Secure machine identity management 101

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
May 22, 2024
machine identity 101

Imagine a world where devices communicate like trusted old friends, whether servers, containers, or cloud services. Each workload or cloud service plays a unique part in this digital symphony, creating a network that thrives on seamless and secure interactions. This is where Machine Identity Management (MIM) or Non Human Identities (NHI) steps in, acting as the conductor of this to ensure these digital interactions are not just happening but are secure and trusted. 

Why is machine identity management important? As we’ve moved to a cloud-first approach, non-human identities have skyrocketed, creating a new battleground for cybersecurity experts. This surge places immense pressure on ensuring that each identity, from the smallest container to sprawling cloud services, is authenticated and managed effectively. In this context, a machine identity management platform emerges as the unsung hero, keeping every machine identity compliant and secure. 

As we round off this introduction, let’s focus on the essence of our machine identity security: a commitment to treating our machines with the same vigilance and integrity we afford to human interactions.

The need of machine identity management

To bridge the gap between the overarching discussion of machine identity management and the following deep dive, we’ll first explore the evolution and significance of machine identity, tracing its impact across various sectors. Then, we examine the security risks and strategic imperatives to understand how unchecked vulnerabilities can threaten our digital ecosystem.

The evolution and significance of machine identities

As digital transformation reshapes industries, machine identities have grown from background players to leading roles in the cybersecurity narrative. Initially confined to the cubicles of IT departments, these digital identifiers are now pivotal across sectors, embedding themselves in CI/CD pipelines, cloud infrastructure, and beyond. 

Security risks and strategic imperatives

The proliferation of machine identities, while a testament to technological advancement, also opens a pandora’s box of security risks. Leaving a machine identity unprotected is like going the keys in a car’s ignition; they provide cybercriminals with a direct route to infiltrate networks and access sensitive data. The consequences of such breaches are not just data loss or operational disruption but can extend to severe reputational and financial damage. 

In the face of these security risks, secret security automation becomes a strategic imperative. Automating the detection and response to potential threats ensures that machine identities are shielded from the vulnerabilities that cybercriminals exploit. This automation is a precursor to the rigorous authentication and authorization practices of Zero Trust.

Components of lifecycle

Let’s break down the lifecycle of a machine identity from when it first joins the network to when it’s time to say goodbye. 

  1. Provisioning is where it all starts. This is the creation of a token, secret, or service account. These tokens will be granted permission and an expiry date, and be stored in a secure location.
  2. Classification & documentation comes next, acting as the logbook for these machine identities. It records important details like when the machine identity expires, its type, permissions, owner, and where it fits into the network’s big picture. That part is usually manual and full of gaps which means that those machine identities are nearly impossible to protect.
  3. Posture management is about getting static monitoring for any potential security gaps around machine identities and vaults, such as over-permissive non-human identities, misconfigured service accounts, vaults, and more.
  4. Machine identity XDR plays a crucial role by emphasizing security post-creation, focusing on detection and response for abnormal behaviors. This stage involves continuous vigilance over the operational activities of machine entities, identifying deviations from their normal patterns that may signal security threats.
  5. Rotation is the practice of regularly changing machine identities and their associated credentials(secrets) to maintain network security. When automated, it involves updating secrets, keys, and service accounts at predefined intervals or in response to specific triggers, such as a potential breach, or at a set time interval.
  6. Vaulting is the secure storage of machine identities’ credentials, including tokens, keys, and certificates. By centralizing and synchronizing these secrets in a vault, organizations can manage access controls, monitor usage, and ensure that sensitive information is only accessible to authenticated and authorized entities.
  7. Decommissioning is the final step when a machine identity is outdated or unnecessary. This is when its access is removed, closing the door to any potential security risks from old or unnecessary certificates.

This lifecycle is essential for keeping a network’s communication secure, making sure each machine’s journey from start to finish is managed carefully.

Examples of machine identities

What are examples of machine identity management? Let’s take a look at a few of them:

  • CI/CD pipelines: CI/CD pipelines exemplify how non-person identities ensure the secure automation of software delivery processes. Secrets and API keys are used to manage access between CI/CD tools like GitLab and cloud environments, enabling secure updates and deployments. These identifiers authenticate the pipeline’s actions, securing against unauthorized access to sensitive operations, such as deploying code or accessing production databases. 
  • Microservices architecture: In another example, let’s consider an e-commerce platform built on a microservices architecture. Each microservice, from payment processing to inventory management, operates with its unique identity where secure communication between these services is often facilitated by JWT (JSON Web Tokens) for access control. These tokens verify the identity of each microservice, ensuring that sensitive operations, like payment processing, are executed securely and reliably.
  • Cloud infrastructure management: In cloud environments such as AWS, managing access to resources like EC2 or S3 isn’t a secondary consideration. Here, service accounts and API keys act as the identity verifiers for automated processes, ensuring secure API calls within AWS services. For instance, a service account might be used to authenticate and authorize actions between an EC2 instance and an S3 bucket, facilitating secure data storage and retrieval operations without manual intervention.

