Welcome!

Cloud Security Authors: Pat Romanski, Derek Weeks, Liz McMillan, Carmen Gonzalez, Aruna Ravichandran

Related Topics: Cloud Security, Microservices Expo, Containers Expo Blog, Agile Computing, @CloudExpo, @BigDataExpo, SDN Journal

Cloud Security: Article

Switching the Locks: Who Has Copies of Your SSH Keys?

Organizations are constantly leaving themselves open to security breaches and noncompliance with federal regulations

Despite the recent flood of high profile network breaches, hacking attempts are hardly new. In 1995, I was attending school in Helsinki when I discovered a password "sniffer" attack in our university network. In response, I wrote a program called the "secure shell" to safeguard information as it traveled from point to point within the network. This new program shielded all of our data and ensured that these kinds of attacks didn't jeopardize our logins.

This program, SSH, works by developing an encryption key pair - one key for the server and the other key for the user's computer - and encrypting the data that is transferred between those two keys. Currently, almost every major network environment - including those in large enterprises, financial institutions and governments - uses a version of SSH to preserve data in transit and let administrators operate systems remotely. Organizations use SSH to encrypt everything from health records to logins, financial data and other personal information.

Management of Keys a Low Priority
Despite the fact that SSH keys safeguard extremely sensitive information, companies have been incredibly casual at managing SSH key generation, access and location throughout their network environments. It's similar to a home security company making numerous copies of a person's housekeys, throwing them all over the streets and never changing the lock. The only things needed to pick up one of these keys and use it to access encrypted data are interest, time and a little know-how.

Organizations are constantly leaving themselves open to security breaches and noncompliance with federal regulations by not being more diligent about SSH key management. Many are incapable of controlling who creates keys, how many are created, or where they are positioned in the network after being dispensed and those discrepancies will lead them to network-wide attacks.

Swept Under the Rug
The issue has remained concealed in the IT department, guarded by its vastly technical nature and frequent organizational challenges. System administrators may not appreciate or understand the full scope of the problem because they typically only see a small piece of their environment. On the other side of the company, even if executives and business managers recognize that there is an issue, they are usually too busy to evaluate its scope or possible implications.

SSH key mismanagement is as mysterious as it is widespread. Through dialogs with prominent governments, financial institutions and enterprises, we have determined that on average most companies have between eight and over 100 SSH keys in their environments that allow access to each Unix/Linux server. Some of these keys also permit high-level root access, allowing servers to be vulnerable to "high-risk" insiders. These "insiders," including anyone who has ever been given server access, can use these mismanaged SSH keys to gain permanent access to production servers.

Mismanaged SSH Keys Give Viruses the Advantage
Each day, the probability increases of such a breach occurring. Attacks are becoming more prevalent and sophisticated, and news stories about network breaches are popping up daily. Using SSH keys as an attack vector in a virus is very easy, requiring only a few hundred lines of code. Once a virus secures successful entry, it can use mismanaged SSH keys to spread from server to server throughout the company.

Key-based access networks are so closely connected that it is extremely likely that a successful attack will travel through all organizational servers, especially if the virus also uses additional attack vectors to increase privileges to "root" after breaching a server. With the high number of keys being distributed, it is likely that the virus will infect nearly all servers within minutes, including disaster recovery and backup servers that are typically also managed using such keys.

In the worst case scenario, a virus utilizing numerous attack vectors could spread Internet-wide, rapidly and, combined with dissolution technologies, could corrupt enormous quantities of data.

Industry Regulations Flouted
Organizations lacking proper SSH key management protocols are not only vulnerable to security breaches, they are also out of compliance with mandatory security requirements and laws. SOX, FISMA, PCI and HIPAA are all industry regulations that require control of server access as well as the ability to discontinue that access. Additionally, companies may also be disregarding internal security practices (in some cases, policies mandated by customers).

The SSH protocol and its most commonly used implementations do not create these risks. Rather, it is the result of faulty protocols relating to SSH keys, inadequate time and means to research the problem to develop solutions, lack of understanding of the implications of the issue and the hesitancy of auditors to flag problems that they do not have solutions for.

