The Importance of Machine Identity Management for DevOps
August 29, 2023

Christian Simko

There's tremendous pressure on DevOps teams to deliver business-critical applications and services with speed and agility. As a result, DevOps teams will often take the path of least resistance to meeting deadlines, even if it means taking security shortcuts.

One such example is the provisioning and management of digital certificates may stray from enterprise-wide PKI policy which can expose security weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Recent findings from a study conducted by Enterprise Management Associates(EMA) highlight some concerning trends, especially with respect to DevOps practices for managing SSL/TLS certificates.

According to the EMA report: nearly 80% of TLS certificates on the internet are vulnerable to Man in the Middle (MiM) attacks, while up to 25% of all certificates are expired at any given time. This has significant implications, particularly for business-critical applications and cloud services, where such vulnerabilities can have catastrophic outcomes.

Key insights from the survey:

■ A vast majority (79%) of SSL certificates in use today are still susceptible to man-in-the-middle attacks as they don't utilize TLS 1.3.

■ Alarmingly, up to 25% of certificates on the internet pose a direct security threat due to expiration (10%) or being self-signed (15%), which is not deemed secure for publicly accessible platforms.

■ Almost half (45%) of IP addresses exposed to top 10 vulnerabilities also had either expired certificates or were self-signed.

■ Notably, .org, .com, and .mil top the list of Generic Top-Level Domains with the most expired certificates.

Ken Buckler, CASP, Director of Information Security Research for EMA who conducted the survey, believes the high volume of expired and self-signed certificates is a wake-up call for organizations to automate certificate management, especially in light of Google's 90-day certificate expiration proposal.

Impact of Manual Certificate Management on DevOps

Reliance on manual certificate management poses serious obstacles to the smooth running of DevOps practices. Firstly, manual processes are prone to errors, leading to the deployment of applications and services with expired or incorrectly configured certificates. This not only puts the entire infrastructure at risk but also necessitates costly and time-consuming remediation efforts.

Secondly, the rapid pace of DevOps cycles means there's a constant need to issue, renew, and revoke certificates. Handling this manually makes it challenging to keep up with the rapid development and deployment cycles, thereby slowing down the entire process and negating the efficiency and agility advantages of DevOps.

Lastly, manual certificate management often leads to inconsistent application of security policies. Without a centralized oversight, different teams may adopt varied standards, leaving some systems more vulnerable than others. This inconsistency makes the entire infrastructure a prime target for cyber attackers who are always on the lookout for weak links.

DevOps practices emphasize continuous improvement, development and deployment, which is only viable when the infrastructure that underpins it is trustworthy and secure. In an environment where rapid deployment of applications and cloud services is the norm, the state of machine identity management should be a primary concern. Improper provisioning and management of machine identities and digital certificates can open new threat vectors that cyberattackers can use to breach systems, disrupt business services and steal sensitive data and information.

The EMA report illustrates that many organizations still overlook the importance of machine identity management in their DevOps practices. When giants like Cisco, WhatsApp, and StarLink face certificate expiration incidents, it's a clear signal that the industry at large needs to revisit its strategies.

The solution lies in the very principles that guide DevOps: automation. It is vital for preventing critical outages and ensuring robust security. Automation of machine identity management can ensure that certificates are kept up to date, helping organizations maintain compliance and avoid vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit.

To automate machine identity management, consider these best practices:

■ Regularly Audit: Conduct periodic audits of machine identities and certificates to ensure they adhere to organizational policies.

■ Centralize Certificate Storage: Store all machine identity certificates and keys in a centralized and encrypted database to facilitate easy management.

■ Implement Tools: Utilize a certificate lifecycle management platform to automate certificate generation, renewal, and deployment.

■ Set Alerts: Establish a notification system for approaching expiration dates, ensuring timely renewals.

■ Integrate with DevOps: Integrate machine identity automation with existing DevOps pipelines to streamline processes.

■ Maintain a Backup: Always keep a backup of certificates and keys, ensuring quick recovery during emergencies.

The findings of the EMA report underscore the urgent need to strengthen machine identity security, particularly in DevOps environments. With business growth depending on available and secure applications and services, the automation of machine identity management is necessary to ensure the security and reliability of an interconnected world.

Christian Simko is VP of Product Marketing at AppViewX
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