Non human identity security in SaaS

Adam Cheriki, Co-founder & CTO, Entro
May 29, 2024
saas nhi blg

Did you know non-human identities are the reason why we have automation that keeps the gears turning smoothly behind the scenes? They’re responsible for enabling machine-to-machine communication, facilitating system integrations, and, consequently, general automation of repetitive tasks.

However, they’re getting increasingly difficult to manage because they’re everywhere now, outnumbering their human identities by 45X (Gartner). So, in this post, we will talk a bit more in-depth about what the challenges in securing non human identities in SaaS really are. And not to leave you hanging, broad strokes on what you can do to optimize and strengthen those security workflows. But before all that:

What are Non-Human Identities?

With SaaS proliferation becoming a norm, it’s not just humans who need identities to access systems and resources. A whole cast of characters work behind the scenes to keep the gears turning—we call them non-human identities, or NHIs for short.

These non-human identities come in all shapes and sizes, from service accounts and API keys to OAuth tokens and certificates and get things done without human intervention. These little guys come in all shapes and sizes, from service accounts and API keys to OAuth tokens and certificates. In a nutshell, they’re the digital credentials used by machines, services, and applications to authenticate and communicate with each other. They’re like the secret handshake that lets your HR app talk to Office 365 or your CI/CD pipeline deploy code from GitHub to AWS. And all this while we’ve been busy securing the human factor, the non human identities security in cloud environments has suffered.

You see, NHIs are often granted broad access permissions and operate without the same level of scrutiny as their human counterparts. It’s a classic “out of sight, out of mind.” But just because they’re not in the spotlight doesn’t mean they can’t cause a ruckus if they fall into the wrong hands. Let’s take service accounts, for instance. These accounts are created to allow applications or services to access system resources and perform their respective tasks, and to that end, they often come with high-level privileges. And this extensive access makes them attractive targets for cyber attackers. API keys are even more susceptible to attacks because often they can be found in plain text in source code.

The unique challenges of securing non-human identities in SaaS and cloud environments

Now that we have a fair idea of non-human identities, let’s discuss the ruckus they can create if left unchecked.

Visibility? What visibility?

The way NHIs are scattered is nothing but a game of hide-and-seek gone wrong. They’re lurking in SaaS apps, cloud platforms, secret managers, exposed systems, and on-prem systems, doing nothing but collecting dust. Talk about a visibility nightmare!

Excessive permissions

Non-human identities frequently have broad, always-on access that violates the principle of least privilege. If compromised by attackers, these overly permissive credentials are directly responsible for lateral movement and increase the blast radius.

Weak authentication

While we humans get to enjoy the extra layer of security that comes with MFA, non-human identities are left hanging with nothing but a flimsy secret to their name. To make matters worse, these secrets often end up scattered across code, logs, and config files like breadcrumbs, just waiting for an attacker to scoop them up.

Unmanaged lifecycles

Non-human identities tend to have a mind of their own regarding lifecycle management, and many organizations lack standardized NHI provisioning and de-provisioning processes. They can become orphaned when the associated human users leave the company or the original purpose is forgotten. Additionally, the credentials often need to be rotated regularly, increasing the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit them.

Decentralized ownership

Non-human identities are typically managed ad-hoc by different teams, such as DevOps, IT, data science, etc., without clear security accountability. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” — this decentralized approach leads to inconsistent non-human identity security in SaaS and difficulty enforcing uniform policies across the organization.

Incompatible with existing security tools

Legacy privileged access management (PAM) solutions and secrets managers were not designed to handle non-human identities’ dynamic and transient nature in SaaS and cloud environments. Even cloud security posture management (CSPM) and cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM) tools lack the context on identity permissions and activities to detect and mitigate risks effectively.

What steps can you take to secure non-human identities?

Your secrets are perhaps the only barricades that help prevent non-human identity security attacks, so now it’s up to you to ensure this line of defense is sturdy for the long haul. Here are the steps in securing non human identities in SaaS:

1. Discovery and inventory

Create a comprehensive inventory of all non-human identities across your multi cloud ecosystem. Use an automated discovery tool that helps you with secret scanning and can map all non-human identities across SaaS applications, cloud platforms, and on-premises systems at thier creation location, storage location, and exposure location.

Entro offers rigorous scanning capabilities that go beyond just the codebase, including CI/CD pipelines, collaboration tools, and cloud configurations so that you have a thorough inventory of your secrets.

With this inventory at your disposal, you’re all set to classify and normalize the discovered identities based on their types, permissions, and associated risks to enable effective management and monitoring.

2. Embrace the Principle of Least Privilege

Now, here’s where things get interesting. We need to channel our inner minimalist and grant our non-human accounts the bare minimum permissions they need to get the job done. No more “super accounts” with the keys to the kingdom! By adhering to the principle of least privilege, we can significantly reduce our risk exposure and keep our SaaS environment as tight as a drum. 

All this is no more than a click away with Entro. If there are excessive privileges assigned to a non-human identity, you can expect timely reminders to lower its permissions.

3. Automate, automate, automate

First things first, we need to bring out the big guns when it comes to securing our non-human identities. And by big guns mean advanced automated security checks that can sniff out any unusual activity faster than a bloodhound on a scent trail. We’re talking about real-time monitoring, behavioral analytics, and machine learning algorithms that can spot anomalies like a hawk. But there’s more:

  • Implement birthright provisioning for non-human identities based on predefined roles and use cases. Ensure identities are created with the appropriate permissions and access rights from the outset.
  • Employ static risk analysis to periodically evaluate the security posture of non-human identities. Set up automated alerts and notifications based on predefined risk thresholds to promptly address any identified issues or vulnerabilities.
  • Secrets rotation must also be automated. We must minimize the window of opportunity for attackers to exploit compromised credentials.
  • Implement an automated vaulting mechanism to securely store secrets and make sure the credentials associated with non-human identities are vaulted at your vault of choice. This centralized approach simplifies the process of accessing, rotating, and revoking secrets, reducing the risk of unauthorized access.  
  • For the end of the NHI lifecycle, implement automated de-provisioning workflows to promptly remove or disable non-human identities that are no longer required, ensuring that unnecessary access is eliminated promptly.

All this will ensure you’re never troubled with manual errors and follow consistent policy enforcement. With ML-powered continuous NHI abnormal behavior monitoring, advanced risk analytics, and context-aware insights offered by Entro, there’s not much more you can ask for.

4. Establish ironclad policies

Of course, a security strategy is only complete with a solid foundation of organizational policies. We need to lay down the law and clarify that account sharing is strictly prohibited across the board. No exceptions, no excuses! By enforcing these policies with an iron fist, we can monitor for that and foster a culture of accountability and keep our non-human identities on the straight and narrow.

Parting thoughts

So many things to do, and not enough time? Why settle for a solo act when you can have a full symphony at your fingertips? With Entro, the cacophony of scattered secrets and unmanaged non-human identities transforms into a well-orchestrated masterpiece. We’ve got it all: secrets discovery, context enrichment, misconfiguration alerts, anomaly detection.

Come onboard and see it for yourself. Click here for a quick demo!

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