For connected companies, authentication of user identities is often top of mind for IT security leaders who aim to control secure access to networked applications and sensitive data. However, the exponential growth of connected devices and machines in the modern enterprise can expose cybersecurity vulnerabilities within machine-to-machine communications. It is essential that machine identity is properly authenticated and managed, assuring that access is only granted to legitimate users or machines no matter the number of identities involved or the complexity of the enterprise network.
What is a machine’s identity?
Machine identity is the digital credential or “fingerprint” used to establish trust, authenticate other machines, and encrypt communication. From sensors, control SCADA systems mobile devices to laptops, servers and network hardware every machine in a modern enterprise digital 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 part number. It is an amalgam of the authenticated credentials that certify that a machine is authorized access to online resources or a network.
Machine identities are a subset of a broader digital identity foundation that also includes all human and application identities in an enterprise environment. It goes beyond easily recognizable use cases like authenticating a laptop that is accessing the network remotely through Wi-Fi. Machine identity is required for the millions or billions of daily communications between systems where no human is involved like routing messages across the globe through various network appliances or application servers generating or using data stored across multiple data centers. Each of the following, for example, would be assigned a unique machine identity:
Mobile devices and smartphones
Computers and laptops
Internet of Things (IoT) devices
Web servers and application servers
Network appliances and routers
Without proper identity management, an ever-increasing number of machine interactions inherent to digitized processes pose a significant risk to business continuity and potential breach from malicious attacks. Unique identities enable these processes to determine if the interaction is trustworthy using cryptographic keys and digital certificates.
Why you should care about machine identities
As digital transformation initiatives expand, so too do the number of machines involved in enabling its benefits. Organizations need both comprehensive strategies and tactical execution to implement an organized system of digital identities that reliably secures, governs, and verifies machine-to-machine communications.
Applications and data across cloud and multi-cloud environments, distributed workforces, and innovative connected devices are intersecting in ways that demand a robust digital identity approach that protects against persistent and emerging threats. It is essential to understand that many of these intersections are characterized by automation where there is no human interaction during machine-to-machine communication. The security implications are enormous. Machine interactions must be secure and rapid to deliver the reliability and scalability required to achieve enterprise-wide protection on a global scale.
But as already complex environments expand to include mobile devices, cloud infrastructure, DevOps, IoT, and physical devices, the financial risks inherent in failing to manage identities have increased dramatically. While improper identity management makes enterprises more vulnerable to cybercriminals, malware, and fraud, it also exposes organizations to risks related to employee productivity, customer experience issues, compliance shortfalls, and more.
Why automate machine identity management?
Machine identities increase as the number of processes and devices requiring machine-to-machine communication grows. According to the Cisco Annual Internet Report, there will be 29.3 billion global networked devices globally by 2023, up from 18.4 billion connections in 2018. That is more than 10 billion new devices in five years, more than triple the global population in 2021.
As a result, today’s modern enterprise is experiencing unprecedented growth in the number of machine identities needed to secure sensitive data on a global level. To make things even more challenging, the reduction in the lifespan of publicly trusted digital certificates (from five years to one) means that IT teams will struggle to replace certificates more often 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 result in unnecessary risk. The bottom line? Manual machine identity management is neither sustainable nor scalable.
Whether an enterprise deploys a single SSL certificate for a web server or manages millions of certificates across all its networked device identities, the end-to-end process of certificate issuance, configuration, and deployment can take hours. Manually managing certificates also puts enterprises at significant risk of neglected certificates expiring unexpectedly and of exposure to gaps in ownership — dropped balls that can result in certificate-related outages, critical business systems failures, and security breaches and attacks.
What to look for when automating machine identity management?
The return on investment for automated machine identity management is clear. IT security professionals must rethink their certificate lifecycle management strategies. Organizations need an automated solution that ensures certificates are correctly configured and implemented without human intervention. Automation helps reduce risk but also aids IT departments in controlling operational costs and streamlining time-to-market for products and services.
Recently, PKI has evolved to become even more versatile. Interoperability, high uptime, and governance are still key benefits. But today’s PKI solutions are also functionally capable of improving administration and certificate lifecycle management through:
Automation: Completing individual tasks while minimizing manual processes.
Coordination: Using automation to manage a broad portfolio of tasks.
Scalability: Managing certificates numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions.
Crypto-agility: Updating cryptographic strength and revoking and replacing at-risk certificates with quantum-safe certificates rapidly in response to new or changing threats.
Visibility: Viewing certificate status with a single pane of glass across all use cases.
Given the many disparate machines, systems, and applications that use digital certificates, IT teams often find themselves managing distinct automation services from many different vendors. Running multiple automation platforms results in 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 still maintain control of configuration definitions and rules so that automation steps are performed correctly.
A trusted certificate authority (CA) provides digital identity management automation solutions that enable enterprises to be agile, efficient, and in full control of all the certificates in their environment, including machine identities. Your CA should support 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.
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Managing Machine Identities: How To Protect Your Data & Systems Against Cyber Attack