Identity, Cloud Security

Seven best practices for managing non-human identities

Non-human identities

The concept of identity and access management (IAM) has undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. Traditionally focused on managing human identities, IAM now extends to a wide range of non-human identities (NHI) – from applications and service accounts to virtual machines, cloud resources, and even IoT devices.

This shift reflects the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of modern IT, where the lines between human and non-human entities blur, and traditional IAM approaches can no longer address emerging security challenges.

How NHIs have evolved

We can trace the evolution of NHIs back to the convergence of two important IAM disciplines: Identity governance and administration (IGA) and cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM). IGA started in the pre-cloud days, traditionally focused on managing human identities, provisioning and de-provisioning user accounts, and enforcing access controls based on role-based policies. Meanwhile, CIEM emerged later on when Infrastructure-as-a-Service was already a commodity as a response to the proliferation of cloud services that aimed to manage and secure access to the cloud.

As organizations embraced cloud technologies and adopted DevOps practices, the boundaries between human and non-human identities began to blur. Applications, services, and infrastructure components became first-class citizens in the IAM ecosystem, necessitating a unified approach to identity management. This convergence gave rise to the concept of NHI, encompassing a wide range of machine identities, including service accounts, APIs, containers, and microservices.

Why NHIs matter

The growing prominence of NHI reflect their critical role in modern IT environments and underscores the importance of controlling and securing them effectively.

There are many reason why security teams must more effectively manage NHI. For starters, NHI often have elevated privileges and access rights to critical resources and data, making them attractive targets for cyber attackers. Properly managing and securing NHI is essential to mitigate the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and compliance violations. Second, NHI plays a crucial role in automating IT operations and enabling seamless integration between applications, systems, and services. By managing NHI effectively, organizations can streamline workflows, improve efficiency, reduce friction, and accelerate digital transformation initiatives.

Teams can also use NHI for risk mitigation. Misconfigured, over-privileged, or unsecured NHI poses significant security risks, including insider threats, privilege abuse, and data leakage. Implementing robust controls and monitoring mechanisms for NHI help organizations identify and remediate security vulnerabilities before they escalate into serious incidents. Start by revoking all unused credentials.

Next, as organizations scale their operations and adopt cloud-native architectures, the number and complexity of NHI proliferate exponentially. Effective management of NHI has become critical to maintaining scalability, resilience, and agility in dynamic IT environments. Finally,  NHIs are entrusted with sensitive data and critical operations, making it essential they establish trust and accountability in their interactions. Implementing strong authentication, authorization, and auditing controls for NHI builds confidence in their integrity and reliability.

Best practices for managing NHI

Organizations need to adopt a comprehensive approach to managing NHI that encompasses the following best practices:

  • Inventory and classification: Maintain a comprehensive inventory of NHI across all IT assets and classify them based on their roles, privileges, and criticality to the business. Make this a repetitive process because of the dynamic nature of cloud environments.
  • Lifecycle management: Implement automated processes for provisioning, rotation, and de-provisioning of NHI to ensure they are created, used, and retired securely throughout their lifecycle. Valid, unused credentials are the attacker’s favorite way in.
  • Access controls: Enforce least privilege access controls for NHI, limiting their permissions to only the resources and actions necessary to perform their intended functions.
  • Monitors and alerts: Implement continuous monitoring and real-time alerting mechanisms to detect anomalous behavior, unauthorized access attempts, and potential security threats involving NHI.
  • Encryption and key management: Encrypt sensitive data and credentials associated with NHI and implement robust key management practices to protect them from unauthorized access and disclosure.
  • Identity federation: Implement identity federation, MFA, and single sign-on (SSO) mechanisms to enable seamless authentication and access management for NHI across heterogeneous environments.
  • Auditing and compliance: Regularly audit and review access logs, activity trails, and configuration settings related to NHI to ensure compliance with internal policies and regulatory requirements.

By adopting these best practices, organizations can effectively control and secure their NHI, mitigating security risks, ensuring operational efficiency, and maintaining trust and accountability in their IT infrastructure.

NHI have emerged as a critical component of modern IAM ecosystems, reflecting the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of IT. As organizations continue to embrace the cloud, DevOps practices, and digital transformation, we can’t overstate the importance of controlling and securing NHI.

By adopting a comprehensive approach to NHI management, organizations can mitigate security risks, enhance operational efficiency, and build trust and accountability in their IT infrastructure. As we navigate the evolving cybersecurity landscape, embracing NHI management as a core tenet of IAM has become essential to staying ahead of emerging threats and ensuring the resilience of our digital assets.

Shira Shamban, co-founder and CEO, Solvo

Shira Shamban

Shira Shambam, co-founder and CEO at Solvo, a software company focused on automating cloud and data security, started her career in security as a military officer in Israel’s intelligence Unit 8200. Specializing in cloud security, Shira works to empower women and underrepresented groups in technology, volunteering as a lecturer and mentor for organizations such as SheCodes, Cyber Ladies, and Women in AppSec. She also spearheaded the local mentoring initiative Security Diva and holds the position of co-chair at OWASP Israel.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shira-shamban/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ShambanIT

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