Aug 4, 2020 9:22:30 AM

Manual vs. Automated Certificate Management

X.509 certificate management involves the processes and procedures for buying, deploying, renewing, and revoking certificates in a network of connected applications, servers, systems, or other network parts. Practically all browser clients and server applications test the certificate's validity before connecting to the specified domain. When a web browser detects an expired certificate, a message prompts the user, warning an insecure server.

Some browsers allow the user to continue connecting to the site by clicking through the prompt, while users behind a firewall may be completely blocked. These warnings often confuse the average web user, causing some of them to question the company's reputation they are attempting to visit.

Trust makes a difference in the world when it comes to online business. Investment in customer protection technology is crucial to the success of digital transactions and the hosting of an e-commerce website. The functional application of SSL certificates and the effective positioning and use of trust marks are established methods for the establishment of consumer security. For the most part, the SSL/TLS security standard offers the means to protect the safety of electronic communications and to inform consumers and partners.

Simply put: when users see the familiar padlock symbol, they trust that their sensitive and confidential information is protected.

The Importance of Automated Certificate Management

Although most web browsers show a warning message when encountering an expired certificate, it only confuses the end-users as they end up doubting the credibility of the website itself. Some applications even terminate connections abruptly when they encounter expired certificates, which again does not augur well for the reliability of the service. All of this can lead to loss of revenue and ultimately affect the brand value of the service. Hence, it is crucial to implement an automated digital certificate solution in your organization.

What level is your automated certificate management? 

Find My Level

While digital certificates work reliably when properly configured and deployed, many organizations don't automate their certificate management processes. Some organizations find it necessary to fine-tune the industry's recommended best practices to accommodate for different PKI use cases within the boundaries of their specific PKI's standards and policies.

However, despite numerous security specialists', like NIST, publishing guidance for organizations to automating certificate management to minimize human error and maximize efficiency, it is still quite common to see some organizations following ad hoc processes that allow users to create Certificate Signing Requests(CSR) and issue certificates manually.

No matter the use case, the life cycle of the certificate requires careful management. The following are typical stages of a digital certificate's lifecycle:

  • Request or renewal: the initial request for a signed digital certificate or renewal of a certificate is due to expire.
  • Approval: the approval or rejection of a request based on the information provided.
  • Generation and deployment: the generation and distribution of a digital certificate, with the requested attributes.
  • Usage and monitor the configuration of the certificate server, real-time monitoring, and reporting of certificate status and time until expiration.

Note: The digital certificate expires and the end of the requested usage period, or it might be revoked by an administrator for any valid reason.

  • Revocation: A digital certificate can be revoked for the following reasons:
    • Key compromised
    • CA compromised
    • SSL replaced
    • Domain owner changes
    • Domain not in use

What happens if your digital certificate is revoked or expires?

Certificate revocation and renewal are essential tasks in certificate management. CA issues a certificate with a limited validity period. However, the certificate may become bad before expiry due to the compromise of its key.

In such a case, the certificate needs to be revoked and renewed before expiry. Another reason for revoking a certificate before expiry is a change in the user's name, company, or any other information in the certificate.

Revocation of such a certificate is done either manually or automatically through a certificate revocation list. The unexpected expiration or revocation of a single certificate can present a business with entirely avoidable security risks, lost revenue, and potential brand damage. When a certificate expires, the authentication process no longer works because the verification of the certificates fails, resulting in disruption to applications or, in more extreme circumstances, can lead to outages of IT services.

In a 2020 study sponsored by Keyfactor, the Ponemon Institute surveyed 596 IT and IT security practitioners in the United States and found that 74% of respondents said that digital certificates caused unanticipated downtime outages. While 46% of respondents believe that the top priority in minimizing the risk of unsecured digital identities is to know the expiry date.

Another common cause of certificate-related server outages results from human-errors made while manually managing certificates. 

Mismanaged certificates can allow hackers to spoof content or perform denial-of-service, phishing, and man-in-the-middle attacks. To impersonate public domains, applications, and trusted networks, attackers infiltrate public or internal CAs and issue unauthorized rogue certificates. Now all certificates issued in that CAs trust chain are compromised and must be withdrawn because they no longer have verifiable integrity.

Risks of Manual Certificate Management

When growing organizations start using ad hoc and manual digital management approaches — usually varying by department and function — the inventory can quickly become too large to ensure security against the risks of disruptions. 

Unfortunately, the spreadsheet itself cannot be automatically updated basis of new information and legislation. It won't inform you until the certificate expires. It can't double-check to make sure what's entered inside its cells is accurate and up-to-date. While certainly better than trying to memorize your certs expiration dates, spreadsheets still are seriously error-prone and add unnecessary risk to your company's and clients' confidential information.

