Why Machine Identities Are Essential Strands in Your Zero Trust Strategy

February 27, 2024 James Imanian

Zero Trust Network Architecture

Just like a snagged strand can ruin your garment, overlooking the security of machine identities can tear the very fabric of Zero Trust that protects your organization from bad actors. As a quick refresher, Zero Trust operates on the principle that no entity inside or outside the network perimeter is trusted by default. As we usher in an era where the traditional network perimeter has dissolved due to cloud services, remote work and mobile access, the necessity for Zero Trust becomes even more pronounced.

However, too often, a critical and overlooked component of this framework by security teams is the management of machine identities. But while security teams don’t always apply Zero Trust principles to machine identities, for attackers, unprotected machine identities are another entry point to your organization’s sensitive data. And the problem is getting bigger.

Machine Identities Now Outnumber Human Identities by a Factor of 45 to One

A machine identity is a unique identifier distinguishing software code, applications, virtual machines or even physical IoT devices from others on a network. It’s used to authenticate and authorize the machine to access resources and services. Machine identities use secrets, API keys, Cloud Access Keys, digital certificates and other credentials to enable machines to communicate securely with other systems.

As organizations digitally transform, the number of machines – applications, containers, automation scripts, virtual machines, Lambda and other computing functions – grows exponentially. Machine identities now outweigh human identities by a factor of 45:1. Therefore, we can assume they also have greater access to sensitive data than human identities. Without the right policies and automation, machine identities and secrets become a vastly expanding attack surface for cyber adversaries.

Digital Transformation: Fueling the Proliferation of Machine Identities and Secrets

Most organizations today enable their missions with software as a service (SaaS) applications – storing data in one or more clouds and even developing software applications to serve their customers. The CyberArk 2023 Identity Security Threat Landscape 2023 report finds that organizations expect an increase of 68% in the number of SaaS applications deployed in their environment. Additionally, another CyberArk report indicates that 80% of organizations will use three or more cloud service providers (CSPs). This digital transformation spurs the proliferation of machines in our networks and the corresponding growth in the number of secrets needed to access IT and other resources securely. And the rapid growth has outpaced our ability to manually track the number, purpose and location of machines and secrets. That’s why it’s unsurprising that 65% of organizations either took steps to protect machine identities last year or plan to do so in the next 12 months.

The dynamic nature of hybrid and multi-cloud environments and DevOps practices requires automated secrets rotation and issuance, renewal and revocation of machine identities. Manual processes are prone to errors and cannot keep pace with the speed at which modern IT environments change. To protect your organization’s digital assets holistically, it’s imperative that you implement a robust Zero Trust strategy that includes a plan for securing and managing machine identities and their secrets.

Why Machine Identity Management is a Zero Trust Strategy Essential

As your organization builds its Zero Trust roadmap, ensure machine identities and secrets management are specifically called out in your identity governance policy and procedures. Machine identities and secrets management are essential components of a Zero Trust security strategy because they provide a means of authentication and secure communication between machines on a network. By including machine identities and secrets management in your Zero Trust strategy, organizations can ensure that only trusted machines can communicate on the network and that unauthorized access attempts are detected and prevented.

Machine identity management policies should be established to govern machine identity generation, renewal and revocation. Regular audits and monitoring should also be conducted to identify abnormal or unauthorized activity.

It’s crucial to aim for at least four goals as you build out your machine identity practices:

  1. Greater visibility. Currently, 62% of security teams operate with limited visibility across their environment, making the task of securing human and especially machine identities cumbersome and inefficient. A comprehensive secrets management and machine identity management policy can give organizations greater visibility into their network, allowing them to closely monitor and track managed and unmanaged secrets and machine activity. By enhancing visibility, you can ensure the provisioning of certificates across all areas of IT infrastructure, including hybrid and multi-cloud environments.
  2. Improved security. Centralized management of secrets and machine identities is a key element of a comprehensive Zero Trust strategy. Functions like centralized rotation of secrets help eliminate the problem of hard-coded secrets and enable organizations to audit which applications and machines are using each secret.
  3. Lower risk digital transformation enablement. The dynamism of hybrid and multi-cloud environments and DevOps practices demands agile central management for secrets and machine identities. Integrating identity security automatically in CI/CD pipelines, for instance, ensures that identity integrity is baked into your development processes and not just an afterthought.
  4. Improved operations efficiency. Automation tools improve efficiency. Additionally, native integrations with DevOps tools and the cloud provider’s built-in (native) services increase developers’ adoption of secure coding practices, ultimately increasing overall productivity and accelerating the deployment of new services more rapidly.

Ultimately, incorporating machine identities and secrets management into a Zero Trust strategy can help your organization establish a more robust and secure network architecture and reduce costs associated with traditional security approaches while reducing the time to deploy new services. A comprehensive machine identity management policy can help organizations secure their networks and protect against cyber threats. By proactively managing machine identities and secrets, organizations can ensure that only trusted machines can communicate on the network and that any unauthorized access attempts are quickly detected and prevented.

As organizations continue to adopt Zero Trust, they must pay attention to the pivotal role that machine identities play in digital environments. And that’s why the overall security strategy must account for them. Investing in tools and processes to manage these identities effectively will pay dividends by reducing risk and ultimately fortifying the organization’s security posture in the face of an ever-changing threat landscape.

Machine Identities and Secrets: Organizational Binding Strands

My call to action for any organization is straightforward: Embed the management of machine identities and secrets into your Zero Trust strategy. Rigorously verify identities, systematically manage machine identities and secrets – and use threat analytics to understand when and where they’re being abused. Remember, in the fabric of cyber defense, a layered defense is critical and letting even one thread unravel can lead to a garment’s undoing. That’s why machine identities and secrets are not just threads; they are vital strands that hold together the security tapestry of our digital enterprises.

James Imanian is the senior director of the U.S. Federal Technology Office at CyberArk.

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