Types of non-human identities - challenges and solutions

Itzik Alvas. Co-founder & CEO, Entro
March 21, 2024
non human identities illustration

Non human identities (or non person identities), the backbone of automated processes and digital operations, are the unsung heroes of our cybersecurity infrastructure. Yet, in the shadow of their critical functions, lies a significant vulnerability — non human identities security risks are often overlooked. While organizations have fortified human user access with robust security measures, the management and security of non human access like service accounts, API keys and cloud tokens have not received the same level of scrutiny. This gap in non human identity management presents a fertile ground for cyber attackers, who have quickly learned to exploit these vulnerabilities to their advantage.

The lack of visibility, monitoring, and management over these non human entities creates a substantial security challenge. These digital actors, if compromised, can unravel an organization’s security from the inside out. The oversight is glaring: visibility is insufficient, monitoring is sporadic, and governance is an afterthought.

This article strips away the obscurity surrounding non human identities, exposing their security risks, and delivers actionable insights to tighten the reins on these critical yet vulnerable assets.

The rise of non human identities

Non human identities provide machine-to-machine access and authentication within software ecosystems. These identities are digital constructs that enable automated processes, services, and applications to authenticate and perform tasks without direct human intervention. Access is granted to non human identities through various authentication methods, which include secrets like access keys, certificates, and tokens.

For example, an application or workload can use a service account, which is a type of non human identity, or use an API key to authenticate to a cloud service and perform operations as permitted by its assigned role and permissions. Here, the access granted would be typically defined by the scope of the service account’s required interactions and is often more permissive than that of human users, as they need to operate autonomously and continuously. And that is a problem.

Conventional security solutions often fall short when it comes to managing these non-human identities, leaving a glaring blind spot in enterprise security. You can’t expect to catch a speeding car with a butterfly net now, can you?

The types of non-human identities

What we discussed above are more general issues. Let’s talk about specific non-human identities and the risks associated with them.

API Keys

API keys enable secure interaction between applications, guaranteeing that only approved entities can gain access and engage with one another. However, the exposure of these keys can lead to significant security risks, including:

  • Unauthorized access to sensitive data and systems
  • Data breaches and theft of intellectual property
  • Potential for malicious activities and system disruption

To mitigate these risks and address non human identity  security challenges, organizations should follow these best practices:

  • Continuously monitor all non human identities access and make sure it’s legitimate
  • Implement automated key rotation to regularly update and invalidate old keys
  • Enforce strict access permissions based on the principle of least privilege

Service accounts

Service accounts are specialized accounts used by software applications, automated services, etc to interact with computer systems and perform tasks without direct human oversight. various cloud platforms offer service accounts to allow VMs and workloads to interact with their APIs.

Associated security risks include:

  • Increased attack surface for both internal and external threats
  • Potential for lateral movement and privilege escalation within the network
  • Unauthorized access to sensitive resources and data

To address these challenges that non-human identities create, we can implement a few strategies, such as:

  • Regularly audit service account privileges to ensure they align with the principle of least privilege
  • Automate credential lifecycle management to ensure timely creation, rotation, and deletion of service account credentials

Containers & images

Containers and images such as Docker containers and Kubernetes pods play a major role in modern software development enabling applications to be packaged with their dependencies and run consistently across different environments. However, managing the identities associated with containers and images introduces unique security challenges such as:

  • Containers with excessive permissions or insecure settings can become entry points for attackers
  • Images containing outdated software or known vulnerabilities can be exploited, compromising the container and potentially the host system
  • Hard-coded secrets in container images or environment variables can be exposed

Here are a few best practices to consider:

  • Start with the smallest possible base image to reduce the attack surface
  • Regularly scan container images for vulnerabilities and apply patches promptly
  • Use secrets management tools to inject secrets at runtime securely

Cloud services

Cloud services including infrastructure, platform, and software as a service (IaaS, PaaS, SaaS), are integral to digital operations. Non human identities in cloud services, such as Azure Service Principals (used by applications or automated tools to access Azure resources) or AWS IAM roles (used to define permissions for actions that can be performed on AWS resources), facilitate automated access and interactions between cloud resources.

Here are a few associated risks with these services:

  • Configuration drift or inconsistent security configurations across cloud environments may lead to vulnerabilities
  • Over-privileged identities s can pose significant risks if compromised
  • Orphaned identities or identities that are unused or unmanaged can become security liabilities

Here are a few recommended best practices:

  • Assign minimal necessary permissions to cloud service identities
  • Continuously monitor cloud environments non human identities for suspicious activities and audit access usage

DevOps tools

DevOps tools streamline software development processes through automation, enabling continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) pipelines. Major players here are Jenkins and GitHub CI/CD pipelines which are used by devs to build, test, and deploy applications, and Ansible which is an automation tool for configuring systems. However, misconfigurations and insecure handling of secrets within these tools can pose risks such as:

  • Exposure of sensitive information, including credentials and API keys
  • Unauthorized access to development and production environments
  • Potential for supply chain attacks and compromise of the software development lifecycle

Best practices to mitigate these risks of non human identities in SaaS environments:

