Welcome!

@CloudExpo Authors: Liz McMillan, Elizabeth White, Pat Romanski, Cameron Van Orman, Flint Brenton

Related Topics: @CloudExpo, Cloud Security, @BigDataExpo

@CloudExpo: Article

The Blind Spot of the Security Industry | @CloudExpo #Cloud #Security

The SSH protocol is not well understood by the majority of people, much like the subprime loan market

The Blind Spot of the Security Industry: SSH User Keys

More than 95 percent of the world's enterprises rely on SSH user keys to provide administrators and developers an effective means of gaining encrypted access to critical infrastructure: operating systems, applications, payment processing systems, databases, human resource and financial systems, routers, switches, firewalls and other network devices. It is a lifeline of traffic flow within our data centers, our cloud environments and how our third-party vendors and supply chain access our environments. It has done its job quietly and efficiently over the last two decades. Unfortunately, the access that SSH has been providing, in particular the access SSH user keys provide, has gone largely unmanaged - to an epic degree.

There's an unfortunate parallel here to a recent Oscar-winning film based on the events that took down Wall Street in 2008: The Big Short. Iconoclastic investor Michael Burry discovered that the subprime home loans market was headed for default. He bet more than $1 billion against the housing industry - an unprecedented move. Sadly, for everyone but him and his investors, Burry was right.

Just as Wall Street had the blind spot when it came to subprime loans, the security industry has a blind spot regarding SSH protocol and SSH user keys. In fact, there are three parallels between the movie's plot and the current state of SSH management:

  • Lack of understanding about the problem and its severity
  • How challenging oversight of the problem is
  • How significant the impact or consequences are of not addressing the problem

A Real and Far-Reaching Problem
The SSH protocol is not well understood by the majority of people, much like the subprime loan market. In fact, very few understand in sufficient detail the underlying critical access it is providing to our most important infrastructure. In this case, however, ignorance is not bliss.

For instance, in a typical financial enterprise with 20,000 Unix/Linux servers, one can expect to find up to 4 million SSH user keys providing interactive and machine-to-machine-based access. In many cases, 10 to 20 percent of these keys provide root-level access and cannot be associated to an owner within the enterprise. Root-level access is the highest level of privilege at an operating system level. It is not just a compliance and risk issue. It is an issue of resilience that has the opportunity to impact the potential downtime of critical services within operations.

Oversight and Governance Are Difficult or Non-Existent
Chiefly because SSH has long been seen as an encryption protocol rather than a means of access, this problem has gone unnoticed for a long time. As a result, it has not been considered as a part of the access governance processes and frameworks. In fact, up until October 2015, there were no NIST guidelines related to the best practices associated with SSH user key-based access.

HIPAA, SOX, PCI and other regulatory guidelines do mention access controls, such as least privilege and segregation of duties, but none of them specifically address SSH user keys as a form of access that needs to be controlled. Is this due to a lack of understanding of SSH or an unwillingness to open Pandora's Box?

In terms of the lack oversight and governance of SSH user key-based access, there are three technical aspects that must be considered. First, SSH user keys are the only form of access a user can provision themselves without oversight or control. Unlike passwords, an administrator, developer or third-party vendor can provision themselves with access to your critical infrastructure or automate a process or file transfer. This process of provisioning, de-provisioning and recertification of SSH user key-based access is infrequently if never addressed in the IAM frameworks of enterprises.

The second consideration is that SSH user keys don't have expiration dates, in contrast to certificates. This means that SSH user key-based access continues to exist, even after an application is decommissioned or a user leaves the company.

And the third consideration: an SSH user key does not need to be associated to a user account. This means a key will not necessarily establish the identity of the user associated with it. When an SSH user key is generated, the identity that associated is not connected.

Taken together, here's what these considerations mean. A user can provision SSH user key-based access themselves without oversight to my most critical infrastructure. This key-based access does not expire. It's not clear which identity it's associated with, and there are millions of these across an enterprise, which no one has an inventory of, and they are providing access to the most critical systems.