Zero trust machine identity management

Incorporating a Zero Trust framework into MIM requires verifying every digital identity attempting to access resources, significantly bolstering the network’s security posture. Zero Trust principles ensure that only authenticated and authorized machines can communicate within the network, a critical step in securing the management of machine identities against evolving cyber threats.

Let’s look at an example. In the telecommunications industry, Zero Trust security zeroes in on software components, requiring every application and service, from cloud-based functions to APIs, to authenticate before accessing network resources. This software-first approach leverages digital certificates for identity verification, ensuring a secure, permission-based access system. It effectively tightens network security, minimizing insider threats and unauthorized access by treating every software interaction as a potential risk point that must be verified.

Enterprise machine identity management

Machine identity management is crucial for maintaining the CIA triad (Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability) in enterprise cybersecurity. It involves managing the lifecycle of digital certificates, cryptographic keys, and other credentials used by the machines to authenticate and communicate securely.

Compromised machine identities can lead to unauthorized access, data breaches, and other security incidents. Attackers can forge keys or misuse stolen certificates to impersonate legitimate machines, bypass authentication mechanisms, and gain unauthorized access to sensitive resources, compromising confidentiality. They can then modify or delete data, inject malware, or disrupt services, violating integrity and availability.

Effective machine identity management must include automating the provisioning, renewal, revocation, and monitoring of machine identities, enforcing strong cryptographic policies, and maintaining an up-to-date inventory of all machine identities across the enterprise.

Challenges in Machine Identity Management

As machine identities multiply within our increasingly digital ecosystems, managing them has become an arduous task fraught with complexities. The challenges in MIM stretch from sheer volume to the complexities of governance, each layer adding its hurdles. Let’s dissect some of these challenges:

  1. Volume and visibility: The digital surge has swelled the number of servers and cloud services on networks. Security teams struggle to track every machine identity, as documentation lags behind.  It’s like trying to keep a detailed guest list for a party open to the whole city; inevitably, some attendees will slip through the cracks.
  2. Centralization and standardization: For sprawling enterprises, the diversity of departments and their unique operational needs complicate the centralization of non person identity management. Making the company-wide standardization of MIM processes a significant challenge and the lack of uniformity can lead to audit nightmares and unplanned system downtimes.
  3. Key security: The crux of MIM is enriching machine identities with specific context, such as access rights and ownership. However, securely storing and managing these keys is a stumbling block. With too many cooks in the security kitchen, the risk of internal threats and vulnerabilities surges, putting the entire network’s security at risk.
  4. Compliance: Beyond the operational challenges, adhering to regulatory and industry standards for non-human identity management remains formidable. Organizations must navigate the tightrope of keeping their machine secure and compliant while meeting the stringent requirements of SOC2, ISO, and more.

Best practices in Machine Identity Management

Navigating the complexities of MIM demands a strategic approach to ensure secure and efficient digital operations. Here are some best practices to keep in mind when formulating the implementation strategy specific to your organization:

  1. Automation and centralization: Automation streamlines the issuance, renewal, and revocation of machine identities, minimizing human error and operational inefficiencies. Centralization offers a singular view of all machine identities across the network, enhancing visibility and control. Together, they ensure the secure management of machine identities, making the network resilient against threats and compliance issues. To further enhance the efficacy of these practices, employing a secrets lifecycle management platform allows you to automate the intricate processes of issuing, renewing, and revoking machine identities, turning what was a cumbersome task into a streamlined operation.
  2. Continuous monitoring and management: By keeping a vigilant eye on machine activities and their corresponding identities, organizations can swiftly detect and respond to anomalies or security breaches. This ongoing oversight is crucial for upholding the integrity of digital identity management, preventing unauthorized access, and ensuring that all non person identities comply with security policies.
  3. Integration with DevSecOps: Integrating MIM with DevSecOps practices embeds security into every phase of the development and operational process, ensuring the secure management of non-human identities from the outset. By considering security as a fundamental component rather than an afterthought, organizations can foster a culture where machine identity management is seamlessly incorporated into daily workflows. 

Navigating the future with Entro

Entro operates in cybersecurity like a jazz band fine-tuning its performance, where every instrument’s role is critical to the piece’s harmony. Just as a jazz band relies on seamlessly integrating each musician’s expertise, Entro ensures the secure and smooth management of machine or non-human identities across your digital network.

Fitting right into your existing setup, Entro provides a behind-the-scenes look at the secure side of things. Here, every secret is handled precisely, ensuring your network is as fast and responsive as needed. Plus, it offers some standout features: automation for issuing and renewing non and continuous anomaly detection to spot any unusual activity. 

With Entro, you’re looking at top-tier automation that takes the repetitive, manual work out of your hands, alongside smart monitoring that keeps an eye out for anything out of the ordinary, ensuring that your system’s integrity is always intact. This approach secures your digital environment and does so with a style that’s as effortless as it is engaging, leading the way in the future of machine identity management with flair and precision. Come on, see it with your own eyes. Click here to book a quick demo!

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