Your certificates are of great value. The security of your application or the security of your data can be compromised in the wrong hands. Manual digital processes and rogue purchases push up costs and trigger security events that turn into costly, even disastrous, outages.

Similarly, unanticipated events (e.g. Heartbleed bug, accelerated end-of-life SHA-1 hashing) requiring rapid replacement of certificates is almost impossible to respond to the use of decentralized and manual management systems.

Organizations are unable to manually replace large numbers of certificates in response to large-scale cryptographic incidents, such as CA compromises, promptly. Proactively, organizations should work to automate certificate management wherever possible for the enrollment, installation, monitoring, and replacement of certificates or justification should be seriously reconsidered for continuing to use manual methods that may cause operational security risks.

Automated procedures help resolve many of the issues of manual management.

Traditionally used to secure enterprise system resources, digital certificates have become an essential security element of any website. These days, certificates are far too vital to be handled in an ad hoc, manual fashion. A robust PKI certificate management application is now an IT essential. In fact, few business processes are as important as effective enterprise certificate management.

Historically, many organizations have found it challenging to transition from manual to automated methods—though the move to automation can significantly reduce their work and risk. However, new automation tools (e.g., DevOps) and protocols have increased the methods and options by which automated certificate management can be successfully performed. Consequently, organizations should define clear guidelines and policies for automation and when continued manual control is justified due to operational or organizational constraints.

Benefits of automated certificate management

Certificates can be required throughout each stage of the application development, testing, and implementation lifecycle. Delays in generation can affect subsequent activities. Centralized and automated certificate management offers several essential features:

  • Event-Driven Automation: workflow-based automation for multi-step processes.
  • Document Signing Certificates: management of certificates used for digitally signing official documents.
  • Alerts and Monitoring: offer constant visibility and expiration alerting for certificate groups.
  • API-based integration: offers seamless integration with the Rapid7 vulnerability management system.
  • Self-service Portal: personnel can carry out certificate processes themselves via the portal.
  • Full-cycle Certificate Management: centralized certificate processes like renewal, revocation, provisioning, and more.

Importing

Every certificate can then be automatically imported and backed up into the industry-leading, fully integrated enterprise solution, enabling your organization to recover valuable data encrypted by the original user. Auto-importing from a system directory or CSV file streamlines client certificate distribution and helps manage the certificate management through custom workflows.

Tracking

Managing the full range of digital certificates is a critical yet challenging responsibility. Since many digital certificates could be distributed across an organization, it can be difficult to manually track certificate expiry. Automated tracking of digital certificate expiry helps you renew certificates proactively and lower the likelihood of website failures and service downtime caused by invalid digital certificates.

Administration

Automated certificate management was designed to significantly reduce administrative obstacles and security deployment times, producing clear and immediate improvements to your security infrastructure and costs. With certificate automation, you can add administrators to the PKI account, each with their access control details and permissions.  

Monitoring

Automated event log monitoring is a crucial part of certificate management. Many compromised keys could be discovered early if the victims enacted appropriate event log monitoring and alerting. Administrators logs should be monitored for creating, modifying, or deleting user or computer accounts, security groups, or distribution groups; when renaming, disabling, or activating a user or computer account; or when modifying a user or computer password.

Accountability

Accountability is the key to demonstrate to auditors that certificates are managed across the enterprise following the enterprise's defined policies. The accountability of digital certificates is essential to verify that processes related to digital certification can be monitored to detect anomalies. Besides, quantifiable accountability and monitoring can be used to measure and report activity levels compared to the lifecycle and to use trending to predict activity levels within the lifecycle.

When to switch to automated certificate management

The simple answer, as soon as possible. While SMBs may have only a few certificates to manage, growing enterprises have a different set of problems. Visibility is one of the main obstacles growing companies face. If you can't see all your certificates, there's no way you can replace them before expiring.

As the velocity of domains, apps, devices, and certificate usage continues to ramp up—you need a better, scalable way to manage it all. And it just gestures further as digital transformation extends to projects in the cloud, web, and IoT. Hence, full certificate discovery is the first step towards any strong security posture. An automated certificates scanning tool identifies and monitors for rogue certificates by reviewing certificate activity logs.

The auto cert-management solution creates a comprehensive view of all certificates through Auto-Discovery, which scans the entire network and discovers every certificate. For example, Keyfactor Certificate Automation has been tested and proven to scale even in the most dynamic and demanding PKI environments-from 500 to 500M+ certificates-all with a single subscription license.

Comments