Protect Your Private Keys: Secure Key Orchestration And Automation

Data is the new oil fueling the digital economy today. Organizations across all sectors are collecting and processing vast amounts of data to improve operational efficiency and deliver better customer experiences. To that effect, the need to secure data has never been greater. 

Increase in cybercrime has also pushed for strict regulations in data privacy and governance, such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), that slap the harshest of penalties for every instance of a data breach or non-compliance. So, organizations are proactively looking for ways to best secure data.

One of the most reliable means of protecting data that has also stood the test of time is encryption. With digital transformation and cloud migrations in full swing, data has become ubiquitous, requiring security wherever it flows. Encryption helps meet this demand by allowing organizations to encrypt data both at rest (when stored in databases and file systems) and in transit (when transmitted from one service to another).

While encryption is something organizations find easy to implement, key management is not!  

2022 Ponemon Report: The State of Certificate Lifecycle Management in Global Organizations

Private Keys: A Critical Piece of Public Key Infrastructure or PKI 

Private keys or encryption keys are a gateway to critical information in an organization’s network. They are the cornerstone of PKI-based authentication and digital signing. When private keys are compromised, they are used to impersonate enterprise servers and steal data. So, the importance of securing them cannot be overstated—yet, they continue to remain under-protected. 

Private key storage and rotation techniques are often subject to lax security standards. They are sometimes stored in text documents or shared via email. In other instances, keys are generated locally on a less protected machine and stored in software that can be easily dodged by bad actors. These inefficient manual key management processes leave the most valuable asset of a company—data—susceptible to theft. 

So, how should you safeguard your private keys in an environment where data is constantly traveling between different databases, services, IoT devices, and more?

Challenges in Private Key Protection

For protecting private keys, organizations typically use a local key store or a software vault. 

Local key stores such as Java key stores or application-specific key stores are often used because they are easy to set up and cost less. But on the other hand, they don’t integrate with PKI services and are usually non-compliant with organizational policies. They also do not meet modern-day security requirements. Key stores can be copied and cracked open. Key passphrases shared in configuration files can be extracted by users. 

There have been several instances in the past where the keys have been stolen from trust stores using exploit kits or trojans and used to impersonate enterprise servers and steal data.

Although the software vaults promise better protection than key stores, they are not devoid of challenges. While they are software-based, and a single vault can be used for multiple applications, these too can be copied and infiltrated. They also do not support high-assurance compliance needs.

One of the highly recommended ways of safeguarding private keys and overcoming the challenges of private key protection is to use hardware security modules or HSMs. These are physical devices known to provide the highest levels of physical and software-backed security for private keys and best compliance with organizational policies and industry standards such as those required by FIPS and PCI. At all fronts, HSMs fare much better than software vaults and local key stores, and hence the best.  

While organizations do understand the importance of securing their most sensitive information in HSMs, many continue to resist the idea. Some of the most cited barriers are:

Cost of hardware: HSMs are not scalable. The cost involved in acquiring, using, and maintaining several HSMs in a large organization is too high. 

The complexity of configuration: Integrating with applications that typically use HSMs, such as the F5 appliances, is too complex as it involves multiple interfaces and APIs.

Manual processes: Key generation, key ceremonies, CSR generation, certificate installations involve extensive manual effort, errors, and long delays, creating bottlenecks in key usage, impacting speed and agility, especially in fast-moving environments such as the DevOps

An Integrated Approach to Private Key Management and Security

Mature certificate lifecycle management solutions today offer a potent combination of HSMs and automation to address both the operational and security challenges of private key management. These integrated solutions allow enterprises to securely generate, use, and rotate private keys without compromising speed or agility.

Integration with HSM devices is achieved in two ways: private key encryption and private key generation in HSM via application endpoints.

Private key encryption: Private keys are generated and stored in a secure key escrow belonging to the automation solution provider, while encryption is offloaded to the HSM device.

Private key generation in HSM via application endpoints: The HSM generates and stores private keys within itself for added security, while the automation solution performs all certificate management tasks. This solution is suitable for all supported devices that can initiate direct communication with the HSM and use a key identifier to access private keys.

Benefits of Using Integrated CLM and HSM Solution:

  • Ease of operation: Integrated solutions requires minimal setup and PKI expertise. They come equipped with extensive multi-cloud and multi-vendor integrations that help easily orchestrate key management across various systems. 
  • Compliance: The highest level of security provided by the HSM combined with automation helps maintain compliance standards for keys and certificates regardless of their volume. It helps eliminate human errors in CSR generation such as the event where private keys are created by default on the device. 
  • Automation: By automating each stage of the certificate lifecycle—from generating key pairs to issuing certificates to renewing those certificates—management complexity and the possibility of costly human errors are eliminated. This helps accelerate and standardize certificate processes for efficient key management and better key security. 
  • High Availability and Security: An HSM-backed PKI management system is highly available, secure, and comes with advanced disaster management capabilities, which greatly helps during replacement. 
  • Reduced costs: Having an integrated solution helps reduce the total cost of ownership by simplifying the process of setting up, configuring, and managing HSMs and PKI. It also helps prevent key compromise issues that lead to expensive fines and remediation costs. 

As security risks multiply, the need for encryption will only grow stronger. This will inevitably lead to organizations operating an abundance of private keys. Without an efficient system to safeguard them, private keys become soft targets for attackers.

Using integrated certificate lifecycle automation solutions, enterprises can ensure the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of private keys at all times—while maintaining agility and compliance.

Want to learn how AppViewX can help with private key protection? Listen to the webinar: Protecting the Keys to the Kingdom: Secure Key Orchestration and Automation.


  • certificate lifecycle management
  • certificate lifecycle management (CLM)
  • hardware security modules
  • HSM
  • PKI
  • PKI management
  • Private key encryption
  • Private keys
  • SSL Certificate Lifecycle Management

About the Author

Krupa Patil

Product Marketing Manager

A content creator focused on providing readers and prospective buyers with accurate, useful, and latest product information to help them make better informed decisions.

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