What are machine identities and why should engineers care?

Today, across the board, digital transformation initiatives are delivering organizational improvements in areas such as process automation, manufacturing, and the internet of things (IoT). However, the exponential growth of connected devices and machines in modern factories, industrial facilities, and enterprises exposes critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities within machine-to-machine communications. It is essential that machine identities are 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 facilities’ network.

What are machine identities and why should engineers care?

All connected machines in an industrial facility need to have their own secure identity to protect against cyberattacks. (Image: Sectigo)

What is machine identity management?

Machine identity management comprises the systems and processes for managing credential authentication required for machines to access resources and other machines in a secure network environment or online. In essence, this machine identity is the digital credential or “fingerprint” used to establish trust, authenticate other machines, and encrypt communication.

Without proper authentication 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. Every machine has a machine identity, from robotics and HVAC systems in the factory to computers and mobile devices to servers and network hardware in a modern enterprise digital ecosystem.

A machine 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 includes all human and application identities in an enterprise environment. It goes beyond easily recognizable use cases like authenticating a laptop 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 sensors communicating with industrial systems 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
  • Automated factories and storage facilities
  • Network appliances and routers

Why are machine identities critical?

As digital transformation initiatives expand, so too do the number of machines involved in enabling its benefits. Organizations in the midst of this trend need both comprehensive strategy and tactical execution to achieve 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 intersect 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 with 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 manufacturing robots, automated assembly lines, 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.

How machine identity supports zero trust

More and more, IT security professionals are wising up and closing the gaps by taking a Zero Trust approach. That means trust is never granted implicitly and must be continually evaluated. The validation of all digital identities, including machine identity, is particularly crucial in supporting this Zero Trust model. Machine identity incorporates granting detailed access control, privileged access control, and permissions to each device and process in a network.

Modern enterprises rely on Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates as the gold standard for ensuring identity. PKI serves as a foundational component of a Zero Trust architecture that adheres to strong security parameters for all end-user, device, and application identities. Using digital certificates and their cryptographic key pairs strengthens the verification of machine identities. PKI can also serve to secure the connections between entities that lie beyond the firewalled network architecture.

In this age of digital transformation, the Zero Trust model enhances machine identity protection while simultaneously increasing the need for a consolidated, automated, and modern approach to PKI.

Digital identity vs. passwords vs. MFA

Today’s IT security teams must be able to recognize and authenticate identities throughout the factory and enterprise — whether those identities belong to humans, devices, data, or applications. Passwords and multi-factor authentication (MFA) offered a certain measure of security in the past, but they are no longer as effective as they once were.

What are machine identities and why should engineers care?

Bad actors have become increasingly adept at stealing identities through a range of devious methodologies. (Image: Sectigo)

In terms of human identities, many organizations have turned to MFA and, in some cases, biometric-based authentication. Often touted as a secure alternative to passwords, phone, and one-time passwords, OATH token MFA solutions are riddled with documented vulnerabilities. They have been proven susceptible to high-profile attacks that are just as easy and scalable as stealing passwords. Additionally, an employee’s effort to use an application with MFA — much more burdensome than the already challenging nuisance of remembering a password — makes life even more complex for both employees and IT administrators.

Machine identities pose an additional set of problems for IT teams.

As discussed earlier, machine-to-machine communication is characterized by automation. Machines cannot answer a smartphone to obtain a one-time password. Storing or transferring passwords within automated communication processes opens the door to vulnerabilities. Given the proliferation of digital business transformation, organizations need a fundamentally different and better approach to authenticating machine identities.

In contrast to both passwords and MFA, digital identity using digital certificates eliminates the reliance upon secrets to be shared that can be intercepted by cybercriminals. Authentication occurs when the machine proves possession of the private key, which is typically stored and safeguarded in the machine’s hardware security module (HSM). The transaction is then signed by the private key and verified by the public key. This public/private key pair is generated by one of several robust cryptographic algorithms.

This process offers far superior data protection and security against hackers than password-based authentication for several reasons:

  • The private key never leaves the client. In contrast to passwords, which are easy to share intentionally, or unintentionally via increasingly sophisticated phishing attacks.
  • The private key cannot be stolen in transit because it is never transmitted. Unlike passwords, which can be stolen in transit through the Internet, private keys are never transmitted.
  • The private key cannot be stolen from the server repository. Passwords stored in central server repositories can be stolen; private keys are known only to the user’s device and are not stored centrally.
  • There is no need for users to remember passwords or to enter usernames. The user’s device simply stores a private key to be presented when needed, providing a more seamless user experience.

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 ongoing reduction in the lifespan of digital certificates 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 exposure to gaps in ownership — dropped balls that can result in certificate-related outages, critical business systems failures, and security breaches and attacks.

Customers and internal users rely on critical business systems to be always available. But in recent years, expired certificates have resulted in many high-profile website and service outages. The result has been billions of dollars in lost revenue, contract penalties, lawsuits, and the incalculable cost of tarnished brand reputations and lost customer goodwill.

What to look for when automating machine identity management?

The return on investment for automated machine identity management is clear for CIOs and CSOs.

IT professionals must rethink their certificate lifecycle management strategies. Particularly as enterprises increasingly go to market with services reliant upon rapidly changing DevOps environments, 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 typically results in efficiency reductions. A single certificate management dashboard that automates discovery, deployment, and lifecycle management across all use cases and vendor platforms deliver the efficiency that automation promises. And IT teams still maintain control of configuration definitions and rules so that automation steps are performed correctly.

What are machine identities and why should engineers care?

Automated certificate management solutions make it easier and quicker to develop and implement security solutions for many businesses, enterprises, and industrial applications. (Image: Sectigo)

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 environments, including those that verify 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.

About the author

Tim Callan, Chief Compliance Officer at Sectigo, the world’s largest commercial Certificate Authority and a leader in purpose-built, automated PKI solutions, and co-host of the popular PKI and security podcast “Root Causes.” Tim has more than 20 years of experience in leadership positions for prominent PKI and digital certificate technology providers, including VeriSign, Symantec, DigiCert, and Comodo CA. A security blogger since 2006, he is a frequently published author of technology articles. He has spoken at conferences including the RSA Security Expo, Search Engine Strategies, ClickZ, and the Internet Retailer Conference and Expo. A founding member of the CA/Browser Forum, Tim played a key role in creating and rolling out Extended Validation SSL in the late 2000s.

The article originally published at sister publication EEWeb.

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