Securing the unseen: Advanced strategies for non-human identity management

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
April 11, 2024

We are witnessing a shift with non-human identities emerging as key vulnerabilities in the architecture of enterprise cloud environments. These non-human entities come in many forms such as API Keys, Services Accounts, Cloud Access Tokens, etc and may be used in various ways from executing routine tasks, to sophisticated service accounts, managing cross-platform integrations. 

While these non human identities enhance operational efficiency, they unfortunately introduce potential vulnerabilities as well. 

As businesses scale and cloud transformations deepen, oversight of these non-human identities becomes a cyber security necessity and a strategic imperative. The consequential rise of non-human identity components in IT infrastructures underscores the need for security protocols that account for their non-human characteristics. 

This article sheds light on the nuances of securing these non-human entities, offering a blueprint for security and engineering departments to navigate the complexities of non human identity management.

What’s the difference between human and non human identities

Human identities are fortified with robust security measures such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), IP restrictions, and stringent oversight, making them easily traceable and monitored. Conversely, non human identities like tokens and machine credentials are often inadequately secured. These credentials frequently lack expiration dates and possess overly broad permissions, exacerbating the risk. Although implementing expiration dates and appropriate scoping can alleviate some vulnerabilities, the absence of comprehensive security protocols remains a significant concern. For instance, compromised tokens can grant attackers unrestricted access while eluding detection mechanisms effectively.

What are non-human identities?

Machines are increasingly talking to each other. Non Human Identities (NHI) are like special digital keys that enable machine-to-machine access and authentication and allow these machines to securely access information and perform tasks. As businesses rely more on automation and cloud services, the number of non human identites is exploding. There are 50x more NHIs than human accounts in an average size organization! The drive for swift innovation has led to an increase in microservices, third-party services, and cloud-based solutions all of which require more non-human identities. This evolution has resulted in a complicated web where secure interactions between machines are managed by various NHIs which are left unmanaged themselves.

The lifecycle of non human identities is complex, shaped by various elements such as cloud services, vaults, SaaS platforms, and on-premises systems. Different models should be employed for every cloud service, SaaS, DaaS, on-premises systems, vault and IDP (such as Okta or Active Directory) to generate and oversee NHIs. In contrast to human identities, NHIs are controlled by the development teams without any security team oversight.

Service accounts

Service accounts are the essential gears in the machinery of an organization’s IT system, enabling applications and services to interact and share resources efficiently. They’re specifically designed for software processes, facilitating automated tasks and system operations crucial for maintaining the smooth running of digital services.

API keys

API keys are unique identifiers that authenticate and authorize app-to-app or app-to-service secure authentication and connection. Their role is fundamental in enabling a connected ecosystem of applications where trust and verification are paramount.

SaaS Tokens

SaaS tokens are digital credentials used by Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications to securely access and authenticate to resources and data within the SaaS platform. They function similarly to service accounts, but with a specific focus on SaaS environments.

Roles and IAM

IAM and Roles, within the context of cloud providers(AWS, Azure, GCP) Identity and Access Management (IAM), are essentially virtual identities that you can create and assign specific permissions to. These permissions dictate what actions trusted identities, like applications or other workloads or services, can perform within your AWS account. 

OAuth tokens

OAuth tokens streamline user experiences by allowing secure access across different SaaS platforms without the need to share sensitive keypassword information. Example can be connecting your Salesforce to your Calendar. They’re the architects of a more interconnected and user-friendly digital experience, enabling users to leverage their credentials from one service to access another, all while maintaining stringent security measures.

Challenges in implementing non-human identity management

The seamless integration of non-human identities is indispensable for the automation and efficiency of modern digital infrastructures. However, managing these entities presents a unique set of challenges stemming from the inherent characteristics of non-human identities, such as their automated nature and technical nuances. Let’s identify some of these issues:

  1. SprawlThe rapid adoption of microservices, cloud services, and third-party integrations creates a vast and ever-growing number of non-human identites and secrets. Those secrets are usually scattered everywhere across vaults, committed to code, in config files, and more. This sprawl makes it difficult to track and manage them all effectively, potentially leading to forgotten or unused accounts that become security vulnerabilities.
  2. Lifecycle ManagementEffectively managing the lifecycle of NHIs poses a challenge. Provisioning (creating) new accounts, rotating credentials regularly, and decommissioning (deleting) unused accounts all require careful procedures to ensure continued security. Without proper management, these processes can be neglected, creating vulnerabilities.
  3. Over-permissive access and no expiration- A fundamental issue with non human identities is their tendency to possess broader access rights than necessary, often without an expiry date. Non human privileged identities, such as service accounts with elevated access, pose significant security challenges, necessitating rigorous oversight. This over-permissiveness, combined with indefinite lifespans, turns these identities into attractive targets for attackers. Unlike human users, non-human identities are less likely to be protected by stringent security measures like multi-factor authentication (MFA), leaving significant vulnerabilities within an organization’s defenses. In this context, advanced secrets vulnerability detection tools are essential for identifying and mitigating risks associated with embedded credentials in automation scripts.
  4. Security Measures– While non-human identites provide secure access control, they often lack the same level of advanced security features compared to human identities. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), a common security measure for human accounts, is frequently not available for NHIs, potentially increasing the risk of unauthorized access.
  5. Unintentional key duplication and overuse- Efficiency-driven practices often lead to secrets keys being duplicated and shared among employees, increasing the risk of privilege abuse. This unintentional duplication complicates the management and revocation process, requiring administrators to untangle complex key-user relationships before deploying fresh, dedicated key pairs.
  6. Scripts and embedded credentials- Automation scripts, while enhancing efficiency, frequently embed hard-coded credentials. This practice, although seemingly benign due to the scripts’ simplicity and sporadic use, introduces considerable security risks. The replication and dissemination of these scripts can inadvertently expose sensitive credentials, complicating the tracking and management of access rights.

