Implementing NHI security protocols in your organization

Adam Cheriki, Co-founder & CTO, Entro
May 16, 2024
Implementing NHI

It’s high time we address the elephant in the room — the non-human identities running rampant in your organization. You might be under the impression it’s all under control, but have faith that you’re just asking for trouble if you don’t have solid NHI security protocols.

In this blog post, we’ll show you how to batten down the hatches and discuss how, as an organization, you can keep your digital credentials locked up tighter than a fortress. 

Understanding the risks of different access privileges

Organizations have access privileges like admin rights, RPA bots, and service accounts, all holding the keys to different parts of their digital fabric. However, each type of privilege comes with its own set of risks. Non-human identities often operate in the background and handle critical tasks while interacting with sensitive data, making them prime targets for cybercriminals.

So, just as admin rights, which grant users elevated permissions, can lead to unauthorized access and data breaches if misused or compromised, API keys, used to authenticate and authorize access to APIs, can expose sensitive data if leaked or stolen. In the same vein, service accounts, used by applications and services to interact with operating systems, pose significant risks if not properly managed, as they often have elevated privileges and can be exploited for lateral movement within a network. 

Automation, consent fatigue, and over-permissive access are common drivers of ungoverned non-human identity creation. To that end, understanding and mitigating these risks is essential to maintain the security and integrity of systems and data.

Mapping machine identities access in the organization: Who’s using what

The first step toward mitigating the aforementioned risks would be to draw a map or a blueprint, if you will, of all the machine identities and their access levels. You can’t realistically expect to protect your network without a clear understanding of all the non-human players on the field now, can you?

So, as a first step, let’s identify every single machine identity in your organization. This includes many IT assets spanning servers, applications, IoT devices, and virtual machines. It’s a tall order, but there are tools and methods to help you get the job done. Automated discovery and audit tools like Entro can scan your network and create an inventory of all your machine identities faster than you can say “cybersecurity.” 

Digging deeper, you must uncover who uses these identities and for what purposes. This is where implementing non-human identity security protocols comes into play. By understanding the access levels and permissions associated with each machine identity, you can ensure they are being used appropriately and not leaving any backdoors open for potential threats.

Bringing all stakeholders into the picture

To effectively implement non-human identity security protocols, you’ll have to engage all stakeholders through targeted education and strategic communication. This involves IT and security teams and extends to developers, operations personnel, and business unit leaders who might interact with or manage non-human identities.

  • Tailor educational content to roles: Develop role-specific training materials that cater to stakeholders’ unique responsibilities and interactions with non-human identities.
    • Software engineers should receive training on secure coding best practices to prevent the insecure practice of hardcoding secrets directly into source code.
    • Operations teams need to understand the importance of secret rotation and regular audits.
  • Utilize familiar communication platforms: Disseminate educational content through platforms already used by stakeholders, such as:
    • Internal newsletters for broad updates and guidelines.
    • Dedicated Slack channels or similar for real-time discussions and Q&A sessions.
    • Regular workshops and webinars for in-depth training.
  • Implement a feedback loop: Establish a mechanism for stakeholders to report security concerns or suggest improvements regarding non-human identity management. This could include:
    • An anonymous reporting tool for security issues.
    • Regular feedback sessions to discuss potential improvements.
  • Emphasize the importance of collective responsibility: All stakeholders must understand that security is a shared responsibility and that their actions can either improve the security posture of the organization or break it completely.

Defining access privileges and implementing controls

Giving a machine identity with limited functionality, like a simple monitoring script, full admin access is like giving a toddler a chainsaw. On the flip side, restricting a critical system’s machine identity with insufficient access is like sending a soldier into battle without a weapon. Both of these would end poorly.

Simply put, the level of access granted to a machine identity should align with its purpose and the potential risk it poses. For instance, a machine identity used for a low-risk task, such as generating reports, should have restricted access to minimize potential damage if compromised. Conversely, a machine identity responsible for critical tasks, like managing production databases, requires elevated privileges and stricter controls and monitoring.

The key is to find the sweet spot — granting just enough access for the machine identity to perform its intended function while minimizing the risk of abuse or compromise. This is where the principle of least privilege comes into play — by providing only the bare minimum permissions necessary, you can significantly reduce the attack surface and limit the potential impact of a breach.

