Uncovering the Trails: A Step-by-Step Guide to Tracking Service Account Usage

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Service accounts are powerful tools that perform important automated functions within IT systems, but they can also pose significant risks if they become compromised.

Monitoring service account usage is critical to maintaining security and compliance, but many organizations struggle with gaining full visibility into exactly how many of these accounts they have, not to mention how they’re actually being leveraged across the environment. This is why uncovering the trails of service account activity requires a methodical approach across all systems, logs, and accounts.

In this guide, we will explore how to thoroughly track service account usage across your organization using a layered monitoring methodology. With the right solution and techniques, your organization can uncover the trails of service account activity and ensure they are not leading to potentially breaches and ransomware attacks.

How to Find Where a Service Account is Being Used

Step 1: Review Active Directory for Existing Service Accounts

To uncover where service accounts are being used in your environment, the first step is to review Active Directory (AD) for existing service accounts. Service accounts are used by applications and services to access resources, so identifying them can provide insight into which systems may be accessing what data.

Within Active Directory’s Users and Computers, you can filter user accounts to only show service accounts. Service accounts typically follow a naming convention like “SVC_” or “SERVICE_” to differentiate them from standard user accounts. Review each service account to determine:

  • What application or service it is used by. The name or description field may provide details on what system uses the account.
  • What privileges it has been granted. Service accounts are often given elevated rights to access resources, so understanding the level of access is important.
  • When the password was last changed. Service account passwords should be complex and rotated regularly according to your organization’s policy.
  • If the account is still actively being used. Disable any unused service accounts to reduce the attack surface.
  • If the account requires additional monitoring or security controls. Privileged service accounts may necessitate extra safeguards, such as the creation of access control policies.

Once you have cataloged any existing service accounts in your Active Directory, you can compare them against your organization’s list of approved applications and services. Look for any unauthorized or unrecognized service accounts, as these could indicate compromised credentials or a malicious insider threat. Remove or disable them immediately.

For authorized service accounts, enable logging and monitoring to track their activity and usage over time. Look for solutions that can provide the real-time monitoring of service accounts, detecting anomalies in behavior that could signal account compromise or misuse. Continuously analyzing service account activity is critical for understanding where these accounts are being used in your environment and ensuring they remain secure at all times.

For more on this, check our comprehensive guide on how to find service accounts in Active Directory.

Step 2: Check for Service Accounts in Entra ID

To uncover where service accounts are being used in Microsoft Entra ID, log in to the portal and navigate to the ID section, then under Manage select Enterprise applications. This will display a list of all applications in the tenant.

Look for applications with “service account” in the name. These are the accounts created by Entra services to access resources. Select an application and click Properties to view details like app ID, sign-on URL, and group membership. The group membership will show which Entra resources the service account has access to.

Some common Entra service accounts to look for include:

  • Entra ID Service Account: Used by Entra ID to access resources
  • Entra DNS Service Account: Used by Entra DNS to access DNS zones
  • Entra Policy Service Account: Used by Entra Policy to access resources for compliance evaluation
  • Log Analytics Service Account: Used by Log Analytics to access resources for monitoring

To discover the permissions of a service account, check its role assignments. This can uncover whether the account has unnecessarily high levels of access. Select the service account and click Role assignments under Manage. This will list the roles assigned to the service account and the resources/scopes it has access to. Look for any roles granting admin-level access, like Owner or Contributor on high-value resources. If found, these roles should immediately be reduced to least privilege.

Some key points to consider when reviewing service accounts:

  • Only Entra services should create service accounts. Any service accounts created manually should be investigated.
  • Service accounts should have only the minimal access needed to perform their intended functions. Broad access increases the risk of compromised accounts.
  • Monitor service account login activity for signs of suspicious access. Entra ID Premium provides tools to detect risky logins.
  • Implement strong security controls like digital fencing, conditional access, and privileged identity management to help secure service accounts.

In summary, regularly reviewing service accounts and their access permissions is a key to reducing the threat of compromised accounts. Tightly controlling service accounts helps ensure secure and compliant access to resources.

Step 3: Scan Your IT Infrastructure for Service Account Usage

To uncover where your service accounts are being used across your IT infrastructure, you’ll need to thoroughly scan each system. This involves using both automated scanning tools as well as conducting manual inspections of critical systems.

Review Account Permissions

Review the permissions assigned to each service account on all systems. Look for accounts with broad and unnecessary access that could facilitate lateral movement if compromised. Prune permissions and roles so that each account has only the least amount of access needed in order to conduct its activities properly.

Check for Embedded Passwords

Scan all scripts, configuration files, and code repositories for any embedded service account credentials. These hardcoded passwords can pose a serious security risk if they are uncovered by malicious actors. So be sure to remove any embedded passwords that are found and store all credentials in a secure secrets-management solution instead.

