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The NextGen PKI

May 3, 2024

Imagine you have a treasure box. As you know, a treasure box can only be accessed by those who have the correct keys. This is similar to Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), which uses public and private keys to protect our sensitive data in the digital realm. Traditional PKI, on the other hand, has become increasingly vulnerable to hacking as technology advances. The NextGen PKI has emerged as a more secure, scalable, and trustworthy system to address this. This article discusses how the NextGen PKI provides outstanding security in the digital age.

What Is PKI?

Before getting into the details of the NextGen PKI, you should first grasp the fundamentals of PKI. PKI is a digital certificate, public key encryption, and digital signature system that allows for secure communication and data sharing over public networks. It is built on a hierarchical structure of Certificate Authorities (CA), which issue digital certificates to entities like people, organizations, and devices. Which begs the question, “What is a digital certificate?”

A digital certificate is a document that binds an entity's public key to its identity. The public key is used to encrypt data, which can only be decrypted by the entity with the corresponding private key. Digital signatures are used to provide non-repudiation, which ensures that the sender of a message cannot subsequently deny having sent it.

You might ask, “How and where can this be applied?” 

For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Popular IoT gadgets now come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Everything is built with the ability to communicate and exchange data over the Internet. So, if you're interested in learning how the NextGen PKI can be applied to IoT devices, come with me!

Application And Use Of The Nextgen PKI On IoT Devices And Protocols

The NextGen PKI is particularly important in IoT and OT environments, where devices are frequently connected to the internet and thus vulnerable to attack. PKI can aid in the protection of these devices against unauthorized access and data breaches.

For example, the NextGen PKI can be used to:

  • Authenticate devices: PKI can be used to validate devices before allowing them to connect to a network. This aids in the prevention of unauthorized devices accessing sensitive data or systems.
  • Encrypt data: PKI can be used to encrypt data in transit, preventing unauthorized parties from intercepting and reading it.
  • Sign data: PKI can be used to sign data and ensure that it has not been altered. This is critical for ensuring the integrity of data, such as financial transactions or medical records.

Challenges Of Traditional PKI:

  • Legacy Interfaces:

Description: Many existing PKI systems may rely on outdated or legacy interfaces, making them less compatible with modern applications and technologies.

Implications: This can hinder interoperability with newer systems, limit integration capabilities, and potentially expose security vulnerabilities as these interfaces may not adhere to current security standards.

  • Classic Cryptography Only:

Description: Some PKI systems might be limited to traditional or classic cryptographic algorithms, which may not provide the same level of security as more modern alternatives.

Implications: This limitation could render the PKI system vulnerable to emerging cryptographic threats and compromise the overall security posture.

  • Unmanaged Supply Chain Management:

Description: Inefficient or unmanaged supply chain processes related to PKI components, such as certificates and cryptographic tokens.

Implications: This can lead to security risks, as compromised or counterfeit components can be introduced into the PKI ecosystem, jeopardizing the integrity of the entire infrastructure.

  • Lack of Turnkey Endpoint Stack Solution:

Description: Absence of Turnkey solution with endpoint stack to handle automated certificate/key deployment, lifecycle management, and support for advanced forms of cryptography suites.

Implications: This means developers and operators have to code or implement the high-secure solution on the endpoints by themselves. Otherwise, they are forced to only support legacy cryptography suites or functionality provided by the endpoints.

  • No/Limited Support for IoT devices, Modern Smart Cards/Security Keys like Yubikeys:

Description: Lack of compatibility with modern authentication devices such as smart cards or security keys like Yubikeys.

Implications: This limits the options for secure authentication methods, potentially forcing reliance on less secure or outdated means of access control.

  • Lack of Automation & LifeCycle Management:

Description: Absence or limited implementation of automation in key PKI processes, such as certificate/key issuance, renewal, and revocation.

