Large organisations are struggling to manage trust assets such as encryption keys and digital certificates in a muddle that could open many to the risk of cyberattack, a Ponemon survey for security management firm Venafi has concluded.
The Cost of Failed Trust report [registration required] found that 51 percent of the 2,342 admins questioned from the USA, Germany, the UK, Australia and France had no idea how many keys and certificates were in use - a bad start.
Of those who were able to come up with a number, the average was a formidable 17,807 per organisation.
Eighteen percent of organisations believed they were likely to fall prey to basic attacks pointed at "weak legacy" key storage or management over the next two years, with particular anxiety over the use of Secure Shell (SSH) keys used to connect to cloud services.
Three percent worried about SSH key theft, 5 percent server key theft, and 7 percent about man-in-the-middle attacks based on compromising certificate authorities (CAs).
Every enterprise admitted to having been affected negatively by a failure to manage and control trust infrastructure over the last two years.
Working out the costs of this is more contentious but Ponemon puts some alarmingly high numbers on failure.
The total financial risk from certificate and key assets is estimated by Ponemon to be $400 million for every large organisation, which is to say that the actual cost from a real security breach of this infrastructure would be a percentage of this maximum total.
"Cyber criminals understand how fragile our ability to control trust has become and, as a result, they continue to target failed key and certificate management," said Venafi CEO Jeff Hudson.
"These exploits wreak havoc by causing unplanned outages, productivity loss, brand damage and data breaches. Until today the financial impact, the extent of the challenges, and the industry's recognition of these compromises remained largely unquantified."
Although Venafi sells systems that claim to fix the problem of lax or no trust management - there is some vested interest here - Hudson's point about trust assets being security's dark side of the moon looks from the report to be valid.
The security of these assets seems simply to be assumed because of the comforting word 'trust' and an incomprehension that the infrastructure designed to make this possible could be fragile.
Certainly criminals are attempting to exploit digital certificates in particular, with a slew of attacks on certificate authorities during 2011 causing widespread alarm.
Meanwhile, incidents involving stolen SSH keys have multiplied and that's before factoring in more unusual but signal attacks such as the Flame cyberweapon's forged certificate used to finesse Windows update.