Clearly the issue of SSH keys being improperly managed cannot be glossed over forever. Without auditing, controlling, or terminating SSH key-based access to their IT systems and data properly, most healthcare providers, enterprises and government agencies are easy targets for an attacker.

Steps to Combat the Risks
Before steps can be taken to solve a problem, it must be identified as a legitimate issue. It may take multiple IT teams to begin a remediation project and will require proper endorsement and support within the company.

There are multiple steps that make up the core of the remediation project:

  • Automating key setups and key removals; eliminating human errors, manual work and reducing the amount of administrators from hundreds to almost none.
  • Controlling what commands can be executed using each key and where the keys can be used from.
  • Enforcing proper protocols for establishing keys and other key operations.
  • Monitoring the environment in order to determine which keys are actively in use and removing keys that are no longer being used.
  • Rotating keys, i.e., switching out every authorized key (and corresponding identity keys) on a regular basis, so that any compromised (copied) keys stop working.
  • Unearthing all current trust-relationships (who has access to what).

The Future of Security
SSH continues to be the gold standard for data-in-transit security but the management of SSH network access must be addressed by organizations in the current threat landscape.

Nearly all of the Fortune 500 and several prominent government agencies are inadvertently putting themselves at risk to major security threats from hackers or rogue employees because they continue to operate out of compliance. This problem cannot be solved overnight. It will take numerous years and thousands of well-trained people to fully combat the problem. It must be the entire organization's responsibility to address the issue. Time must be allotted and it must become a priority to ensure that SSH user keys are properly managed in their companies.

More Stories By Tatu Ylönen

Tatu Ylönen is the CEO and founder of SSH Communications Security. While working as a researcher at Helsinki University of Technology, he began working on a solution to combat a password-sniffing attack that targeted the university’s networks. What resulted was the development of the secure shell (SSH), a security technology that would quickly replace vulnerable rlogin, TELNET and rsh protocols as the gold standard for data-in-transit security.

Tatu has been a key driver in the emergence of security technology, including SSH & SFTP protocols and co-author of globally recognized IETF standards. He has been with SSH since its inception in 1995, holding various roles including CEO, CTO and as a board member.

In October 2011 Tatu returned as chief executive officer of SSH Communications Security, bringing his experience as a network security innovator to SSH’s product line. He is charting an exciting new course for the future of the space that he invented.

