Digital certificates and encryption keys a growing stress for UK organisations

Many IT professionals don't know where they are or whether they're safe from attack, says Venafi

UK IT professionals are starting to worry about encryption keys and certificates. Many don't know how many their organisations possess or even where some are stored. All of them think these assets are now under attack.

These are the findings of a Ponemon report for US key and certificate management firm Venafi, which crunched the views of 2,300 IT professionals from the US, Australia, France, Germany, with 499 from the UK.

Once the bedrock of security, keys and certificates now elicit anxiety. This is perhaps not surprising given the growing number of attacks in which they have been compromised or undermined in a more general way by vulnerabilities such as last year's Heartbleed.

The average UK organisation in the survey tended 25,500 keys and certificates, with 4 percent of IT staff saying they had no idea where all of this was kept.

Alluding to a famous Black Hat presentation from 2013, many now feared some kind of 'cryptoapocalypse', the idea that there might come a time in the relatively near future when the factoring algorithms that underlie today's encryption systems crumble in the face of encryption-cracking systems.

It sounds far-fetched but in truth today's IT teams have more practical worries to occupy them before they start pondering alarming thought experiments designed by mathematicians.

The use of encryption keys and to some extent digital certificates has 'ballooned' in the report's words, making their management incredibly difficult.

"Whether they realise it or not, every business and government relies upon cryptographic keys and digital certificates to operate. Without the trust established by keys and certificates, we'd be back to the Internet 'stone age' - not knowing if a website, device, or mobile application can be trusted," said Venafi's vice president of security strategy, Kevin Bocek.

"Leading researchers from FireEye, Intel, Kaspersky, and Mandiant, and many others consistently identify the misuse of key and certificates as an important part of APT and cybercriminal operations," he said.

The study throws out a number of costs associated with things going wrong for the average large organisation some of which sounds a bit speculative and exaggerated. Venafi sells encryption and certificate management systems so it is, of course, in its interests to promote the notion of cost.

The general sense of worry does seem justified, however. Last week Google announced that it had detected fake certificates for some of its domains, a small but telling example of the way this type of security is now under attack.