Inspect for Account Misuse

Closely inspect systems and applications that integrate with your service accounts for any signs of misuse or compromise. Look for anomalous logins, file executions or changes, or other suspicious account activity that could indicate a potential breach. Revoke access immediately if any unauthorized access is detected.

Deploy Monitoring Tools

Use monitoring tools to gain full visibility into service account behavior and detect threats. It’s important to build a baseline of normal activity for each account so that you can then detect any deviations that could signal compromise or misuse, enabling a rapid response.

Repeat Scans Regularly

Conducting regular scans of your IT infrastructure is one key to managing service account security risks. Repeat the steps outlined above on a continuous basis to uncover any new issues as they emerge. Schedule scans to run automatically on a weekly or monthly basis in order to get the most comprehensive insight into your service account landscape.

Staying on top of service account usage with frequent scanning and monitoring is essential in order to reduce the risks associated with highly privileged accounts. Although time consuming, these proactive steps can help prevent a serious breach resulting in the case of a compromised service account. Continuous visibility and review will give you assurance that this critical aspect of your infrastructure security is being properly managed.

Step 4: Review Configuration Files on Servers and Applications

Reviewing configuration files on servers and applications is an additional important step in tracking service account usage. These files contain details on how service accounts are configured and the specific permissions they’ve been granted.

To review configuration files, you need to log into all servers and applications that service accounts have access to. Look for files with names like “config.xml,” “app.config,” or “web.config.” In Linux and Unix systems, also check “/etc/passwd,” “/etc/group,” and “/etc/shadow” files.

Once you locate these configuration files, review them for any mentions of service account names. For example, look for sections on:

  • Authentication: See what credentials and permissions service accounts are using to log in. The files may specify the account names, passwords, and login methods.
  • Authorization: Check what level of access each service account has — like read, write, or admin permissions. The configuration files will list the specific resources, files, and data that the accounts can modify or view.
  • Roles and Responsibilities: Some files may outline the intended usage and responsibilities of your service accounts. See if the current configuration aligns with the documented usage. Be sure to look for any deviations that could indicate malicious activity or account misuse.
  • Dependencies: The configuration files may indicate other systems, applications, or resources that the service accounts rely on or integrate with. These dependencies can provide more areas to investigate for traces of the service accounts.

Reviewing server and application configuration files provides valuable insight into how service accounts are set up and used in the environment. Comparing the configuration details with actual account activity and usage can uncover irregularities that point to compromised or misused accounts. The best solutions can automate the discovery and analysis of service accounts across systems to streamline this tracing process.

Step 5: Leverage a Service Account Management Solution

A service account management solution offers the ideal way to gain visibility into and control over service account usage. These purpose-built tools are designed specifically for managing service accounts at scale. They provide a centralized place to discover all service accounts across an environment, monitor them for anomalies, and put strong access controls in place.

Comprehensive Discovery

A service account management solution should employ advanced discovery techniques to uncover all service accounts, including those that may be “orphaned” or improperly configured. It scans domains, databases, applications, and more to build a complete inventory of accounts. This full visibility is essential for closing security gaps and reducing risk.

Continuous Monitoring

Once all service accounts have been discovered, the solution should be able to monitor them constantly for any unusual activity that could indicate their compromise. It should establish a baseline of normal behavior for each account and then be able send alerts if there are any deviations from the norm or even block access altogether. This 24/7 monitoring should work across all accounts and systems in order to detect potential threats immediately.

Granular Access Control

The right service account management solution should be able to enforce least-privilege access by allowing admins to implement granular levels of access control and entitlement reviews. For example, they should be able to grant service accounts just enough access to perform their specific functions and nothing more. There should also be a capability to schedule regular reviews of entitlements to ensure accounts do not accumulate unnecessary permissions over time. These controls can mitigate any damage done if a service account is compromised.

Silverfort: The Leader in Service Account Protection

Silverfort is the industry leader when it comes to service account protection. The Silverfort solution can discover all service accounts across both cloud and on-prem environments, monitor them continuously, and allow granular access control to reduce risk. With Silverfort, organizations will gain full visibility and control over all service accounts so that they can finally close security gaps and stop threats like data breaches and ransomware. Furthermore, Silverfort delivers a purpose-built solution for unified identity protection that can secure all user accounts – including service accounts – at scale.

What Are Service Accounts and Why Are They Important?

Service accounts are administrative accounts located within operating systems and applications that run automated processes and tasks. They are crucial for system and application functionality but can also become attack vectors for malicious actors. This is why closely monitoring and tracking service account use is crucial for organizations.

Common Ways Service Accounts Are Used in an Enterprise Environment

Service accounts are commonly used by applications and automated processes in enterprises to access resources and perform certain actions. There are a few common ways service accounts are used:

Application Access
Service accounts are often used by applications to access data and APIs. For example, a CRM application may use a service account to access a database and API to retrieve customer information. These accounts typically have broad access and permissions to the resources that the application needs.

