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Blog Post Jun 11, 2024

Risks of poor PKI management

Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is essential for businesses to maintain data security and protect digital communications. However, implementing a PKI is just the first step—you must support it with proper ongoing management to reap the benefits and prevent security exposures.

Table of Contents

This post shows you what effective PKI management entails, the risks of not implementing the right tools and processes, and the PKI best practices for minimizing security exposures, operational inefficiencies, and regulatory violations.

What is PKI management?

PKI is a framework for managing digital keys and certificates to secure communication, provide authentication, and ensure data integrity. It includes components such as Certificate Authorities (CAs), digital certificates, public-private key pairs, certificate issuance and revocation procedures, and Certificate Lifecycle Management (CLM) processes.

PKI management consists of tasks and security protocols to support a robust and efficient PKI. It involves creating, authenticating, distributing, storing, and revoking digital certificates and their public-private key pairs. It also includes defining and enforcing policies and procedures for key generation and certificate issuance and revocation. Additionally, regular audits help ensure compliance and detect potential issues. 

PKI management is critical for securing digital communications, ensuring data confidentiality and integrity, and authenticating the identity of users, devices, and services. A robust PKI establishes trust in online transactions, interactions, and communications. It also allows organizations to meet regulatory and compliance requirements by implementing modern cybersecurity measures like encryption and authentication.

The risks of improper PKI management

Proper PKI management is essential for reaping the benefits of a PKI while avoiding security issues. Here are some of the top risks a well-defined PKI management strategy can mitigate:

Security vulnerability and data breaches

Poor PKI management poses various data security risks, such as unauthorized access, data tampering or integrity issues, man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, identity spoofing, impersonation, data theft, compromised confidential information, and compliance violation. These risks may result in financial losses, legal ramifications, fraud, incorrect decisions, loss of productivity, and damages to your organization's reputation. 

These vulnerabilities and breaches may stem from unauthorized certificate issuance, errors and misconfigurations, weak cryptographic algorithms, and compromised private keys. Additionally, manual certification management processes can cause mistakes and delays that may lead to security vulnerabilities.

Operational challenges

Without well-orchestrated PKI management protocols and processes, organizations risk operational issues like service disruptions, inadequate authentication and authorization, violation of compliance requirements, operational inefficiencies, and the eventual need for costly remediation. Outages may impact productivity and erode customer trust, while inefficiencies may increase IT workload and impact your organization's ability to respond to changing market demand.

Outdated methodologies and inefficient CLM involving manual processes may cause these issues. Additionally, the lack of complete visibility into and control of your certificate landscape can allow attackers to use rogue certificates against your company through tactics like impersonation and MITM attacks.

Compliance and legal risks

Improper PKI management may also lead to compliance challenges and legal consequences. News of lawsuits, breaches, and penalties can impact your organization's reputation. This, in turn, can erode customer trust, cause you to lose business, and introduce far-reaching financial consequences. Meanwhile, regulatory intervention often disrupts normal business operations and diverts resources from growing the organization.

Compliance issues can be caused by insufficient identity verification, insecure key storage, outdated encryption mechanisms, poorly defined PKI rules and procedures, inadequate enforcement of PKI policies, and failure to update PKI management protocols to align with the latest regulatory requirements.

How to implement PKI best practices

These PKI management best practices can help you minimize the risks of security vulnerabilities, operational inefficiencies, and non-compliance with regulations and standards:

1. Be agile

The fast-shifting cybersecurity landscape means organizations must stay vigilant by constantly adapting to new attack techniques and updating their PKI standards to protect their infrastructure. Introduce flexibility into your policy and procedure update process. Use automation technology to help you implement rule-based enforcement, promptly respond to regulatory changes, and provide rapid incident response.

2. Implement clear policies and procedures

To stay agile, establish well-defined policies and procedures to ensure everyone involved in PKI and certificate management understands and follows the rules. By maintaining control over your PKI, you can create a holistic PKI management strategy, take proactive actions to mitigate risks, and pivot your tactics through automation.

3. Conduct regular audits and reviews

Perform annual audits on all PKI components to ensure proper implementation and adherence to your policies and procedures. Also, create an audit trail to support monitoring, compliance, and reporting. During your audits, look for suspicious or unauthorized events, including unauthorized changes to CA security settings, revocation of a significant number of certificates within a short period, or changes to the audit filter settings for the CA. 

4. Hire skilled IT professionals

PKI management requires specific skillsets and knowledge. Hire IT professionals with security expertise to help you effectively mitigate risks, ensure compliance, and optimize performance. Additionally, these experts can educate the rest of your IT team on PKI management best practices to foster a culture of security awareness in the organization.

5. Protect CA and private keys

Ensuring CA and private keys are protected is critical for maintaining the security and trustworthiness of a PKI. PKI is a chain of trust, and at the top, there is a root CA. If the root CA is compromised, every certificate in the PKI becomes compromised and must be revoked and reissued. Meanwhile, compromised private keys make encrypted communications vulnerable to decryption by unauthorized entities, leading to a breach of confidentiality.

Store private keys in a Hardware Security Module (HSM) that is certified for FIPS 140-2. Automate regular key rotation (e.g., every 90 days) to increase security while minimizing administrative complexity. Also, manually rotate a key if you suspect it's compromised or migrate an application to a more robust key algorithm. 

6. Implement a certificate revocation process

Certificate revocation is essential for preventing unauthorized entities from using compromised private keys to impersonate the legitimate certificate holder. It also ensures that terminated employees can no longer access sensitive data and mitigates the risk of data breaches if suspicious activities are detected.

Use Certificate Revocation Lists (CRLs) or implement the Online Certificate Status Protocol (OCSP) to check a certificate's revocation status. Automate the revocation checking process and integrate it with your Identity and Access Management (IAM) system for real-time response to changes in access privileges. 

7. Consider the entire certificate lifecycle

The certificate lifecycle encompasses various activities, from certificate enrollment and distribution to renewal, revocation, or destruction. Every stage is essential for ensuring the security and integrity of digital certificates and the PKI. Establishing a holistic view of your certificate landscape and processes allows you to enhance security measures, mitigate risks, stay compliant, and improve operational cost-efficiency. 

The right tools and systems are critical for managing thousands of digital certificates, and an integrated CLM platform like Sectigo Certificate Manager consolidates end-to-end certificate lifecycle management into a centralized and comprehensive solution. By automating PKI management, you can eliminate human errors and delays to minimize the risks of security vulnerabilities and service outages—especially with increasingly shorter certificate lifespans.

Find the right managed PKI solution

Proper PKI management is necessary for preventing security vulnerabilities, data breaches, operational inefficiencies, service disruptions, and legal and financial consequences from regulatory violations. However, manual processes are no longer sufficient for enterprises managing thousands (or tens of thousands) of digital certificates.

A managed PKI solution gives you access to experts in PKI management via a centralized platform. It simplifies administration and allows for effective policy enforcement, streamlined operations, and efficient CLM. Because it's cloud-based, it eliminates the need to invest in hardware and infrastructure. Most importantly, you can implement the latest tools and best practices to automate workflows for timely renewals and prevent vulnerabilities while eliminating costly human errors.

Sectigo’s managed PKI services, which support the most robust, simplest, and most cost-effective form of end-to-end authentication, help organizations implement private PKI for issuing and managing privately trusted certificates across the enterprise. Learn more and start a free trial to experience the most efficient way to automate the management of human and machine identities.

Want to learn more? Get in touch to book a demo of Sectigo Certificate Manager!