SSH Key Management: Importance and Best Practices

Blog, 28/12/2021

Establishing safe access to your sensitive data and other vital assets is the first step in protecting them. Many firms use SSH keys to protect their distant servers and corporate systems.

Secure Socket Shell (SSH) is a widely used protocol that allows users to authenticate and execute commands on remote systems securely. It is used primarily by system administrators.

SSH keys and their significance with secure authentication processes get discussed in this article and the advantages of effective SSH key management.

SSH Key Management: Defined

Secure Socket Shell (SSH) Key Authentication is a convenient and secure technique to connect computers over the internet. It allows employees; usually administrators, to remotely access another computer, server, or network without logging in every time. Authorized users can use SSH to manage applications, run commands, and transfer files between computers quickly and securely.

SSH key management can greatly improve corporate cybersecurity by securing networks and systems from external and insider attacks. It can also assist a company in meeting security requirements, rules, and regulations. In this article, we will discuss the importance of SSH key management and a few best practices such as:

  • Setting up SSH keys correctly
  • Keeping track of a company's public and private keys
  • Tracking and Monitoring SSH key usage
  • Keeping a pair of SSH keys safe

The Importance of SSH Key Management

Because the whole SSH protocol, and hence its security, is constructed around public and private key pairs, SSH key management is critical to preserving security. SSH key management that gets done correctly protects against crucial risks that can cause system failures or allow sensitive data to slip into the wrong hands.

Failure to manage SSH keys, or mismanagement of SSH keys, on the other hand, can expose businesses to a variety of risks and issues, including:

Loss of Control

Anyone in the organization can simply generate or replicate their SSH keys for one-off use cases if SSH key management is not centralized. When this happens, not only does the number of keys created spiral out of control, but it also makes inventory and management of the keys that do exist more difficult.

Orphaned Keys

When SSH keys are no longer in use, and the location of their corresponding public or private key is unclear, they become orphaned keys. When employees change jobs or leave the company, they frequently leave active SSH keys. This issue makes it difficult for security users to determine what the orphaned keys unlock. When this happens, the security team is cautious about retiring the orphaned keys since it could result in a system failure.

Static Keys

SSH keys do not expire, which means they are more vulnerable with time because the longer SSH keys exist, the less likely they are to be managed or monitored in any way. As a result, scenarios arise when users leave the firm but retain their SSH keys. It can also make it tough to cycle keys for maintaining security because the longer keys remain, the more difficult it is for security teams to figure out their use.

Key Sprawl

The use of SSH key-based access continues to grow over time, frequently at exponential rates, resulting in key sprawl. The number of keys in circulation eventually grows too large to control and manage efficiently. Challenges such as those stated above frequently contribute to critical sprawl over time. Finally, because it is more difficult for security users to track and manage all of the SSH keys, the higher the key sprawl, the more potential for private SSH keys to be compromised.

Key Compromise

Recent attacks have highlighted the importance of managing and preserving SSH keys. Attackers can impersonate trusted admins, hide in encrypted traffic, and travel laterally across your network with just a single hacked private SSH key. Malicious parties or even non-malicious parties, such as users who have since left the organization but still have access to SSH keys, might access important systems and confidential information without effective protection and access control.

The Best Practices for SSH Key Management

Developing an SSH key security strategy is a great method to keep key generation and usage under check. However, deciding where to begin and what activities to engage in might be difficult. Here are the three best practices for managing SSH keys within your business to make this process a little smoother.

Find and keep track of all SSH keys.

You cannot protect SSH keys if you are unaware of their existence. Thus, finding all existing SSH keys and correlating them with users and servers is the first step in managing them.

To do so, you can use various digital key management systems. Using such technologies, you can identify all existing keys inside your IT architecture and understand what servers, devices, or systems they can access. As a result, you can identify and rectify any vulnerabilities such as duplicate or orphaned keys and who is using which keys to access which systems.

Use the concept of least privilege to guide your decisions.

Privileged users should only access the data and systems they require for their jobs.

Configure individual SHH keys for each person to access only the systems or computers they require to execute their jobs. Also, whenever a person moves to a new position, review their access rights. Avoid using shared accounts because it is impossible to tell who used a set of keys.

Eliminate hard-coded and old SSH keys.

SSH keys can be inserted in code or scripts, opening harmful backdoors for malware and hackers to manipulate. Check for embedded SSH keys in your code, put them under centralized administration, and delete them from apps.


The more unmonitored SSH keys you have on your network, the more likely it is that malevolent insiders or hackers will get privileged access and misuse it without being detected. Fortunately, you can mitigate these risks using a solid SSH key management policy.

In this regard, try Werbot. Werbot, as key storage, prevents SSH key mismanagement so you can securely deliver secrets and rotate passwords as well as configure, encrypt, and manage privileged user credentials with ease.
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