This comprehensive overview of machine identity management details why it’s important for your business to implement a comprehensive, automated strategy. It also includes practical applications for managing and securing your machine identities most effectively, even at machine speed.
Read on to discover how your organization can adopt this technology to eliminate inefficiencies and outages, as well as fend off security incidents related to machine identities.
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What is Machine Identity Management?
Machine identity management is the discovery, management and protection of the machine identities that govern confidentiality and integrity of information and communication between machines.
What is a machine?
The phrase “machine” often evokes images of a physical server or a tangible, robot-like device, but in the world of machine identity management, a machine can be anything that requires an identity to connect or communicate—from a physical device to a piece of code or even an API.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the more common types of machines that require a valid form of machine identity to establish a secure connection with another party:
- Physical devices
There are two actors on any given network—humans and machines. While the industry spends billions on managing and protecting human identities, little is being done to secure the identities of machine-to-machine connections. This imbalance is a major cause for concern, as the number of machines is rapidly outpacing the growth in their human counterparts. And these machines all need identities to keep their connections and communications safe.
CIOs predict that the average number of machine identities used by their organizations will reach 500,000 by 2024. If left unprotected, these machine identities can serve as a lucrative hunting ground for cybercriminals. In 2022 alone, Microsoft, Spotify, Verifone and Google all experienced disruptions to critical services because of outages caused by machine identities that were left unverified and unprotected.
Why is it Important to Protect Machine Identities?
Machine identities are established using digital certificates and cryptographic keys for machine-to-machine identity and access management, much like people employ usernames and passwords. Without the proper management of machine identities, organizations can’t guarantee the confidentiality of information that flows to authorized machines and prevent the flow of information to unauthorized machines.
Compromised machine identities can have a significant security impact on organizations. Attackers can misuse machine identities to establish hidden or concealed encrypted communication tunnels on enterprise networks and gain privileged access to data and resources. Forged or stolen machine identities can also allow an attacker’s machine to masquerade as a legitimate machine and be trusted with sensitive data.
To keep up with the volume, velocity and variety of machine identity changes, organizations need to intelligently orchestrate the management of a complex, rapidly changing set of machine identity data. Driven by a set of policies and controls that orchestrate machine identities, machine identity management can improve an organization's cybersecurity, reduce risk and support regulatory, legal and operational requirements.
According to Gartner, one minute of IT downtime costs, on average, $5,600. That’s $336,000 per hour! What’s more, this doesn’t even consider the potential longer-term impact that degraded service can attract. Issues such as customer churn and decreased win rates will rear their ugly head if issues persist. And with 73% of organizations falling victim to certificate-related outages – it certainly seems to be a matter of when, not if.
What is a Public Key Infrastructure?
A Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) is a combination of cryptography, public and private keys, certificate authorities (CAs) and revocation lists. All of these elements come together to ensure encrypted, tamper-resistant messages between two or more parties. It’s a validation exercise that verifies that any machine looking to establish a connection with a human or another machine is who they say they are.
For someone to verify a machine’s identity, the machine will need to be assigned an X.509 certificate—the international standard for public key certificates. X.509 certificates are digitally signed documents—obtained through a PKI—that validate the sender’s authorization and name. The most common X.509 certificate type is a Transport Layer Security (TLS) certificate.
Important note: While PKI is important to enterprise security, it is just one of many potential applications for machine identities.
In terms of machine identity management, Certificate Authorities (CAs) are perhaps one of the most important elements of a PKI that we need to understand. Essentially, CAs are entities, third-party or internal, that verify authenticity and actually issue trusted certificates. Some of the most common CAs include companies like Let’s Encrypt, IIS, Sectigo and Digicert.
In addition, some companies may use self-signed certificates to help verify and protect internal workloads, but this isn’t considered best practice and circumvents some fundamentals around zero trust security strategies.
The Machine Identity Lifecycle
While the rapidly growing number of machine identities may strike fear into the hearts of security leaders who regularly experience certificate-based outages, the ephemeral nature of cloud native machines has compounded their complexity tenfold.
The average lifespan for virtual machines was once thought to be around 23 days. However, for containers, it’s closer to two. And that’s before we even step into the world of Kubernetes – a place where machine lifecycles are often measured in mere minutes.
It’s plain to see that their growing volume, coupled with a 51% reduction in the average lifespan, means machine identities need to be issued and revoked at an unprecedented rate. Truly, the only way enterprise security teams and developers can get complete visibility into the health of their machine identities is through a specialist solution like the Venafi Control Plane for Machine Identities.
How Does Machine Identity Management Work?
The best machine identity management solutions provide a standardized approach that allows your business to both accelerate digital transformation and eliminate security incidents, to, in turn, reduce revenue stream disruptions.
They are built from the ground up to provide the highest levels of security, to arm your enterprise with the observability, consistency, reliability and freedom of choice you need to manage all types of machine identities, no matter where they are used or located. The principle is simple: to better help you ensure that no machine identities fall through the cracks and negatively impact your business.
However, not all machine identity management solutions are the same, and varying deployment options can alter what features and benefits are available to potential customers.
Zero Trust Machine Identity Management
Zero trust is popular right now. So much so, that 80% of organizations are planning to adopt a zero trust strategy within the next year. And with one of the founding principles of zero trust being to never trust, always verify, machine identity management platforms are well placed to help organizations extend this policy to their growing number of machine identities.
PKI as a solution type is not new. However, it’s probably fair to say that the concept of PKI was founded on zero trust principles, way before zero trust was established. Machine identity management tools simply allow organizations to engage these principles at scale and ensure their PKI remains airtight and tamper resistant. It just so happens to be zero trust best practice.
DevSecOps and Machine Identity Management
DevSecOps is a trending topic for organizations that are serious about adopting cloud native technologies but don’t want to compromise on security. Those that aren’t run the risk of being overtaken by nimbler, more agile startups that aren’t riddled with technical debt or tasked with maintaining hundreds – if not thousands – of enterprise applications.
In the meantime, developers will often favor time-to-market considerations over security concerns. The result? Various interpretations of security policy begin to infiltrate their way into the business, and central security teams will have no visibility or control over them.
How can organizations fix this broken dynamic? The right machine identity management solutions allow enterprise teams to pre-define security policies up front and give developers the tooling they need to implement X.509 certs – by approved CAs – at the click of a button. It’s consistent, reliable security at the speed today’s enterprises require.
What You Can Accomplish with Machine Identity Management
1. Prevent machine identity theft
Compromised or forged keys and certificates can be used to break into private, encrypted tunnels where confidential communications and data protection are a necessity. They can also be used to create fraudulent encrypted tunnels on corporate networks to hide malicious actions.
2. Keep up with the explosive growth of machines
The number of machines is growing faster than the number of people using them. The sheer scale of machine identities that need to be protected, including mobile, cloud and IoT devices, makes it far more challenging to keep machine identities secure.
3. Secure cloud-driven machine proliferation
The dynamic evolution of cloud services increases the need to rapidly assess the trustworthiness of machines, including cloud workloads, virtual machines, containers and micro services. The fluid nature of their interaction can expose their identities to abuse.
4. Protect the identities of connected things
You need to protect the millions of new device identities that are now connected to the Internet, including sensors, industrial equipment, robots and medical devices, and more. Many of these devices communicate and store critical data using encrypted channels that are controlled by machine identities.
5. Interact safely with new types of machine identities
As machines become more intelligent, they are replacing humans in tasks that require reasoning, perception, logical thought, memory, and learning. Our increasing reliance on smart machines makes it ever more important to validate and defend their identities.