Why Machine Identity Management is Core to Cybersecurity

Over the last year, enterprises everywhere scrambled to get their assets and services online—and fast. This behavior not only rapidly accelerated the digital transformation timeline by almost seven years, it also changed the definition of a machine. A machine is no longer just a computer—it’s everything that is included in a network: Servers, mobile devices, applications, cloud environments, APIs, containers and smart algorithms.

Statista projected there will be 35.82 billion devices and systems worldwide connected to a network by 2021, and there’s been a proliferation of data traveling around the world every minute, every second. It’s also putting extra pressure on IT leaders to understand how many devices are connected to the organization’s network—and how they’re supposed to understand the vulnerabilities each connected device or platform may have to protect the enterprise’s most valuable assets.

This is where machine identity management can help.

Understanding Machine Identity Management’s Role in Cybersecurity

Machine identity management has recently garnered attention from IT leaders from all over the world, and for a good reason: Many organizations have more machine identities to manage than people identities, especially as organizations are undergoing digital transformation. Machine identity management was also on the peak hype cycle of two recent Gartner reports on data security and ID and access management.

Similar to humans, each machine—everything that is included in a network, from servers, mobile devices, applications to smart algorithms—has its own identity, and while human identities are authenticated online through user ID and password, machines have digital certificates and keys. But, the number of machines is outpacing the number of people using them, there are simply too many machines for humans to manage each of these manually.

According to a recent report, six in 10 enterprises lacked full awareness of all the certificates and keys across their digital assets, and of these organizations, nearly all of them (96%) experienced an event that was detrimental to the business. In fact, Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report revealed that 61% of data breaches involved credentials while 70% of all misuse cases were caused by privilege misuse. As we’ve seen in the cases of Target, Equifax, Colonial Pipeline and SolarWinds, a lack of understanding of these certificates and keys can lead to outages and breaches, losing valuable time and effort and hindering reputation.

With 98% of organizations facing the need to improve their machine identity management approach, today’s organizations need a strategic machine identity management program that adheres to the best practices of each digital identity. Here are a few initiatives that IT teams can undertake to better manage their IT infrastructure.

Break IT Infrastructure Silos With an Inventory Check

Before organizations tackle a machine identity management program, it’s essential to first have visibility into the entire IT ecosystem. The most common forms of digital identities are keys, public and private keys, symmetric keys and certificates—and organizations must understand details about each identity including its expiration date, authority and where it’s located.

Creating inventory lists of the various keys and certificates can help IT teams understand the trust level of each machine. It’s recommended that certificates be grouped based on the expiration date, how critical each one is and its type (e.g. SSL/TLS certificates, SSH keys, cryptographic or symmetric keys, etc.).

Create a Centralized Locations for Keys and Certificates

One of the unique challenges with machine identity management is that each certificate and key is used by various teams within the organization in a different way. There’s little insight into how each certificate is used, by whom it’s used and when they’ve expired, for example.

To better govern the various keys and certificates, IT should create one centralized location for all of them. By keeping a centralized inventory of all digital keys and certificates, the IT team will have insight into the various device identities outside their organization’s network, including the cloud, as well as knowledge into what IoT devices are being used and by which employee; this is crucial to understand given today’s remote and hybrid work environments. IT teams will also be able to regularly conduct security token audits to help easily identify any vulnerabilities more quickly.

Consider Automation

In Gartner’s Top Security Trends and Risks for 2021 report, the firm reported that “Identity-first security puts identity at the center of security design and demands a major shift from traditional LAN edge design thinking,” but IT teams are consistently struggling to manage and protect credentials. Machine identity management has historically been a manual process that’s been done using spreadsheets or even physical paper lists. However, these antiquated methods are time-consuming, error-prone and ultimately ineffective.

By automating certificate and key life cycle management, machine identities are kept up-to-date and outages are effectively eliminated. Nearly half of today’s organizations found they had stronger security posture after automating machine identity management workflows, according to The Next-Gen Machine Identity Management Report. And most automation partners can also help enable cryptographic agility, providing algorithm upgrades to offer the best possible protection under all circumstances.

Simply put, machine identity management remains a challenge to organizations everywhere, leading to an increase of threats and outages, but it doesn’t have to be. By automating machine identity management, organizations will have an enhanced security posture, creating a crucial turning point for the global marketplace and a proactive step toward keeping all digital assets safer.

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Muralidharan Palanisamy

Murali Palanisamy, Chief Solutions Officer of AppViewX, is responsible for the company's overall product vision, development and technical direction. Prior to AppViewX, Palanisamy was a Senior Vice President at Bank of America, where he was leading the e-commerce application delivery’s architecture and engineering team. He also served as VP of Architecture and Product Engineering for Merrill Lynch, where he designed and developed automation and integration solutions for servers, application delivery controllers, IP services and networking.

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