  • Scan all CI/CD pipelines and their logs for secrets
  • Utilize secure secret management solutions to store and manage secrets
  • Enforce role-based access control (RBAC) to ensure that only authorized individuals have access to critical DevOps tools and processes

Software supply chain

Securing the software supply chain is a complex challenge, as vulnerabilities can arise from various sources, including commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software and independent software vendor (ISV) applications. Key risks include:

  • Compromise of third-party components, leading to supply chain attacks
  • Introduction of vulnerabilities through outdated or unpatched software
  • Lack of visibility into the security practices of third-party vendors

To address these non-human identities security risks, organizations should:

  • Implement least privilege principle and monitor the activities of all non-human identities and secrets given to a third-party vendor
  • Conduct comprehensive risk evaluations of third-party vendors prior to engagement and continuously thereafter

RPA bots

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) bots are software programs designed to automate routine tasks traditionally done by humans. They mimic human actions in digital systems to perform tasks like data entry, transaction processing, and simple customer service responses. Some of the major risks include:

  • Unauthorized access to sensitive data and systems
  • Execution of fraudulent transactions or malicious activities
  • Disruption of critical business processes and operations

Here are a few recommendations for reducing non-human identity security risks in the context of RPA bots:

  • Implement comprehensive monitoring and logging of the non human identities used by RPA bot activities
  • Establish strict governance protocols and access controls for the non-human identities used RPA bots
  • Utilize behavioral analytics and anomaly detection to identify and respond to suspicious  non human identity activities

By proactively managing the risks associated with non human identities, organizations can reduce the likelihood of successful attacks or breaches and maintain the integrity of their software ecosystem.

As we rely on MFA and passwords to secure human identities, the question arises: How do we ensure the security and integrity of non-human identities? How do we authenticate, authorize, and manage access for entities that lack a heartbeat but hold the keys to critical systems?

The challenges we face with non-human identities

Let’s break it down.

Consider a cloud-native application which is made up of tiny neighborhoods called microservices, all packed neatly into containers. These microservices are like little worker bees, each doing its own specific job, whether it’s processing data, checking your credentials, or fetching stuff from a database. And they chat with each other using APIs, making sure everything runs smoothly for us users. To use those APIs the microservices need to authenticate and they are using non-human identities and secrets for it, which are incessantly programmatic access keys,

Now, if a hacker managed to get one of those non-human identities or secrets. They could cause chaos—stealing your secrets, messing with your data, or even shutting down the whole system. 

One of these risks come from privilege escalation. It’s not uncommon for non-human identities to be granted more privileges than they actually need. If an attacker compromises one of these over-privileged identities, they can wreak havoc on your network, accessing sensitive data and causing all sorts of mischief.

Reliance on third-party tools and services that require access to their systems is yet another concern. If a third-party tool is compromised, attackers could potentially get the token you provided to the third party vendor which means, a foothold in your organization’s network without you even realizing it.

Traceability is also a challenge with non-human identities. If something goes wrong, it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack to determine which non-human identity was responsible. This lack of non-repudiation can make incident response and forensics a real headache.

Without strong security measures, a system is wide open to these kinds of attacks. Companies need to lock things down tight to keep data safe and systems running smoothly. 

The solution

What’s needed is a comprehensive suite of features to meet the needs of managing non human identities.

Comprehensive secrets visibility

To manage non-human identities at scale you need a bird’s-eye view of all machine identities in your systems. From ownership details to permissions and risk levels, all this critical information needs to be centralized, empowering your security teams to understand the secrets landscape thoroughly. No more guessing games—just clear insights into non-human identities and their potential vulnerabilities.

Real-time monitoring & protection

As you manage non-human identities you need real-time monitoring to keep a vigilant eye on your secrets, flagging any suspicious activity instantaneously. Whether it’s an unauthorized access attempt or an unexpected change in permissions, continuous scanning of secrets will ensure you’re always one step ahead of potential threats. When something suspicious happens, it’s not enough to just sound the alarm, you need a solution that offers practical steps to take to tackle the issue immediately.

Centralized governance 

Centralized governance simplifies secrets management for non-human identities. By consolidating all security controls into one streamlined platform, it becomes easy for you to oversee access to non-human identities. From identification to prioritization and remediation, you need seamless collaboration between security and development teams, ensuring everyone is on the same page when it comes to protecting your digital assets.

Vulnerability detection & false positive elimination

Not every alert is a cause for panic. That’s why vulnerability detection should go beyond just flagging potential risks—it should distinguish between genuine threats and false alarms. By eliminating false positives and focusing on the real issues, your security teams can tackle vulnerabilities efficiently, without wasting time on unnecessary distractions.

This is what it takes to manage secrets security for non human identities. It’s what we obsess about here at Entro. 

Why Entro

With Entro‘s non human identity management solution, organizations can:

  • Gain complete visibility of secrets that protect code, APIs, containers, and serverless functions scattered across various systems and environments.
  • Identify and prioritize security risks, remediate vulnerabilities, and prevent unauthorized access to critical financial systems and data.
  • Automate the remediation of identified security risks, saving time and resources for the security and development teams.
  • Ensure compliance with regulatory requirements such as SOC2, GDPR, and others by maintaining robust access controls and security measures.

Get in touch with us to learn more about Entro’s machine identities and secrets management solution.

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