Implications: Manual processes are time-consuming, prone to errors, and can result in delays in responding to security events. Automation is crucial for efficient and secure PKI management.

  • Unattractive Dashboards:

Description: User interfaces or dashboards that are not intuitive, visually appealing, or user-friendly.

Implications: This can impact the user experience and the efficiency of administrators in managing the PKI system. A lack of user engagement may also contribute to oversight or errors.

  • Monolithic and Complex Deployments:

Description: PKI systems are often overly complex in their deployment architecture and also not modular enough for IoT applications. 

Implications: Complex deployments can be challenging to manage, maintain, and scale. It may also contribute to higher costs, increased vulnerability surface, and difficulties in adapting to changing organizational needs.

  • Lack of Integrations

Description: Traditional PKI systems often don’t allow integrations with modern systems such as issue trackers, DevSecOps tools, or even integration with third-party CA services.

Implications: Manual processes and hard to automate processes. Many dashboards to manage. Hard to manage PKI architecture. 

Features of the NextGen PKI 

  • Modern interfaces

REST API: Allowing integrations of customer applications

MQTT API: For real-time updates

  • State-of-the-art cryptography with PQC

Post-quantum cryptography for future-proof data encryption and signatures

  • Integrated supply chain security

Firmware and app signing inbuilt

Multi-stakeholder supply chain workflow process

  • State-of-the-art smart card/security key management

Supporting all modern smart cards and cryptographic tokens such as Yubikeys

  • Ease of operation through automation

Webhooks and lambda functions

3rd party integration (Slack, Jira, etc)

  • Enhanced features through edge agents

Deployable on all devices, architectures

Full certificate/device lifecycle management

Integrates with any secure crypto processor, e.g. TPM or Secure Element or MicroSec virtual secure element

Micro-Certificates for Lightweight IoT, IP & Non-IP Coverage through MicroSec’s MicroPKI

  • Modern GUI and architecture (low prior)

Modern dashboard, interactive and customizable

Scalable microservice architecture

Allows for integrations with other ecosystem services

Traditional PKI is not compatible with IoT devices and protocols, making it ineffective in this situation. The limitations are as follows:

  • Scaling in IoT environments due to low processing power is difficult.
  • Deployment and maintenance in IoT environments are expensive.
  • Due to the diversity of IoT environments, devices and protocols, conventional PKI can be rigid.
  • Regular PKI may not provide adequate security for IoT environments.

The NextGen PKI adds new features and capabilities for IoT environments. These include:

  • Provision of lightweight protocols for IoT devices with limited resources.
  • Providing a scalable and flexible trust model for IoT environments.
  • Ensuring IoT devices can use digital certificates from different PKI infrastructures.
  • Advanced identity management capabilities such as multi-factor authentication and identity proofing.
  • Privacy-enhancing technologies such as zero-knowledge proofs and differential privacy.

Benefits of the NextGen PKI 

Traditional PKI has disadvantages, such as reliance on a single certificate authority and a lack of flexibility. The NextGen PKI  is an updated version of PKI technology that offers improved security features and more flexibility in its application. The following are some advantages of the NextGen PKI and its applications:

  • Improved Security: It offers improved security features like more powerful encryption algorithms (including Post-Quantum Cryptography), better key management, and more effective user authentication techniques. This aids in safeguarding private data and preventing unauthorized access.
  • Greater Flexibility: The NextGen PKI is intended to integrate more readily into current systems and applications, making it simpler for businesses to adopt and use. Mobile devices and cloud-based services are included in this.
  • Simplified Management: The NextGen PKI makes it easier to manage certificates and keys. It automates the certificate provisioning, revocation, and renewal processes. This reduces system administrators' workload and increases overall efficiency.
  • Wide Range of Applications: The NextGen PKI, unlike traditional PKI, can be used in a broader range of applications, such as IoT security, machine learning, and blockchain. As a result, it is a more versatile and cost-effective security solution for a wide range of organizations.
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