Welcome!

Microservices Expo Authors: Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Carmen Gonzalez, Pat Romanski, 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
In the world of DevOps there are ‘known good practices’ – aka ‘patterns’ – and ‘known bad practices’ – aka ‘anti-patterns.' Many of these patterns and anti-patterns have been developed from real world experience, especially by the early adopters of DevOps theory; but many are more feasible in theory than in practice, especially for more recent entrants to the DevOps scene. In this power panel at @DevOpsSummit at 18th Cloud Expo, moderated by DevOps Conference Chair Andi Mann, panelists discusse...
When people aren’t talking about VMs and containers, they’re talking about serverless architecture. Serverless is about no maintenance. It means you are not worried about low-level infrastructural and operational details. An event-driven serverless platform is a great use case for IoT. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Animesh Singh, an STSM and Lead for IBM Cloud Platform and Infrastructure, will detail how to build a distributed serverless, polyglot, microservices framework using open source tec...
Cloud Expo, Inc. has announced today that Andi Mann returns to 'DevOps at Cloud Expo 2016' as Conference Chair The @DevOpsSummit at Cloud Expo will take place on November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. "DevOps is set to be one of the most profound disruptions to hit IT in decades," said Andi Mann. "It is a natural extension of cloud computing, and I have seen both firsthand and in independent research the fantastic results DevOps delivers. So I am excited t...
More and more companies are looking to microservices as an architectural pattern for breaking apart applications into more manageable pieces so that agile teams can deliver new features quicker and more effectively. What this pattern has done more than anything to date is spark organizational transformations, setting the foundation for future application development. In practice, however, there are a number of considerations to make that go beyond simply “build, ship, and run,” which changes ho...
Gartner is now treating algorithms like they are some kind of innovative addition to the modern digital discussion. Presumably the brilliant minds there have some novel insight into algorithms and, yes, the Algorithm Economy that CIOs should sit up and take notice of. Not only are algorithms nothing new, but much of what Gartner is saying about them is obvious. The bigger picture here is that software continues to improve, and enterprises are becoming increasingly software-driven, in part bec...
The Internet of Things is clearly many things: data collection and analytics, wearables, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, the Industrial Internet, and more. Cool platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel's Galileo and Edison, and a diverse world of sensors are making the IoT a great toy box for developers in all these areas. In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists discussed what things are the most important, which will have the most profound...
The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing rapidly by extending current technologies, products and networks. By 2020, Cisco estimates there will be 50 billion connected devices. Gartner has forecast revenues of over $300 billion, just to IoT suppliers. Now is the time to figure out how you’ll make money – not just create innovative products. With hundreds of new products and companies jumping into the IoT fray every month, there’s no shortage of innovation. Despite this, McKinsey/VisionMobile data...
NHK, Japan Broadcasting, will feature the upcoming @ThingsExpo Silicon Valley in a special 'Internet of Things' and smart technology documentary that will be filmed on the expo floor between November 3 to 5, 2015, in Santa Clara. NHK is the sole public TV network in Japan equivalent to the BBC in the UK and the largest in Asia with many award-winning science and technology programs. Japanese TV is producing a documentary about IoT and Smart technology and will be covering @ThingsExpo Silicon Val...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Men & Mice, the leading global provider of DNS, DHCP and IP address management overlay solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. The Men & Mice Suite overlay solution is already known for its powerful application in heterogeneous operating environments, enabling enterprises to scale without fuss. Building on a solid range of diverse platform support,...
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place June 7-9, 2016 at Javits Center, New York City and Nov 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with the 18th International @CloudExpo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world and ThingsExpo New York Call for Papers is now open.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Catchpoint Systems, Inc., a provider of innovative web and infrastructure monitoring solutions, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's DevOps Summit at 18th Cloud Expo New York, which will take place June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Catchpoint is a leading Digital Performance Analytics company that provides unparalleled insight into customer-critical services to help consistently deliver an amazing customer experience. Designed...
@DevOpsSummit taking place June 7-9, 2016 at Javits Center, New York City, and Nov 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with the 18th International @CloudExpo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world.
Cloud Expo, Inc. has announced today that Andi Mann returns to 'DevOps at Cloud Expo 2016' as Conference Chair The @DevOpsSummit at Cloud Expo will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York. "DevOps is set to be one of the most profound disruptions to hit IT in decades," said Andi Mann. "It is a natural extension of cloud computing, and I have seen both firsthand and in independent research the fantastic results DevOps delivers. So I am excited to help the g...
Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) will feature the upcoming 18th Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo in a New York news documentary about the "New IT for the Future." The documentary will cover how big companies are transmitting or adopting the new IT for the future and will be filmed on the expo floor between June 7-June 9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, New York. KBS has long been a leader in the development of the broadcasting culture of Korea. As the key public service broadcaster of Korea...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Addteq will exhibit at SYS-CON's @DevOpsSummit at Cloud Expo New York, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Addteq is one of the top 10 Platinum Atlassian Experts who specialize in DevOps, custom and continuous integration, automation, plugin development, and consulting for midsize and global firms. Addteq firmly believes that automation is essential for successful software releases. Addteq centers its products a...
In the rush to compete in the digital age, a successful digital transformation is essential, but many organizations are setting themselves up for failure. There’s a common misconception that the process is just about technology, but it’s not. It’s about your business. It shouldn’t be treated as an isolated IT project; it should be driven by business needs with the committed involvement of a range of stakeholders.
SYS-CON Events announced today that FalconStor Software® Inc., a 15-year innovator of software-defined storage solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 18th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. FalconStor Software®, Inc. (NASDAQ: FALC) is a leading software-defined storage company offering a converged, hardware-agnostic, software-defined storage and data services platform. Its flagship solution FreeStor®, utilizes a horizonta...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing IoT strategies, now is the perfect time to attend @ThingsExpo 2016 in New York and Silicon Valley. 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 Nov 3-5, 2015, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 17th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Column Technologies will exhibit at SYS-CON's @DevOpsSummit at Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Established in 1998, Column Technologies is a global technology solutions provider with over 400 employees, headquartered in the United States with offices in Canada, India, and the United Kingdom. Column Technologies provides “Best of Breed” technology solutions that automate the key DevOps principal...
SYS-CON Events announced today that SoftLayer, an IBM Company, has been named “Gold Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 18th Cloud Expo, which will take place on June 7-9, 2016, at the Javits Center in New York, New York. SoftLayer, an IBM Company, provides cloud infrastructure as a service from a growing number of data centers and network points of presence around the world. SoftLayer’s customers range from Web startups to global enterprises.