Tatu holds a Master of Science degree from the Helsinki University of Technology.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
The cloud market growth today is largely in public clouds. While there is a lot of spend in IT departments in virtualization, these aren’t yet translating into a true “cloud” experience within the enterprise. What is stopping the growth of the “private cloud” market? In his general session at 18th Cloud Expo, Nara Rajagopalan, CEO of Accelerite, explored the challenges in deploying, managing, and getting adoption for a private cloud within an enterprise. What are the key differences between wh...
"Tintri was started in 2008 with the express purpose of building a storage appliance that is ideal for virtualized environments. We support a lot of different hypervisor platforms from VMware to OpenStack to Hyper-V," explained Dan Florea, Director of Product Management at Tintri, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY.
The security needs of IoT environments require a strong, proven approach to maintain security, trust and privacy in their ecosystem. Assurance and protection of device identity, secure data encryption and authentication are the key security challenges organizations are trying to address when integrating IoT devices. This holds true for IoT applications in a wide range of industries, for example, healthcare, consumer devices, and manufacturing. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lancen LaChance, vic...
WebRTC has had a real tough three or four years, and so have those working with it. Only a few short years ago, the development world were excited about WebRTC and proclaiming how awesome it was. You might have played with the technology a couple of years ago, only to find the extra infrastructure requirements were painful to implement and poorly documented. This probably left a bitter taste in your mouth, especially when things went wrong.
Big Data, cloud, analytics, contextual information, wearable tech, sensors, mobility, and WebRTC: together, these advances have created a perfect storm of technologies that are disrupting and transforming classic communications models and ecosystems. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Erik Perotti, Senior Manager of New Ventures on Plantronics’ Innovation team, provided an overview of this technological shift, including associated business and consumer communications impacts, and opportunities it m...
You have great SaaS business app ideas. You want to turn your idea quickly into a functional and engaging proof of concept. You need to be able to modify it to meet customers' needs, and you need to deliver a complete and secure SaaS application. How could you achieve all the above and yet avoid unforeseen IT requirements that add unnecessary cost and complexity? You also want your app to be responsive in any device at any time. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Mark Allen, General Manager of...
WebRTC is bringing significant change to the communications landscape that will bridge the worlds of web and telephony, making the Internet the new standard for communications. Cloud9 took the road less traveled and used WebRTC to create a downloadable enterprise-grade communications platform that is changing the communication dynamic in the financial sector. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Leo Papadopoulos, CTO of Cloud9, discussed the importance of WebRTC and how it enables companies to focus o...
Big Data engines are powering a lot of service businesses right now. Data is collected from users from wearable technologies, web behaviors, purchase behavior as well as several arbitrary data points we’d never think of. The demand for faster and bigger engines to crunch and serve up the data to services is growing exponentially. You see a LOT of correlation between “Cloud” and “Big Data” but on Big Data and “Hybrid,” where hybrid hosting is the sanest approach to the Big Data Infrastructure pro...
In his General Session at 16th Cloud Expo, David Shacochis, host of The Hybrid IT Files podcast and Vice President at CenturyLink, investigated three key trends of the “gigabit economy" though the story of a Fortune 500 communications company in transformation. Narrating how multi-modal hybrid IT, service automation, and agile delivery all intersect, he will cover the role of storytelling and empathy in achieving strategic alignment between the enterprise and its information technology.
Buzzword alert: Microservices and IoT at a DevOps conference? What could possibly go wrong? In this Power Panel at DevOps Summit, moderated by Jason Bloomberg, the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise and president of Intellyx, panelists peeled away the buzz and discuss the important architectural principles behind implementing IoT solutions for the enterprise. As remote IoT devices and sensors become increasingly intelligent, they become part of our distributed cloud enviro...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo 2016 in New York. Learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is as "IoT-Ready" as it can be! Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York, is co-located with 20th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry p...
"LinearHub provides smart video conferencing, which is the Roundee service, and we archive all the video conferences and we also provide the transcript," stated Sunghyuk Kim, CEO of LinearHub, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Things are changing so quickly in IoT that it would take a wizard to predict which ecosystem will gain the most traction. In order for IoT to reach its potential, smart devices must be able to work together. Today, there are a slew of interoperability standards being promoted by big names to make this happen: HomeKit, Brillo and Alljoyn. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Adam Justice, vice president and general manager of Grid Connect, will review what happens when smart devices don’t work togethe...
"There's a growing demand from users for things to be faster. When you think about all the transactions or interactions users will have with your product and everything that is between those transactions and interactions - what drives us at Catchpoint Systems is the idea to measure that and to analyze it," explained Leo Vasiliou, Director of Web Performance Engineering at Catchpoint Systems, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 18th Cloud Expo, held June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York Ci...
The 20th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Containers, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal ...
Discover top technologies and tools all under one roof at April 24–28, 2017, at the Westin San Diego in San Diego, CA. Explore the Mobile Dev + Test and IoT Dev + Test Expo and enjoy all of these unique opportunities: The latest solutions, technologies, and tools in mobile or IoT software development and testing. Meet one-on-one with representatives from some of today's most innovative organizations
20th Cloud Expo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Super Micro Computer, Inc., a global leader in Embedded and IoT solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Supermicro (NASDAQ: SMCI), the leading innovator in high-performance, high-efficiency server technology, is a premier provider of advanced server Building Block Solutions® for Data Center, Cloud Computing, Enterprise IT, Hadoop/Big Data, HPC and E...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Linux Academy, the foremost online Linux and cloud training platform and community, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Linux Academy was founded on the belief that providing high-quality, in-depth training should be available at an affordable price. Industry leaders in quality training, provided services, and student certification passes, its goal is to c...
WebRTC is the future of browser-to-browser communications, and continues to make inroads into the traditional, difficult, plug-in web communications world. The 6th WebRTC Summit continues our tradition of delivering the latest and greatest presentations within the world of WebRTC. Topics include voice calling, video chat, P2P file sharing, and use cases that have already leveraged the power and convenience of WebRTC.