The role of Just In Time (JIT) Access in Non-human identity access management

Adam Cheriki, Co-founder & CTO, Entro
May 2, 2024
just in time access

When organizations embrace the cloud and remote work, we know the driving idea is to make room for innovation and growth. And while that’s all well and good, there’s a growing need to balance productivity and security. Traditional access control models, which often rely on static permissions and standing privileges are no longer sufficient to address the evolving cyber threat landscape. The fix? Just-in-time access.

What is Just in Time access?

A security approach that has gained serious momentum in the last few years, Just-in-time (JIT) access grants users access to data, applications, or systems based on their requirements for a limited period. Rallying against the idea of permanent access, just-in-time permission management ensures access is provided on demand just as fast as it is revoked once the task is completed or the allocated time ends.

The driving force behind JIT is the idea to limit the count of users with standing access in a bid to reduce the risks associated with data breaches and unauthorized access. When users only have access when they need it, essentially, they’re abiding by the principle of least privilege, i.e., they only have the permissions they need to dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’.

What is the difference between Just in time access and PAM?

Both JIT and Privileged Access Management (PAM) are complementary security strategies that work in harmony to protect sensitive resources in an organization. While PAM focuses on securing, controlling, and monitoring privileged accounts and their activities, JIT takes it a step further by granting elevated access only when needed and for a limited time. It’s worth noting that it’s PAM that does the groundwork for secure privileged access, which allows JIT to make it more dynamic.

3 problems Just-in-time access solves

The accumulation of unused permissions over extended periods is a major security loophole, leading to an unnecessarily broad exploitable attack surface. JIT access is a great way to fix this by limiting the window of opportunity for threat actors, which may include insider threats. With permanent access to sensitive resources, disgruntled employees or compromised accounts can easily misuse their privileges.

Beyond human users

But while right now you may be associating JIT access with human users exclusively, covered bases go quite beyond. Securing non-human identities (NHIs) like machine identities, bots, service accounts, and such is also a major and often-neglected possibility with the JIT protocol. Non-human identities need permissions to work just as their human counterparts and often require privileged access to perform automated tasks as they interact with various other systems. However, as is the case with humans, these can pose significant security risks.

Non-human identities have become integral to the modern digital ecosystems, enabling seamless communication and automation between various services, apps, and systems. While undoubtedly the prize is increased productivity, as organizations migrate to the cloud and adopt microservices architectures, the number of non-human identities has exploded. It has far outpaced the growth of their human counterparts. This has created a rather complex web of interconnected services, making it increasingly difficult for organizations to maintain visibility and control over these assets. However, the volume of these identities is not the only concern — they often lack security, which has opened up new attack vectors for our adversaries.

The gaping security holes in non-human identities

One of the primary security risks associated with non-human identities is the lack of proper governance and access controls. Unlike human identities, which are typically subject to strict authentication and authorization processes, non-human identities often operate with minimal oversight. This can lead to overprovisioning, where identities are granted more privileges than necessary, making it easier for attackers to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data and systems. 

JIT for securing NHIs

This is where JIT comes in as a powerful solution. Just as it works with general users, JIT applies the principle of least privilege on non-human identities, granting access for limited durations in a bid to contain the attack surface and reduce the potential impact of the compromised identities. Furthermore, JIT access tools offer the amazing functionalities of robust auditing and monitoring, which the security teams can use to detect anomalous behaviors and promptly respond to security incidents.

As an effective means to implement JIT access for non-human identities, organizations should identify and classify them based on roles and access levels and also define clear access policies and workflows so that JIT solutions can work with existing IAM systems. It is also highly recommended that organizations follow secret management best practices and regularly review and audit access logs to discover suspicious activities that might have slipped.

Types of JIT

JIT access comes in 3 distinct flavors, and each type represents a significant step forward in securing our critical assets and sensitive data. Each brings its own benefits and considerations we must consider during implementation.