The Ramifications Are Significant
There is an additional cause for concern in addition to the lack of understanding of the technical aspects of the SSH protocol and the lack of regulatory oversight and governance of SSH user key-based access. SSH is the malicious actor's (either a rogue insider or hacker) tool of choice, and it is the primary means by which they move laterally within an enterprise to gain access to new assets and further elevate privilege, as well as how they exfiltrate data and assets from an organization. In fact, LightCyber's Cyberweapons 2016 Report indicates that in over 50 percent of the cases, the SSH protocol is the tool of choice to gain this lateral movement across the assets of an enterprise.

It's also important to factor in the reality that bad actors are aware that SSH user keys are not being managed. As a result, they go after private keys to gain access to assets. From there, they will often create new key pairs, which will generate them access to the outside directly or move those assets automatically to servers in the cloud. This is all achieved using something called "port forwarding" via "SSH tunneling," which would allow the malicious actor to extract this data via the encryption itself, rendering firewalls ineffective.

This kind of activity takes place right within our defensive structures. Why? Because we don't know who owns the keys to attain that encrypted access and because we are not able to look inside the encryption of those sessions. The potential impact is clear. We lose our data - or worse, our customer's data. We lose our intellectual property. We lose our reputation, we lose our brand and, in turn, we lose revenue and shareholder value.

The financial implications are clear here, but there's another implication that's at least as serious: operational resilience. The potential downtime in critical systems, should SSH user key-based access to those systems be compromised, is a concern we need to seriously consider. Our disaster recovery systems, which are failovers to our production systems, often share identical SSH user keys that ensure the processes of those systems fail over in an identical manner. This means that any compromised keys in production environments can also equally affect the failover to disaster recovery systems.

Clear Parallels Pointing to Danger
Let's circle back to the similarities between what's going on with SSH user key management and the events leading up to the housing crisis. The parallels are uncanny. There's a lack of market understanding around the power of the SSH protocol and the criticality of the access it provides to our infrastructures. There's a gap in regulatory and governing oversight of how this SSH user key-based access should be monitored, provisioned, de-provisioned and recertified. There's an encrypted protocol, which malicious actors use as their tool of choice to extend their access and reach within our enterprises, create backdoors and exfiltrate data. As a result, there's a potential financial, operational and brand impact that can conservatively be described as significant to our businesses.

Poor SSH user key management may not send all organizations using SSH into a rapid downward spiral that obliterates most of them, but it can still result in devastating damage to any organization that's ignored this issue.

More Stories By Matthew McKenna

Matthew McKenna is Chief Strategy Officer and vice president of Key Accounts at SSH Communications Security. He brings over 15 years of high technology sales, marketing and management experience to SSH Communications Security and drives strategy, key account sales and evangelism. His expertise in strategically delivering technology solutions that anticipate the marketplace has helped the company become a market leader.

Prior to joining the company, Matthew served as a member of the executive management team of ADP Dealer Services Nordic and Automaster Oy, where he was responsible for international channel operations and manufacturer relations. In addition, he was responsible for key accounts including Mercedes Benz, General Motors, and Scania CV. Before this, he played professional soccer in Germany and Finland.

Matthew holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in German from the University of South Carolina and an MBA from the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration.

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.


@CloudExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Keisoku Research Consultant Co. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Keisoku Research Consultant, Co. offers research and consulting in a wide range of civil engineering-related fields from information construction to preservation of cultural properties. For more information, vi...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Interface Corporation will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Interface Corporation is a company developing, manufacturing and marketing high quality and wide variety of industrial computers and interface modules such as PCIs and PCI express. For more information, visit http://www.i...
SYS-CON Events announced today that MIRAI Inc. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MIRAI Inc. are IT consultants from the public sector whose mission is to solve social issues by technology and innovation and to create a meaningful future for people.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Fusic will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Fusic Co. provides mocks as virtual IoT devices. You can customize mocks, and get any amount of data at any time in your test. For more information, visit https://fusic.co.jp/english/.
As businesses evolve, they need technology that is simple to help them succeed today and flexible enough to help them build for tomorrow. Chrome is fit for the workplace of the future — providing a secure, consistent user experience across a range of devices that can be used anywhere. In her session at 21st Cloud Expo, Vidya Nagarajan, a Senior Product Manager at Google, will take a look at various options as to how ChromeOS can be leveraged to interact with people on the devices, and formats ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Taica will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Taica manufacturers Alpha-GEL brand silicone components and materials, which maintain outstanding performance over a wide temperature range -40C to +200C. For more information, visit http://www.taica.co.jp/english/.
Join IBM November 1 at 21st Cloud Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, and learn how IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Cognitive analysis impacts today’s systems with unparalleled ability that were previously available only to manned, back-end operations. Thanks to cloud processing, IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Imagine a robot vacuum that becomes your personal assistant th...
In his session at @ThingsExpo, Greg Gorman is the Director, IoT Developer Ecosystem, Watson IoT, will provide a short tutorial on Node-RED, a Node.js-based programming tool for wiring together hardware devices, APIs and online services in new and interesting ways. It provides a browser-based editor that makes it easy to wire together flows using a wide range of nodes in the palette that can be deployed to its runtime in a single-click. There is a large library of contributed nodes that help so...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Daiya Industry will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Daiya Industry specializes in orthotic support systems and assistive devices with pneumatic artificial muscles in order to contribute to an extended healthy life expectancy. For more information, please visit https://www.daiyak...
Many companies start their journey to the cloud in the DevOps environment, where software engineers want self-service access to the custom tools and frameworks they need. Machine learning technology can help IT departments keep up with these demands. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Ajay Gulati, Co-Founder, CTO and Board Member at ZeroStack, will discuss the use of machine learning for automating provisioning of DevOps resources, taking the burden off IT teams.
What is the best strategy for selecting the right offshore company for your business? In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Alan Winters, U.S. Head of Business Development at MobiDev, will discuss the things to look for - positive and negative - in evaluating your options. He will also discuss how to maximize productivity with your offshore developers. Before you start your search, clearly understand your business needs and how that impacts software choices.
Most of the time there is a lot of work involved to move to the cloud, and most of that isn't really related to AWS or Azure or Google Cloud. Before we talk about public cloud vendors and DevOps tools, there are usually several technical and non-technical challenges that are connected to it and that every company needs to solve to move to the cloud. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Stefano Bellasio, CEO and founder of Cloud Academy Inc., will discuss what the tools, disciplines, and cultural...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Cedexis will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Cedexis is the leader in data-driven enterprise global traffic management. Whether optimizing traffic through datacenters, clouds, CDNs, or any combination, Cedexis solutions drive quality and cost-effectiveness.
SYS-CON Events announced today that SIGMA Corporation will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. uLaser flow inspection device from the Japanese top share to Global Standard! Then, make the best use of data to flip to next page. For more information, visit http://www.sigma-k.co.jp/en/.
Is advanced scheduling in Kubernetes achievable? Yes, however, how do you properly accommodate every real-life scenario that a Kubernetes user might encounter? How do you leverage advanced scheduling techniques to shape and describe each scenario in easy-to-use rules and configurations? In his session at @DevOpsSummit at 21st Cloud Expo, Oleg Chunikhin, CTO at Kublr, will answer these questions and demonstrate techniques for implementing advanced scheduling. For example, using spot instances ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Yuasa System will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Yuasa System is introducing a multi-purpose endurance testing system for flexible displays, OLED devices, flexible substrates, flat cables, and films in smartphones, wearables, automobiles, and healthcare.
SYS-CON Events announced today that B2Cloud will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. B2Cloud specializes in IoT devices for preventive and predictive maintenance in any kind of equipment retrieving data like Energy consumption, working time, temperature, humidity, pressure, etc.
Today traditional IT approaches leverage well-architected compute/networking domains to control what applications can access what data, and how. DevOps includes rapid application development/deployment leveraging concepts like containerization, third-party sourced applications and databases. Such applications need access to production data for its test and iteration cycles. Data Security? That sounds like a roadblock to DevOps vs. protecting the crown jewels to those in IT.
SYS-CON Events announced today that NetApp has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. NetApp is the data authority for hybrid cloud. NetApp provides a full range of hybrid cloud data services that simplify management of applications and data across cloud and on-premises environments to accelerate digital transformation. Together with their partners, NetApp em...
Why Federal cloud? What is in Federal Clouds and integrations? This session will identify the process and the FedRAMP initiative. But is it sufficient? What is the remedy for keeping abreast of cutting-edge technology? In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Rasananda Behera will examine the proposed solutions: Private or public or hybrid cloud Responsible governing bodies How can we accomplish?