Welcome!

Microservices Expo Authors: Pat Romanski, Stackify Blog, Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Yeshim Deniz

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.


@MicroservicesExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Peak 10, Inc., a national IT infrastructure and cloud services provider, 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. Peak 10 provides reliable, tailored data center and network services, cloud and managed services. Its solutions are designed to scale and adapt to customers’ changing business needs, enabling them to lower costs, improve performance and focus intern...
There are two main reasons for infrastructure automation. First, system administrators, IT professionals and DevOps engineers need to automate as many routine tasks as possible. That’s why we build tools at Stackify to help developers automate processes like application performance management, error monitoring, and log management; automation means you have more time for mission-critical tasks. Second, automation makes the management of complex, diverse environments possible and allows rapid scal...
DevOps is often described as a combination of technology and culture. Without both, DevOps isn't complete. However, applying the culture to outdated technology is a recipe for disaster; as response times grow and connections between teams are delayed by technology, the culture will die. A Nutanix Enterprise Cloud has many benefits that provide the needed base for a true DevOps paradigm. In his Day 3 Keynote at 20th Cloud Expo, Chris Brown, a Solutions Marketing Manager at Nutanix, will explore t...
This talk centers around how to automate best practices in a multi-/hybrid-cloud world based on our work with customers like GE, Discovery Communications and Fannie Mae. Today’s enterprises are reaping the benefits of cloud computing, but also discovering many risks and challenges. In the age of DevOps and the decentralization of IT, it’s easy to over-provision resources, forget that instances are running, or unintentionally expose vulnerabilities.
Regardless of what business you’re in, it’s increasingly a software-driven business. Consumers’ rising expectations for connected digital and physical experiences are driving what some are calling the "Customer Experience Challenge.” In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 20th Cloud Expo, Marco Morales, Director of Global Solutions at CollabNet, will discuss how organizations are increasingly adopting a discipline of Value Stream Mapping to ensure that the software they are producing is poised to ...
You know you need the cloud, but you’re hesitant to simply dump everything at Amazon since you know that not all workloads are suitable for cloud. You know that you want the kind of ease of use and scalability that you get with public cloud, but your applications are architected in a way that makes the public cloud a non-starter. You’re looking at private cloud solutions based on hyperconverged infrastructure, but you’re concerned with the limits inherent in those technologies.
It has never been a better time to be a developer! Thanks to cloud computing, deploying our applications is much easier than it used to be. How we deploy our apps continues to evolve thanks to cloud hosting, Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and now Function-as-a-Service. FaaS is the concept of serverless computing via serverless architectures. Software developers can leverage this to deploy an individual "function", action, or piece of business logic. They are expected to start within milliseconds...
One of the biggest challenges with adopting a DevOps mentality is: new applications are easily adapted to cloud-native, microservice-based, or containerized architectures - they can be built for them - but old applications need complex refactoring. On the other hand, these new technologies can require relearning or adapting new, oftentimes more complex, methodologies and tools to be ready for production. In his general session at @DevOpsSummit at 20th Cloud Expo, Chris Brown, Solutions Marketi...
DevOps at Cloud Expo – being held October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA – announces that its Call for Papers is open. Born out of proven success in agile development, cloud computing, and process automation, DevOps is a macro trend you cannot afford to miss. From showcase success stories from early adopters and web-scale businesses, DevOps is expanding to organizations of all sizes, including the world's largest enterprises – and delivering real r...
Most DevOps journeys involve several phases of maturity. Research shows that the inflection point where organizations begin to see maximum value is when they implement tight integration deploying their code to their infrastructure. Success at this level is the last barrier to at-will deployment. Storage, for instance, is more capable than where we read and write data. In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 20th Cloud Expo, Josh Atwell, a Developer Advocate for NetApp, will discuss the role and value...
Cloud promises the agility required by today’s digital businesses. As organizations adopt cloud based infrastructures and services, their IT resources become increasingly dynamic and hybrid in nature. Managing these require modern IT operations and tools. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Raj Sundaram, Senior Principal Product Manager at CA Technologies, will discuss how to modernize your IT operations in order to proactively manage your hybrid cloud and IT environments. He will be sharing bes...
SYS-CON Events announced today that CollabNet, a global leader in enterprise software development, release automation and DevOps solutions, will be a Bronze Sponsor of SYS-CON's 20th International Cloud Expo®, taking place from June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. CollabNet offers a broad range of solutions with the mission of helping modern organizations deliver quality software at speed. The company’s latest innovation, the DevOps Lifecycle Manager (DLM), supports Value S...
We all know that end users experience the internet primarily with mobile devices. From an app development perspective, we know that successfully responding to the needs of mobile customers depends on rapid DevOps – failing fast, in short, until the right solution evolves in your customers' relationship to your business. Whether you’re decomposing an SOA monolith, or developing a new application cloud natively, it’s not a question of using microservices - not doing so will be a path to eventual ...
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...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Fusion, a leading provider of cloud services, 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. Fusion, a leading provider of integrated cloud solutions to small, medium and large businesses, is the industry’s single source for the cloud. Fusion’s advanced, proprietary cloud service platform enables the integration of leading edge solutions in the cloud, including cloud...
SYS-CON Events announced today that HTBase 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. HTBase (Gartner 2016 Cool Vendor) delivers a Composable IT infrastructure solution architected for agility and increased efficiency. It turns compute, storage, and fabric into fluid pools of resources that are easily composed and re-composed to meet each application’s needs. With HTBase, companies can quickly prov...
@DevOpsSummit at Cloud taking place June 6-8, 2017, at Javits Center, New York City, is co-located with the 20th International Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to wait for long developm...
With 10 simultaneous tracks, keynotes, general sessions and targeted breakout classes, Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo are two of the most important technology events of the year. Since its launch over eight years ago, Cloud Expo and @ThingsExpo have presented a rock star faculty as well as showcased hundreds of sponsors and exhibitors! In this blog post, I provide 7 tips on how, as part of our world-class faculty, you can deliver one of the most popular sessions at our events. But before reading the...
The purpose of this article is draw attention to key SaaS services that are commonly overlooked during contact signing that are essential to ensuring they meet the expectations and requirements of the organization and provide guidance and recommendations for process and controls necessary for achieving quality SaaS contractual agreements.
SYS-CON Events announced today that OpsGenie 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. Founded in 2012, OpsGenie is an alerting and on-call management solution for dev and ops teams. OpsGenie provides the tools needed to design actionable alerts, manage on-call schedules and escalations, and ensure that the right people are notified at the right time, using multiple notification methods.