Ephemeral access

Ephemeral access, the most dynamic option of the trio, helps generate fleeting access rights for users and non-human identities. It creates credentials for mere hours (often minutes) on demand, and these access rights are de-provisioned upon task completion or conclusion. This is ideal for third-party users with infrequent access needs as it eliminates the concept of standing privileges.

Here’s an example: Consider a cloud automation script that needs to provide resources for a limited time to deploy VMs or configure network settings. Instead of granting this script permanent access credentials, which could pose a security risk if compromised, an ephemeral account is created.

Justification-based access control

Next in line, broker-and-remove access, also known as justification-based just-in-time access control, functions as a broker that funnels access requests through a centralized channel. To use it, users must have a compelling reason for requesting access, which must first be approved after scrutiny for usage and then revoked as the task expires. This is an excellent means of securing systems that are at high risk and contain sensitive data. 

As an example of just-in-time access, let’s think of a DB admin requesting access to perform a critical update on a prod database. They’ll raise a ticket justifying the need for access, the task in question, and the duration for completion. Upon approval, they’ll receive temporary credentials to read/write/alter the tables, which will be revoked when the task is completed.

Temporary access elevation

Temporary access elevation, the third type of JIT is the most targeted type, which surgically raises a user’s privileges for a specific task or project. When the project is completed, and the mission is accomplished, the user’s or the NHI’s permissions are reverted to their default levels.

Take, for example, a backup script that needs elevated access to conduct system-wide backup. With temporary access elevation, it can run for the duration of the process, after which its access level is returned to normal.

So, how does Just in Time access work?

Implementing just-in-time privilege access in enterprises can go a long way in changing how we imagine security. Here’s the recipe for a successful JIT access implementation:

1.  Assess where you currently stand

The first step in implementing JIT is to discover all identities in your environment — both human and machine. Identify all the secrets in use, like the SSH keys, API tokens, and so on. With that handled, assess the risk associated with each identity. Focus on those with sensitive privileges or broad access, as they pose the greatest risk if compromised. These high-risk identities are prime candidates for JIT. An automated secrets detection and management tool can be of immense help here.

2.  Define JIT policies 

Craft granular access policies using RBAC and ABAC to define the conditions for granting elevated privileges. Be specific about time windows, durations, and approval workflows. The more precise your policies, the more effective your JIT implementation will be. All the better if you implement these policies in a secret and non-human identity management platform that supports JIT access.

3. Automate the lifecycle 

As is the case with manufacturing, where automation increases production speed and brings quality uniformity across products while reducing costs, it’s key to a successful JIT implementation. Integrate your JIT policies with your CI/CD pipelines, identity providers, and IT service management (ITSM) workflows. Embrace just-in-time access automation in the entire lifecycle of requesting, approving, issuing, and revoking secrets based on your predefined policies.

4. Monitor and audit privileged activity

While surely JIT is a successful idea from the get-go, continuous monitoring can play a major role in maintaining the security of your JIT implementation. To that end, organizations should log all privileged activities, including access requests, approvals, and usage, and feed this data to their secrets management platform for centralized visibility.

The Entro factor

Now that you are aware of the best practices and what it takes to make your JIT undertaking an exemplary feat let’s talk about Entro and how it can help you along the process. This comprehensive secrets management platform is designed to integrate seamlessly with your existing JIT workflows, making the process of managing secrets a whole lot easier.

One of Entro’s standout features is its ability to discover and centralize all your secrets across various sources. This means you’ll have a clear overview of your entire secrets landscape, making nonhuman identity access management a simple process. But Entro doesn’t stop there—it goes beyond just organizing your secrets by adding valuable context to them. Entro empowers you to make informed decisions about access control by enriching your secrets with metadata and analyzing usage patterns.

Another aspect that sets Entro apart is its continuous monitoring capabilities. It keeps a watchful eye on your secrets, alerting you in real-time if any suspicious activity is detected. This proactive approach helps you stay one step ahead of potential security risks. And the best part? Entro integrates smoothly with your existing tools and infrastructure, so you don’t have to worry about disrupting your setup. 

See it for yourself. Click here to get a demo!

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