine identities usually require in-depth know-how. This leaves your average system administrator using Google to figure out what to do. And because many administrators don’t fully understand the impact of machine identity protection, they often treat it as an afterthought. This comparative lack of attention routinely leaves machine identities untracked, unmanaged, unmonitored, and unsecured.
Feeling challenged? You’re not alone. Even in organizations that take cybersecurity seriously, machine identity protection often doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In fact, machine identity protection tends to be one of the least understood and weakly defended parts of companies’ networks.