Scheduled Tasks
Service accounts are frequently used to run scheduled tasks, scripts, and cron jobs. These types of automated processes need an account to execute the tasks, so a service account is given the necessary permissions. Tasks such as database backups, file transfers, and report generation often rely on service accounts.

Middleware and Monitoring
Middleware platforms and monitoring tools regularly make use of service accounts. They require accounts to do things like poll systems, aggregate data, and check statuses. Service accounts grant these tools the access they need while limiting permissions to only what is necessary to perform their functions.

Privilege Separation
Some organizations use service accounts to separate privileges in order to enforce the principle of least privilege. Rather than providing an individual user account with broad access, tasks are separated into distinct service accounts with limited permissions. This helps contain a blast radius if an account is compromised.

But because of their privileged access and broad level of permissions, service accounts can be a prime target for attackers. Solutions like Silverfort provide service account protection by automatically discovering all service accounts, continuously monitoring their behavior, and immediately taking action in case anomalies are detected (such as sending an alert, blocking access, or both). This layered approach to service account security ensures that their level of access to resources remains transparent and controlled at all times.

The Dangers of Unmanaged Service Accounts

Unmanaged service accounts all too often provide a path of least resistance for malicious actors trying to access critical systems and data. Because these accounts often have broad access and permissions across networks and systems, compromised service accounts can be used by attackers to gain administrative access and escalated privileges.

Lateral Movement and Privilege Escalation

Once inside a network, attackers will usually try to move laterally to access additional systems and accounts, with the goal of gaining administrative rights and control. Unmanaged service accounts are therefore ideal targets for this type of activity since they frequently have permissions across many systems. Thus by compromising a service account, attackers can then use its credentials to log into admin accounts across an environment and conduct malicious activity (such as exfiltrating data or spreading ransomware).


Service accounts can also provide a way for attackers to maintain access to a network even after the initial access points have been closed. If a service account’s credentials are stolen, attackers can continue to use them to log in and access systems long after the initial intrusion. Because of the broad access that these accounts have across networks, attackers have many opportunities to use them to install backdoors and create other persistence mechanisms.

Difficulty of Detection

Because service accounts are designed to run background processes and automated tasks, this means their activity is often overlooked. That can make the unauthorized access and usage of these accounts especially challenging to spot, therefore allowing attackers to operate undetected for extended periods. And without proper monitoring and complete management of service accounts available, the malicious behavior can actually continue indefinitely.

To reduce the risks posed by unmanaged service accounts, organizations must implement solutions that provide full visibility and control over all service account activity. By implementing a unified identity protection platform, companies can gain complete visibility into all service accounts as well as the ability to monitor their behavior in real-time, enforce least privilege policies, and receive alerts about unauthorized access attempts or even block access altogether. With these controls in place, the dangers of unmanaged service accounts can finally be avoided.

Service Account Sprawl

Service account sprawl is a common challenge faced by many organizations today. As businesses grow and evolve, their number of service accounts often increases exponentially. This, in turn, can lead to a growing lack of visibility and control, creating serious security risks and exposing an organization to cyberattacks from malicious actors using compromised credentials.

Without proper management, service accounts can quickly become a top attack vector for unauthorized access. Attackers regularly exploit these overlooked accounts in order to gain entry into critical systems and wreak havoc within a network. And the consequences can be devastating — ranging from major data breaches to catastrophic ransomware attacks.

To address this issue, organizations must take proactive measures to better manage service account sprawl and reduce risk. Implementing a robust solution that provides full visibility into service account activity here is crucial. Because by monitoring these accounts in real-time, companies can then immediately detect any suspicious behavior and stop attacks before they spread.

In addition to monitoring, enforcing least privilege policies is essential when it comes to managing service accounts. By enforcing exactly which resources service accounts can access (including both source and destination), organizations can thus limit the impact of any service account compromise. This ensures that service accounts continue to have access to the specific resources they require while ensuring that they always “stay in their lane.”

Ultimately, combating service account sprawl requires a combination of technology, policies, and automated monitoring. By adopting the right solution that can provide these capabilities, businesses will enhance their overall security posture and protect against the dangers posed by unmanaged and invisible service accounts.


In today’s interconnected environments, privileged accounts perform key functions and therefore require close monitoring. Tracking the subset of privileged accounts that are non-human (i.e. service accounts) and their usage across systems and devices is essential to maintaining strong security practices.

By following the steps outlined here to uncover service account trails, security teams can gain valuable insight into how these important accounts are currently being used. Thus, with the right tools and processes in place organizations can reduce risk, limit the impact of breaches, and strengthen their overall cyber defense strategies.

Silverfort provides a fully automated and agentless approach to controlling and monitoring service accounts so security professionals have full confidence that these accounts are under complete control.

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