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Remediating SSH Key Mismanagement

The Necessary Steps to Secure Your Network

From its origin in 1995, SSH, the secure shell data-in-transit protocol, has been used the world over as a method to transfer data between machines, as well as a tool to provide remote administrator access. Some variation of the protocol is packaged free in every version of Unix, Mac OS and Linux. Recently, its use has grown exponentially in Windows operating systems as well. While the exact number of worldwide SSH deployments is unknown, it is estimated that nearly half of all of the World Wide Web uses SSH, making it a virtually mandatory service in the world of network security.

After nearly two decades of use, SSH has succeeded in securing billions of business transactions without any faults of the protocol itself, demonstrating its dependability as a security solution. On the other hand, the evolution of cyber-threat ability requires that organizations take a careful look at how they manage their SSH environments.

New Threats Requires New Thinking
Organizations rely on SSH to securely transmit immense amounts of sensitive data - such as banking information, healthcare records, classified intelligence and other personally identifiable material. Therefore, to attackers and malicious insiders, SSH is a barrier protecting vital corporate data.

However, because this barrier is inherently unbreakable, attackers must pursue alternate routes around the secure shell; to do this, they must focus instead on the mismanagement of SSH keys.

Network administrators establish a trust-based relationship between a user's computer and server by implementing a cryptographic key pair. The connection is established and managed within the corporation's networking system. Unfortunately, many of these systems are outdated and often cannot search for or pinpoint the location of trust-based relationships. Therefore, the search for keys must be done manually. Given a network often houses keys numbering in the hundreds of thousands, it is too easy to lose track of these trust relationships.

This leads to a disheartening conclusion: if an attacker inside or outside the company walls can discover a key, they can essentially imitate any authorized user and gain access to any sensitive data freely.

Improper management of SSH keys presents a prominent vulnerability available for exploitation by attackers looking to gain access to sensitive information.

A study performed recently on some of the largest corporations in the world produced shocking results deriving from the lack of judgment and knowledge of the importance of key management:

  • Roughly 10 percent of all SSH user keys offer root access, creating a major compliance and security issue
  • Having key-based access grants be essentially permanent leaves the network vulnerable to attack and is in direct violation of SOX, PCI and FISMA requirements for proper termination of access
  • Enterprises rarely know what each key is used for, presenting not only a security risk, but also a business continuity risk
  • Many SSH keys that grant access to critical servers are no longer usable
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks are made simple when organizations share the same SSH host keys across thousands of computers
  • Some organizations permit administrators to create or delete SSH user keys at will - without approvals or control - essentially granting unfettered, permanent access to systems and people
  • Very few organizations ever rotate SSH user keys, or even remove them when a user leaves or an application is decommissioned

Today, advanced threat vectors are very real and are becoming more commonplace. It is more imperative than ever for organizations without proper SSH key management protocols to restructure their approach to key management, or otherwise face serious consequences.

Organizations must also understand that federal compliance standards such as SOX, NIST, PCI and HIPAA all entail huge fines if they do not exercise the utmost control over access to sensitive network information. With 20,000 servers, a typical number for many large organizations, the cost of manual SSH key management is $40 million over ten years. When the reputation damage caused by a security breach is factored in, organizations have a slew of incentives to repair organizational SSH key management practices.

Key Management Practices Must Change
Fortunately, access control issues in secure shell environments are not a result of any vulnerabilities or flaws in the SSH protocol itself. Rather, the security and compliance risks identified are caused by:

  • A reluctance on the part of auditors to flag issues for which they don't have effective answers
  • Insufficient resources and time to dig into the issue to gain understanding or develop answers
  • Years of lack of clear guidelines or policies relating to SSH key management
  • Unintentionally ignoring of the scope and implications of the problem
  • A lack of guidelines and good tools early on for solving key management issues
  • The focus of the access management field on interactive users without addressing automated access

Why then, has this problem remained in the dark, particularly given the possible consequences? Given its complexity, SSH key management has remained buried in the domain of system administrators. System administrators usually don't control the entire IT environment; instead, they only see the area under their immediate jurisdiction. It must also be taken into account that IT administrators are some of the company's busiest employees, and as such, they may not have had time to recognize and investigate the issue. In addition, because managers and executives are disconnected from the problem, and its underlying consequences, no action is taken and the high risk remains present.

Best Practices for Dealing with SSH Key Mismanagement
The process needed to fix the issue involves several teams within IT operations. The possible liability and compliance risks demand the awareness and buy-in from executive management as well.

Some best practices to get rid of the dangers include:

  • Enforcing proper approvals for all key setups
  • Discovering all existing users, public and private keys, and mapping trust between machines and users
  • Restricting where each key has access and what commands can be executed using the key
  • Rotating keys regularly, so that copied keys cease to work and proper termination of access can be ensured
  • Monitoring the environment to determine which keys are actually used, and removing keys no longer in use
  • Automating key setups and key removals; eliminating manual work and human errors. This step slashes the number of administrators needed for key setups from possibly several hundred to only a few highly trusted administrators

To further reduce risk, proper key management should involve the establishment of internal boundaries within the organization. The organization should strictly control what key-based trust relationships can cross which boundaries, while enforcing iron-clad IP address and "forced command" restrictions for all authorized keys involving trust relationships crossing such boundaries.

Conclusion
While SSH is widely considered the benchmark for data-in-transit security, the current threat landscape requires organizations to rethink how they are managing access to their encrypted networks. The SSH protocol has done a great job in protecting data-in-transit at a tactical level, but an ever-increasing number of threat vectors means effective management of the SSH environment is critical to secure network operations. Best security practices like the ones identified above will position your enterprise to prepare for security threats and new compliance mandates before they occur.

More Stories By Jason Thompson

Jason Thompson is director of global marketing for SSH Communications Security. He brings more than 12 years of experience launching new, innovative solutions across a number of industry verticals. Prior to joining SSH, he worked at Q1 Labs where he helped build awareness around security intelligence and holistic approaches dealing with advanced threat vectors. Mr. Thompson holds a BA from Colorado State University and an MA for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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