There’s a Sev1 outage. Bridge lines are open. Cell phones are ringing off the hook. The CIO is demanding answers for why the bank’s online banking system is down. Somebody finally comes on the bridge and announces it’s an expired certificate. Everyone groans.
The PKI team is brought onto the call and dressed down by management for letting another certificate expire. There’s no opportunity for them to ask any questions. Their first priority is to make sure a new certificate is issued as quickly as possible for the downed application.
After the application is back up and running, the PKI team takes some time to look at their records and find that they had, in fact, sent multiple emails to the team responsible for the application. Nobody had responded or taken action. They try to communicate that up the chain of command but by that time nobody cares.
The resulting perception left in everybody’s mind is that the PKI team fell short again—even if nothing could be further from the truth.
Sadly, in most organizations, this isn’t an isolated incident. It’s been going on for years.
In addition to the ongoing expensive and sometimes disastrous outages illustrated above, however, this dysfunctional situation creates significant security risks. While PKI teams are responsible for the official CAs that issue certificates within organizations, they don’t hold and manage the certificates and associated private keys; systems administrators do. With the lack of perceived sense of responsibility and knowledge these system administrators have for certificates (illustrated in the story above), you can imagine how well they typically secure the private keys used with certificates.
Coming back to the context of an enterprise, where there are typically thousands of certificates and tens or hundreds of administrators, you start to get an appreciation for the security and operational risks organizations face.
That’s why I’ve started this blog series. This is where I’ll share knowledge gained through working with lots of large enterprises in improving the management and security of certificates and private keys. (In my day job, I focus on developing technologies to help with securing and managing certificates and private keys). But in this blog, I will primarily focus on how keys and certificates impact people and processes, and vice versa.
I’ll actually spend a good amount of time digging into the risks because I’ve found that if organizations don’t understand the risks, they don’t see a reason to actually work on improving their management of certificates and keys.
We’ll talk a lot about best practices. One of the most important best practices we will start with is proper governance, which is a fundamental element in successful management of certificates and private keys. We’ll talk about policies (ugh) and roles/responsibilities (eek!). And we’ll dig into the more hands on best practices like inventory, validation, enrollment, dual control, and more.
Because everyone learns differently, this written blog will be accompanied by some video blogs. I can’t guarantee that every written blog will have a corresponding video, or vice versa, but we’ll do our best to provide as much content as possible via both mediums.