Manage machine identities: How to protect your data and systems from cyber attacks
In networked companies, the authentication of user identities is often in the foreground for IT security officers who want to control secure access to networked applications and sensitive data. However, the exponential growth of networked devices and machines in modern businesses can expose cybersecurity vulnerabilities in machine-to-machine communication. It is important that the machine identity is properly authenticated and managed to ensure that access is only granted to legitimate users or machines, regardless of the number of identities involved or the complexity of the corporate network.
What is the identity of a machine?
Machine identity is the digital credentials or “fingerprint” used to build trust, authenticate other machines, and encrypt communications. From sensors and mobile devices for controlling SCADA systems to laptops, servers and network hardware, every machine in a modern digital corporate ecosystem has a machine identity.
A machine’s identity is much more than a digital ID number or a simple identifier such as a serial number or a part number. It’s a mix of authenticated credentials that certify that a computer has authorized access to online resources or a network.
Machine identities are a subset of a broader digital identity foundation that also includes all personal and application identities in a corporate environment. It goes beyond easily identifiable use cases like authenticating a laptop accessing the network remotely over Wi-Fi. Machine identity is required for the millions or billions of daily communications between systems that do not involve humans, such as routing messages around the world through various network applications or application servers that generate or use data stored in multiple data centers. For example, each of the following would be assigned a unique machine identity:
- Mobile devices and smartphones
- Computers and laptops
- Devices for the Internet of Things (IoT)
- Web server and application server
- Load balancer
- Network devices and routers
Without proper identity management, the ever-increasing number of machine interactions inherent in digitized processes pose a significant risk to business continuity and potential security breaches from malicious attacks. With unique identities, these processes can use cryptographic keys and digital certificates to determine whether the interaction is trustworthy.
Why you should care about machine identities
As digital transformation initiatives expand, so does the number of machines involved in enabling their benefits. Companies need both comprehensive strategies and tactical implementation in order to implement an organized system of digital identities that reliably secures, regulates and verifies machine-to-machine communication.
Applications and data in cloud and multi-cloud environments, distributed workers and innovative connected devices overlap in a way that requires a robust digital identity approach that protects against persistent and emerging threats. It is important to understand that many of these interfaces are characterized by automation, where there is no human interaction during machine-to-machine communication. The impact on security is enormous. Machine interactions must be secure and fast to provide the reliability and scalability required for enterprise-wide protection on a global scale.
However, as complex environments expand to include mobile devices, cloud infrastructure, DevOps, IoT, and physical devices, the financial risks associated with not managing identities have increased dramatically. While improper identity management makes businesses more vulnerable to cybercriminals, malware, and fraud, it also exposes businesses to risks related to employee productivity, customer experience issues, compliance deficiencies, and more.
Why automate the identity management of machines?
Machine identities increase with the number of processes and devices that require machine-to-machine communication. Noisy Cisco Internet Annual Report, there will be 29.3 billion connected devices worldwide by 2023, compared to 18.4 billion connections in 2018. That’s more than 10 billion new devices in five years, more than three times the world’s population in 2021.
As a result, today’s modern enterprise is experiencing unprecedented growth in the number of machine identities required to protect sensitive data on a global scale. To make matters even more difficult, reducing the lifespan of publicly trusted digital certificates (from five years to one year) means IT teams will struggle to replace certificates more frequently and manage more identities in less time than ever before.
While there is no stronger, easier-to-use authentication and encryption solution than the digital identity provided by PKI, the challenge for busy IT teams is that manually deploying and managing certificates is time-consuming and can lead to unnecessary risk. The final result? Manual machine identity management is neither sustainable nor scalable.
Whether a company is deploying a single SSL certificate for a web server or managing millions of certificates for all of its networked device identities, the end-to-end process of certificate issuance, configuration, and deployment can take hours. Manually managing certificates also puts organizations at a significant risk of neglected certificates unexpectedly expiring and ownership gaps.
What should you watch out for when automating machine identity management?
The return on investment for automated machine identity management is clear. IT security professionals need to rethink their certificate lifecycle management strategies. Organizations need an automated solution that ensures that certificates are correctly configured and implemented without human intervention. Automation helps reduce risk, but it also helps IT departments control operating costs and streamline the time-to-market for products and services.
Recently, PKI has evolved to become even more versatile. Interoperability, high availability, and governance are still important benefits. However, today’s PKI solutions are also functionally able to improve administration and certificate lifecycle management through:
- Automation: Complete individual tasks while minimizing manual processes.
- Coordination: Manage a broad portfolio of tasks with automation.
- Scalability: Manage certificates with hundreds, thousands or even millions.
- Crypto agility: Quickly update cryptographic strength and revoke and replace compromised certificates with quantum secure certificates in response to new or changing threats.
- Visibility: View certificate status across all use cases on a single page.
With the many different machines, systems, and applications that use digital certificates, IT teams often need to manage different automation services from many different providers. Operating multiple automation platforms leads to inefficiencies and errors. A single certificate management dashboard that automates discovery, deployment, and lifecycle management across all use cases and vendor platforms delivers the efficiency that automation promises. And IT teams remain in control of configuration definitions and rules so that automation steps are carried out correctly.
A trusted certification authority (CA) provides digital identity management automation solutions that enable organizations to be agile, efficient, and have complete control over all certificates in their environment, including machine identities. Your CA should support the automated installation, revocation, and renewal of SSL / TLS and non-SSL certificates via industry-leading protocols, APIs, and third-party integrations. Finally, the CA eliminates the problem of certificate volume caps that can occur with open source alternatives.