The problem with OAuth and access tokens

OAuth, and access tokens are critical components in modern authentication and authorization processes, enabling seamless interactions between applications without sharing password credentials. And to protect API endpoints from unauthorized access, they are at the forefront of various authentication mechanisms. However, these mechanisms lead to significant vulnerabilities.

Token hijacking, where attackers gain unauthorized access through compromised tokens, often results from over-permissive scopes. These broad permissions, if hijacked, can open wide avenues for data breaches and unauthorized actions, illustrating a direct link between the scope of permissions and the magnitude of potential security incidents.

Deficiencies in token lifecycle management further compound this risk. Inadequate practices around the rotation and expiration of tokens make it easier for attackers to exploit long-lived or forgotten tokens and create a fertile ground for OAuth phishing attacks. Attackers exploit users’ trust in the authentication process, using sophisticated techniques to mimic legitimate authorization requests. This exploitation is made more accessible by the lingering presence of overly permissive and inadequately managed tokens, which can be hijacked and used in phishing campaigns to gain broader access to sensitive systems and data.

Addressing all the above challenges requires securing non-human identities, which demands advanced technology and strategic foresight.

Tracking and managing non-human identities

Achieving visibility and control over non-human identities involves a strategic approach. A foundational step would be to deploy a comprehensive identity inventory system that catalogs all non-human entities within the IT environment. This system becomes the bedrock for understanding the scope and nature of non-human identities, enabling precise monitoring and management. Beyond this, a secrets lifecycle management platform will come in handy for the holistic management of non-human identities, ensuring that sensitive credentials are securely handled from creation to retirement.

Integrating non human identity management platforms would be the next key step. These platforms offer tools for automating the secure management of non-human identities, including provisioning, de-provisioning, and enforcing security policies across the board.

Finally, applying consistent access policies across all non-human identities is essential. These policies should be designed to enforce security best practices, such as regular vaulting, credential rotation, applying and monitoring for anomalous behaviors. 

How to protect your non-human identities

Non-human identity management requires a multifaceted approach integrating robust security practices with advanced technological solutions. 

  • Implementing least privilege: Ensure that non-human identities are granted only the necessary access rights for the required duration, as this can significantly reduce the attack surface.
  • Continuous monitoring and management: Employ non-human identity management and security platforms that offer continuous monitoring and management capabilities. This will make room for effectively tracking and controlling non-human access permissions.
  • Identity lifecycle management for non-human entities: This will help you manage and secure these elements from creation through expiration, revoking access rights as necessary to minimize risks. Furthermore, identity lifecycle management for non-human entities holds a special place for maintaining the integrity of digital ecosystems, enabling the proactive revocation of compromised identities.
  • Adaptive Identity and Access Management (IAM): Managing non-human privileged identities is a delicate balance, requiring stringent controls to prevent abuse while enabling essential automated operations. Make use of adaptive IAM solutions that tailor non-human access permissions based on entities’ unique behaviors, as they can enhance security by minimizing unauthorized access risks.

The Entro solution to the non-human identity problem

We’ve unpacked a lot in the journey of tightening cybersecurity around non-human identities. The terrain has many challenges, from managing secrets to keeping those pesky automated processes under wraps. Organizations must employ advanced threat detection and response strategies tailored to these digital entities to secure and protect non-human identities. That’s where Entro strides in, not with a cape, but with a toolkit that’s a cut above the rest.

Entro stands out by compiling a detailed inventory of all your non-human identities, including where they were created, stored in vaults, and kept. It scans for any exposed non-human identities and secrets, offering the necessary context for implementing effective security measures in response.” This includes detailed insights into each secret’s creation, access, usage, and exposure status. Such granularity empowers security teams with actionable intelligence to safeguard against external and insider threats efficiently.

Moreover, Entro simplifies secrets and non-human identity management across diverse environments through a single, unified platform. Entro will make sure all your secets are vaulted and rotated in time. As well as proactively identifying and remediating risks and ensuring secrets are governed effectively. Additionally, its advanced security features, like anomaly detection and dark web leakage alerts, offer an extra layer of protection, making Entro a comprehensive solution for modern cybersecurity needs. 

Given Entro’s advanced approach to securing your digital environment, it’s clear that staying ahead in cybersecurity is simpler than ever. Interested in a more secure future? Book your free trial now!

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