Service Account Protection Is a Necessity, not a Luxury 

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The role of service accounts in today’s complex enterprise environment cannot be overstated. These non-human or machine-to-machine (M2M) accounts are employed by applications, systems, and services to execute crucial automated tasks within a network. They require access to resources such as databases and file shares to perform their routine tasks. However, if not properly managed, service accounts can pose significant risks, enabling threat actors to exploit compromised credentials, take over these accounts, and move laterally through a network undetected. 

The Role and Risks of Service Accounts 

Service accounts are dedicated non-human accounts created by IT administrators to run on different machines or by processes such as software installation. They perform automatic, repetitive, and scheduled actions in the background, usually without human intervention. When a service account is created, it is typically assigned a set of permissions that allow it to perform specific tasks or access specific resources. 

However, the features that make service accounts indispensable also make them a potential security risk. It is common for service accounts to be assigned privileged access similar to that of an administrator. While this access is necessary for the service account to perform its tasks, it can also create a security issue if administrators are not fully aware of the exact behavior and activity of those accounts. 

Service Account Management 

To effectively manage service accounts, you must discover all of the different account types that are being used. Service accounts can number in the hundreds or even thousands within an organization, making it difficult to keep track of each and every account and its activity. According to a report by Osterman, ‘The State of the Identity Attack Surface’, only 22% of organizations feel that it’s extremely important to know which service accounts exist in their environments.  

Alarmingly, only 19.8% of organizations have complete confidence that they know which service accounts are in use in their environment. Understanding which service accounts are in your environment and what tasks they perform is critical as it helps prevent unauthorized access and lateral movement attacks by threat actors. It also enables effective management and security of these accounts, which often have privileged access. 

Full Visibility into Service Accounts 

As a result of the lack of full visibility into service accounts, it is difficult for organizations to detect any unauthorized access or malicious activity associated with them. According to Osterman’s report, only 5.7% of organizations have full visibility into their service accounts. Without full visibility into service accounts and how they are being used, organizations are exposed to security risks, including unauthorized access by threat actors, which can result in lateral movement attacks. 

Since only a small percentage of organizations have full visibility into service accounts, service accounts are often seen as low-hanging fruit for attackers to gain access to an organization’s environment and move laterally. In most organizations, this should be a serious concern for security leaders – yet only 17.9% of organizations are extremely concerned about the lack of visibility into their service accounts. 

Preventing Attacks Using Compromised Service Accounts  

The lack of robust security controls to prevent attacks using compromised service accounts represents a significant security gap in an organization’s cybersecurity posture. When these accounts are not properly protected, they become attractive targets for malicious actors seeking unauthorized access.  

In Osterman’s report, only 26.2% of organizations have extreme confidence that their security controls can prevent service accounts from being compromised in real time. Without adequate controls, such as continuous monitoring, and strong access policies, compromised service accounts can go undetected, providing threat actors with prolonged access to critical systems and sensitive data.  

This gap in security controls not only increases the risk of data breaches but also amplifies the potential for operational disruptions and insider threats. Addressing this deficiency is crucial for organizations to fortify their defenses and ensure a resilient security framework against evolving cyber threats. 

Priority & Resources Allocated to Service Account Protection  

Osterman’s report indicates that 67.9% of organizations are aware of the risks associated with service accounts, but they place higher priorities on other security initiatives. The need to prioritize resources and allocate budget for the protection of service accounts over other security initiatives is rooted in the recognition that they are prime targets for cyber threats. By prioritizing service account protection, organizations mitigate the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and operational disruptions. 

An investment in comprehensive security measures for service accounts provides a strong foundation for defending against evolving cyber threats and insider threats. Despite the importance of other security projects, securing service accounts is a proactive measure that ensures that the least detected security risks are prioritized for protecting against potential breaches and strengthening the overall identity security posture management of your organization. 

The Urgent Need for Service Account Protection 

Service accounts, often overlooked in the broader security landscape, wield significant influence over an organization’s critical systems and sensitive data. As organizations begin to recognize the risk of leaving them undetected and unmonitored, the need for service account protection will cease to be a discretionary “nice-to-have” measure – and will instead emerge as a cornerstone of cyber security.  

Neglecting their protection introduces security risks that can lead to unauthorized access, operational disruptions, and potential data breaches. Recognizing the pivotal role that service accounts play in the identity infrastructure, it’s clear that prioritizing resources and allocating budget for their protection is not merely a strategic choice but a fundamental necessity. As cyber threats continue to evolve, investing in service account protection ensures the resilience, integrity, and security of an organization’s users and resources, making it an indispensable element in a comprehensive cyber security strategy. 

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