Security Machines Identities, and what is a Machine Identity?

Updated: Aug 31

The current era is characterised by widespread and fast-paced digital transformation that constantly causes changes in data security. As a result, the need of the hour is to rethink the manner in which IT security strategies are being implemented. With Internet of Things (IoT) usage rapidly growing and there being an increased number of devices that are interconnected, the immediate need for all organizations is to ensure identity and authenticity of these devices or applications within its infrastructure that are communicating with each other. This is where understanding ‘machine identity’ and ensuring its security becomes paramount.

What is Machine Identity?

Machine identity is the unique identity assigned to non-human network entities such as devices, applications, processes, etc. via application of familiar Privileged Access Management (PAM) concepts including identity, authentication, Role-based Access Control (RBAC), least-privilege, auditing, etc.

Importance of Machine Identity

Machines that communicate on a corporate network pose risks merely by connecting. These risks can be managed with the help of machine identities that determine if each machine is trustworthy by identifying and authenticating every machine. Machine identities ensure flow of data to trusted machines only and prevent it from being directed to untrusted machines. Without a stable machine identity mechanism in place, it is not possible to regulate the flow of data into and out of your network.

Further, in the absence of a machine identity program, it is highly likely that the organization will be able to detect that a machine has been compromised only after it suffers substantially in the form of, say, a large-scale outage. Incidents like unauthorised data exfiltration involving leaking of terabytes of sensitive data can go unnoticed without a strong machine identity system. Without machine identity mechanisms, it becomes easy for cybercriminals to tunnel into an organization’s network, discover vulnerabilities, and exploit them to sabotage the internal network.

Unlike usernames and passwords for human identities, machine identity protection entails active management of a vast inventory of keys and certificates. As compared to most human identities, machine identities provide higher-level access. Keeping privileged access aside, machine identity is still required for ensuring smooth function of other security technologies like SSL inspection, Web Application Firewalls (WAFs), etc.

Machine Identity & Digital Certificates

Digital Certificates play an integral part in machine identification and authentication. Similar to how usernames and passwords are used for human identities and access management, automated machine-to-machine connections and communications are protected by Digital Certificates and cryptographic keys. In fact, adoption of Digital Certificate-based authentication is the answer to preventing fraud against machine-to-machine level communications.

Machine identities in the form of Digital Certificates enable other devices to identify them, validate their legitimacy, and authenticate that they are authorized to operate within a particular ecosystem. This lays down the foundation of trust necessary to have confidence in the system and the services it delivers. The aforementioned Digital Certificates also provide ‘non-repudiable’ evidence of the communication source and any tampering or rogue identities or processes can then be immediately recognized such that the same are rendered incapable of establishing communication with trusted identities or hampering the data flow/transaction within the system. An example of the successful demonstration of the above are the Real-time Gross settlement (RTGS) or Cheque Truncation System (CTS) systems where multiple banks had adopted PKI-based Digital Signature processes for communicating with RTGS/CTS systems.

Hence, organizations like banks/enterprises can have their key business applications (i.e. Core Banking Solution (CBS), ATM switch or loan systems, CRM, etc.) communicate with each other internally using a similar PKI-based Digital Signature system to establish the trusted identities between them and further, to ensure that no rogue system or malware can take over as it usually happens in incidents of cyber fraud. In such a scenario, Key Management plays an important role. It ends up being used to manage the life cycle of multiple crypto keys generated for numerous applications to communicate with each other internally.

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