Secure sockets layer (SSL) certificates are a critical component of your cybersecurity plan. These security certificates authenticate the identity of a website and allow for an encrypted connection between the server and the client. In doing so, a layer of protection is added to prevent hackers from gaining access to usernames, passwords, and other sensitive data being sent across the connection.
It’s easy to treat these certificates as “set it and forget it” solutions, as simple as buying a certificate from your preferred SSL certificate authority (CA). However, improperly managed SSL certificates can lead to significant issues. If an SSL certificate expires or is otherwise compromised, suddenly user data is being sent as unencrypted plaintext, which opens the door for cyberattacks.
How do you go about managing your certificates, though? Here are a few best practices to follow.
Understand the Importance of Certificates
The first step to successfully managing your SSL certificates is to understand the potential impact on your users and your business if certificate issues arise.
An expired certificate could cause significant downtime for your systems, which in turn could end up costing you a significant amount of revenue. And this is the least of your worries. A stolen certificate could be disastrous in the hands of an attacker as sensitive data is put at risk, which is also likely to tarnish your organization’s reputation.
Maintain Awareness of all Certificates
It’s vital that you are aware of every SSL certificate in your organization and know exactly where they are installed. A best practice is to regularly scan your network for certificates to create a map of what machine each one is connected to. Doing this will help identify expired or insecure SSL certificates.
Keep Inventory of Certificates
Just scanning for certificate locations is a good first step, but it needs to be taken a step further. The results of your scan need to be stored to keep your certificate inventory up to date. As part of your SSL certificate inventory plan, you may also want to group your certificates. This can be done based on the environment they’re used in—testing, production, etc.—or based on owner hierarchy.
It’s critical to define organizational policies, which are mandatory per NIST. Just defining policies is not enough, though. You need to ensure the policy is enforced, and the easiest way to do this is through automation. You should consider automating certificate renewal when they reach a certain point in their lifecycle. This will ensure certificates are renewed prior to expiration.
Protect Private Keys
The best way to protect private keys is by removing any need for manual access. Automating all handling of keys will remove the human element from the equation and significantly decrease the risk of keys being mishandled. It also reduces the risk of compromised keys and makes any potential issues easier to discover. An automated PKI manager is far less prone to errors than manual PKI management.
Automated Certificate Management Boosts Security
When you consider best practices for certificate management, a common theme is automation. A certificate lifecycle management software cuts back on the risk of human error, ensures policy is enforced, and helps keep your certificates from being compromised.