To reinforce these defined access privileges, various controls can be implemented. These include setting access restrictions to see that NHIs only interact with the systems or data necessary for their tasks and establishing time limits to access, which act as an additional layer of security. For instance, an API might only be allowed to access certain databases during specific hours, reducing the window of opportunity for potential exploits.

How to Establish non-human identity security protocols

Now that the groundwork is laid, let’s peel back another layer and discuss exactly what you need to establish your non-human identities security protocols.

Vaulting

Vaults are secure storage systems that protect sensitive data such as API keys, tokens, and certificates. When you go “vaulting”, you essentially centralize the management of these secrets, ensuring they are accessible only under strict conditions and through authenticated and authorized mechanisms. The primary benefit would be enhanced security through encrypted storage, detailed audit trails for access and usage when needed, and the ability to enforce fine-grained access controls.

Rotation

As a non-human identity security protocol, secrets rotation is one of the major security best practices that involve changing passwords and keys at regular intervals or based on specific triggers. This means implementing automated processes to update and replace credentials and keys regularly for non-human identities. 

Automated rotation reduces the window of opportunity for stolen credentials to be used in attacks, as older credentials are invalidated regularly. Implementing rotation can be facilitated by machine identity security management solutions that integrate with your existing IT infrastructure to ensure seamless updates without disrupting operations.

Zero trust

The zero-trust security framework mandates rigorous authentication and authorization for all users and devices attempting to connect to network resources, whether within or outside the network perimeter. Practical implementation of this model involves micro-segmentation to control lateral movement within networks, multi-factor authentication (MFA) to verify identities robustly, and dynamic policy adjustments based on continuous risk assessment.

Tools and platforms that support Zero Trust architectures can help enforce these policies by dynamically adjusting the access rights of non-human identities based on their current context and perceived risk level.

JIT / Least Privilege

Following the principle of least privilege, when you apply for Just-In-Time (JIT) access, you gain the freedom to grant access rights temporarily or as required and for the minimum duration necessary. 

This approach significantly reduces the attack surface by eliminating standing privileges that attackers could potentially exploit. JIT access is a key component of privileged access management (PAM) and aligns with the zero-trust security model of “never trust, always verify”. It ensures that users, applications, and systems are granted an appropriate level of access only when needed to complete specific tasks, and access is revoked immediately after.

IT onboarding and offboarding

Effective onboarding and offboarding processes for non-human identities are critical to maintaining security throughout the lifecycle of these entities. Onboarding involves setting up new machine identities with appropriate access controls, explaining data handling policies, and configuring all security measures like antivirus and firewall settings. 

Offboarding is equally important and requires revoking access, collecting and wiping company devices, and ensuring all data is securely erased or transferred as appropriate. Both processes benefit from automation to ensure they are executed consistently and without delays, which is crucial for maintaining security. This IT onboarding checklist talks about the finer points in great detail.

Continuous monitoring

There’s no shred of doubt just how important vaulting, secrets rotation, and the rest of the non-human identity security protocols are. If there’s a cybersecurity playbook, they’re solid gold, but continuous monitoring is the glue that holds it all together. You need that real-time visibility to detect and respond to potential security incidents before they can cause significant damage to your systems.

However, effective continuous monitoring requires more than just deploying some tools and calling it a day. It demands a holistic approach along with thorough non-human identities security strategies that take into account your entire organization. This means defining clear objectives, establishing policies and procedures, selecting the right tools, integrating with existing systems and processes, and regularly reviewing and updating your monitoring strategy. You’ll need to automate your data collection paradigm and extend it to analysis and reporting. Technologies like SIEM, log management, infrastructure monitoring, and intrusion detection systems will help you gain actionable insights.

Final thoughts

In essence, the security of non-human identities hinges on a clear definition of access privileges, applying the principle of least privilege, and implementing stringent controls. 

This brings us to Entro, a pioneering platform that simplifies non-human identity management and enhances security by providing comprehensive visibility, monitoring, and protection for machine identities and secrets. By continuously monitoring for abnormal behavior and automating the remediation of identified risks, including remediating shadow APIs, Entro empowers security teams to mitigate threats in their organizations proactively. On top of that, through seamless integration with existing workflows and a unified interface, Entro streamlines the lifecycle management of non-human identities, ensuring end-to-end protection and compliance.

See it for yourself. Click here for a demo.

Reclaim control over your secrets

Get updates

All secret security right in your inbox

Want full security oversight?

See the Entro platform in action