Machine Identity Management Matters in Security

Machine identity management is an integral part of ensuring business security. As more machines are created and digital certificate lifespans shorten, machine identity management will become even more important.

When it comes to securing your business, understanding how credentials and access controls work is a common topic of discussion. Those are incredibly important pieces of the security of your business, along with firewalls, geofences, VPN usage and other methods businesses commonly use. What business leaders do not realize, though, is that each machine that connects to the internet also has to have its own identity. This identity is what allows other machines to know that it is trustworthy. Machine identity management has long been a key piece of security, but now it’s more important than ever.

Machine identity is important because we need machines to trust each other. It’s how we separate ourselves from the threat actors, how we know it’s safe to use websites and applications. It’s how we create trust. Even in zero trust networks, machine identity is what creates that trust. If machines don’t trust each other, they won’t communicate with each other, which means we may not have access to the information or applications we need to do our jobs and function in society.

Every time a machine is created, whether physical or virtual, it is issued a digital certificate. These certificates are the identity of that specific machine, what allows other machines to know that it’s safe.The problem is, there has been an over-reliance on the certificates that are supposed to be machine-specific. Frankly, they are supposed to be machine-to-machine specific. These certificates have a lifespan, however, and must be renewed from time to time. The lifespan of a digital certificate is shortening all the time, where they used to be valid for several years, security implications have forced browser-makers to shorten those lifespans. Some browser certificates were reduced to one year and it’s possible we’ll see that shrink to six months in the future.

Unfortunately, what happens as the lifespan shortens and as more machines are assigned certificates that need monitoring, businesses simply can’t keep up. Certificates have been re-used and shared across machines, they’ve been exposed in code repositories or remained unchanged. When any of those things happen, a threat actor can use that weakness to gain access to your business systems.

Does this result in companies needing more resources just to manage the same number of machines? Maybe. Far too many companies still manually role, issue and update certs. Compounding this problem is digital transformation, something that many businesses have in the works or are in the process of completing. Digital transformation typically involves cloud migration, which involves virtual machines galore. So how are businesses to keep up and ensure these certificates don’t become a problem, without exhausting every resource at their disposal?

Thankfully, someone already thought of that. We have password managers for our human credentials. For digital certificates, we have cert management, key management, and secrets management systems. These automated managers, provided by cloud providers, work in similar ways as password managers. They manage the certificates and keys for you, create unique keys and certificates for each machine-to-machine connection. You don’t need to know what the key or certificate actually is, you just need to talk to the management system. This also prevents storing your keys in code, or other insecure places, for threat actors to exploit.

As we move further into the cloud and have the need for increasing amounts of machines, these certificates will be increasingly important. Zero trust is rapidly coming to the forefront as the next big security practice due remote work and the need for deeper machine-to-machine verification. In addition to certs and keys, identifiers like manifests of software on the machine and other unique characteristics are used by a machine to determine if the next machine can be trusted, to understand if it has been tampered with or altered, and if it falls in a tier of limited access rather than full trust.

Business leaders often overlook machine identity because it’s not at the forefront of any security protocol. If you haven’t looked at your machine identity management, now is the time. Hackers look to exploit any weakness they can find, so when you bring in an expert to review your security, make sure they have access to your machine identity process as well. Your business is only as strong as its weakest link.

About the Author

Pieter VanIperen, Managing Partner of PWV Consultants, leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries that acts as trusted technical partners for many Fortune 500 companies, high-visibility startups, universities, defense agencies, and NGOs. He is a 20-year software engineering veteran, who founded or co-founder several companies. He acts as a trusted advisor and mentor to numerous early stage startups, and has held the titles of software and software security executive, consultant and professor. His expert consulting and advisory work spans several industries in finance, media, medical tech, and defense contracting. Has also authored the highly influential precursor HAZL (jADE) programming language.

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