Implementing a robust Zero Trust strategy: why safeguarding machine identities is vital

By David Higgins, Senior Director, Field Technology Office at CyberArk.

  • 2 months ago Posted in

Today’s rapid technological evolution has had a profound impact on working behaviours and processes. No more so than through the consistent rise of cloud services, which have prompted unparalleled scalability and accessibility by allowing workers to access data and applications from anywhere and collaborate more efficiently. 

But alongside immense flexibility, these new ways of working have also brought considerable challenges, including the rise of more sophisticated cyber threats. And that has given rise to the philosophy of Zero Trust – the principle that no entity inside or outside the network perimeter should be trusted by default. 

Zero Trust is widely recognised as an effective route to mitigating the risks associated with compromised credentials and unauthorised access. Yet accelerating adoption and use of machine identities is posing questions of existing frameworks. So what exactly do these identities entail?

Introducing machine identities

Put simply, a machine identity is a unique digital credential used to distinguish certified software code, applications, virtual machines or even physical IoT devices from others on a network. They can be incredibly useful in a security context, allowing IT teams to authenticate and authorise devices and applications within the network and grant seamless access to various resources and services. 

Typically machine identities use secrets, API keys, Cloud Access Keys, digital certificates and other credentials to enable machines to communicate securely with other systems. Under a Zero Trust framework, those identities need to be protected in exactly the same way as their human counterparts; the integrity of every machine seeking access needs to be verified and subjected to strict access controls before they’re granted access to mission critical information. 

As organisations digitally transform however, doing so effectively is becoming more and more difficult. The number of machine identities that the average organisation uses continues to grow exponentially, to the extent that they now outweigh human identities by a factor of 45:1, meaning that they have greater access to sensitive data than human identities. So without the right policies and automation, machine identities and secrets can easily be exploited by cyber attackers and become a vastly expanding attack surface.

Managing machine identities amid digital transformation

Whilst it is common for companies to use software as a service (SaaS) applications to store and process data, they will also develop their own software applications to respond to customers’ needs and requests – and with digital transformation, there is a good chance the number of applications used will keep rising. Research suggests organisations expect an increase of 68% in the number of SaaS applications deployed in their environment.

As the volume of machines in organisations’ networks continues to increase, the number of secrets needed to access IT and other resources securely keeps growing. What’s concerning is that this rapid growth has outpaced IT teams’ ability to manually track the number, purpose and location of machines and secrets. It’s a big reason why 65% of organisations report they took the necessary steps to protect machine identities last year, or plan to do so in the next 12 months.

Automation in particular is on the rise. Organisations are looking to move away from manual processes which are prone to errors and make it difficult to keep pace with the speed at which modern IT environments change. Automating processes makes it easier to safeguard machine identities and secrets, and ensure the security and integrity of digital infrastructures.  

Integrating machine identities into the Zero Trust strategy

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. As organisations start building their Zero Trust roadmap, disclosing machine identities and secrets management in their identity governance policy and procedures contributes to boosting security. This way, organisations have the power to ensure that only trusted machines are able to communicate on the network, and detect and prevent unauthorised access attempts.

So, when building out machine identities, there are at least four goals to aim for, the first one being greater visibility. Operating with limited visibility across the company’s environment makes the task of securing machine identities challenging and inefficient. That’s why a comprehensive secrets management and machine identity management policy is so important. It offers greater visibility into organisations’ network, allowing them to closely monitor and track managed and unmanaged secrets and machine activity.

The second key goal is improved security. Centralised management of secrets and machine identities is vital to build a comprehensive Zero Trust strategy. Functions like centralised rotation of secrets help eliminate the problem of hard-coded secrets and enable organisations to audit which applications and machines are using each secret.

Aiming for lower risk digital transformation enablement is also important. 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 becomes an inherent part of the company’s development processes rather than just an afterthought. In other words, identities within the network are accurately verified and protected.

The final thing not to forget is the need to work towards improved operations efficiency. While automation tools are incredibly useful, native integrations with DevOps tools and the cloud provider’s built-in services lead to an even higher boost in efficiency. Overall, this helps increase developers’ adoption of secure coding practices, ultimately improving productivity and accelerating the deployment of new services more rapidly.

Ultimately, incorporating machine identities and secrets management into a Zero Trust strategy brings a lot of advantages. It gives organisations the chance to establish a more robust and secure network architecture and minimise costs associated with traditional security approaches, while reducing the time required to deploy new services. So, investing in tools and processes to manage these identities effectively will pay dividends by reducing risk and ultimately fortifying the company’s security posture in the face of an ever-changing threat landscape.

As organisations continue to adopt Zero Trust, business leaders must keep in mind that machine identities play a pivotal role in digital environments – and this is why an efficient overall security strategy accounts for them. 

Securely navigating the digital era

As organisations navigate the complex landscape of digital security, safeguarding machine identities emerges as a critical pillar of effective Zero Trust security measures. A comprehensive machine identity management policy can be a game changer for organisations, empowering them to secure their networks and protect against cyber threats in a more efficient way, while simultaneously mitigating risks and fortifying their security posture

Today’s organisations need to be able to navigate the complexities of the digital age with confidence. Diligently verifying identities can help them do that. Systematically overseeing machine identities and secrets, and leveraging threat analytics to detect and address potential abuses, promise to improve their cyber defences, and allow them to securely embrace the future.

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