With cyberattacks continuing to escalate all around the world, it is no wonder that cybercrime has now entered the Top 10 rankings of the most severe global risks over the next decade, along with threats including climate change and involuntary migration.
From T-Mobile to Twitter, Shields Health Care Group, MailChimp, and JD Sports, the first half of 2023 has already witnessed several high-profile breaches across multiple industries. It is alarming to see threat actors relentlessly refining their attack tactics and diversifying their targets, leaving no sector out of the equation.
Christopher Krebs, former director of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) accurately sums up the current reality — “To put it simply, we are on the cusp of a global pandemic of a different variety, driven by greed, an avoidably vulnerable digital ecosystem, and an ever-widening criminal enterprise.”
Although the current picture of cybersecurity looks grim, all hope is not lost. The promising part is that organizations have become more aware of the threat landscape and evolving security requirements, and are reinventing their approaches to shield up.
Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) Rises to the Security Challenge
One of the most underrated approaches that has been around for decades and is now being seen as a key enabler of modern cybersecurity is Public Key Infrastructure (PKI). Resting on the concepts of trusted identities, authentication, and encryption, PKI makes for a powerful security solution for implementing identity-first security and Zero Trust – the gold standards of modern cybersecurity.
PKI operates with digital certificates and cryptographic key pairs (public and private keys). Digital certificates help establish digital identities for all entities on the network and authenticate them for secure access. The digital certificate and public /private key pair also help encrypt and decrypt data for secure communication on the internet. This combination of authentication and encryption help provide trusted network access and protect data throughout its lifecycle.
Although PKI is not a new concept, many organizations are struggling to harness its value. It is still predominantly used to secure only internet-facing websites and applications. However, changes in the cybersecurity landscape are driving organizations to see PKI in a new light and leverage it to secure emerging identity-first security use cases.
Top PKI Use Cases for Robust Security
1. Device authentication
Digital business models and hybrid work constructs have led to an explosion of mobile and IoT devices. PKI helps effectively mitigate mobile and BYOD security risks by authenticating users and devices, and ensuring only authorized users and trusted devices are allowed network or application access. PKI also helps secure online communications with robust end-to-end encryption.
2. Cloud application access
Cloud security is fraught with problems such as unauthorized application access and unwarranted lateral movement. PKI helps secure cloud application access by authenticating and authorizing every cloud user and application in a systematic way. Since cloud applications are accessed from literally anywhere, PKI also helps protect cloud communications from interception or theft with end-to-end data encryption.
Securing software releases is a top priority for DevOps teams. PKI-based code signing is one of the effective security practices developers can follow to protect code integrity, prevent software supply chain attacks, and build trust. Code signing allows developers to digitally sign applications and software programs to prove to customers that the software is from a trusted source and that it has not been tampered with since it was signed.
4. Securing communication between microservices and containers
When it comes to DevOps, security teams often struggle to monitor and secure Kubernetes clusters and containers. PKI helps effectively address this problem by enabling TLS/mTLS authentication at the ingress points for secure access and allowing microservices within the containers to mutually authenticate each other before starting communication. Additionally, TLS also helps secure the north-south and east-west communication by encrypting the traffic at the ingress as well as between the microservices within the cluster.
5. Passwordless shell access to machines (SSH)
Due to password-related vulnerabilities, organizations are exploring passwordless solutions for SSH (Secure Shell Protocol) authentication. PKI provides an effective way of implementing passwordless authentication for SSH by replacing passwords with SSH keys. It enables machines to identify, authenticate, and communicate with each other over a secure channel without the need for passwords or user intervention, therefore reducing the risk of key compromises and security breaches.
6. Multi-factor authentication (MFA) for VPN
When coupled with password-based authentication, PKI-based certificates serve as an effective MFA option for VPN access. Unlike other MFA mechanisms, with PKI certificates, the private key is securely protected and never leaves the client machine—making it more secure than passwords that can be easily guessed or shared. Also, PKI certificates carry out authentication checks without any user intervention, which inherently improves the user experience.
7. Corporate wireless network authentication
As the number of devices accessing corporate WiFi networks increases, so does the risk of cyberattacks. PKI helps secure WiFi through EAP-TLS, an authentication form considered the most secure for 802.1X networks today. Using EAP-TLS, organizations can issue digital certificates to all network devices and authorize them whenever they request WiFi access. Digital certificates also improve the user experience by performing WiFi authentication checks without any user intervention.
8. Mutual authentication (mTLS) for secure web applications
For robust application security, it is essential to ensure that the traffic is secure and trusted in both directions between a client and server. PKI helps achieve this through mutual TLS (mTLS) authentication, a two-way authentication process where the identities of both the communicating parties are validated before establishing a network connection. mTLS is an excellent way of providing additional protection for corporate applications, services, devices, and APIs.
9. Email security (S/MIME)
Email continues to be one of the most popular attack vectors as emails carry sensitive business information. To protect email communications, PKI offers S/MIME (Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) certificates that help verify the identity of the sender and ensure the integrity and confidentiality of email. With S/MIME, users can digitally sign emails for sender validation and encrypt email communications to keep sensitive information private.
PKI – Leading the Way Towards Zero Trust Security
As enterprises fast-track their digital transformation initiatives, organizations must adopt advanced security measures that can effectively apply Zero Trust principles, harden defenses, and keep adversaries at bay. To that end, PKI is continuously evolving to provide a flexible, adaptable, and scalable identity-first security framework that aligns with Zero Trust and secures a wide variety of enterprise use cases.
For more details on the various enterprise use cases where PKI can be implemented, download our latest whitepaper: 10 PKI Use Cases for Stronger Enterprise Security.