What is Non-Human Identity ?

Non-human identities (NHIs) are digital entities used to represent machines, applications, and automated processes within an IT infrastructure. Unlike human identities, tied to individual users, NHIs facilitate machine-to-machine interactions and perform repetitive tasks without human intervention.

These machine identities are critical in both cloud-native and on-premises environments, where they help manage and automate complex workflows.

Examples of NHIs include API keys, OAuth tokens, service accounts, and system accounts.

Each type of NHI serves a different purpose. API keys allow different software applications to communicate securely, while OAuth tokens enable authentication and authorization processes in web services. Service accounts are dedicated accounts in Active Directory used by applications to interact with other systems, performing tasks such as data backups and system monitoring. 

NHIs play a pivotal role in ensuring seamless operations in digital environments. They enable continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) pipelines, manage cloud services, and integrate disparate applications, thereby enhancing operational efficiency and automation. As a result of their widespread use, they pose significant security challenges, necessitating robust management and protection measures to prevent unauthorized access.

Human vs. Non-Human Identities

The primary distinction between human and non-human identities lies in their nature and the security protocols governing them. Human identities are associated with individual users who interact with systems and applications, typically requiring multi factor authentication (MFA) and regular password changes. Non-human identities (NHIs), on the other hand, represent applications, services, and automated processes, often operating without direct human oversight.

Key Differences in Security Protocols and Oversight

Human identities are managed and protected with well-defined security practices, including strong authentication methods, role-based access controls, and regular monitoring of user activities. These identities are often subject to extensive monitoring to ensure compliance with security policies and regulatory requirements.

Conversely, NHIs are created to perform specific tasks and functions, such as automated backups or API communications, and are not directly monitored by individuals. As a result, they may not be subject to the same level of scrutiny, making them potential targets for exploitation.

Challenges in Managing and Securing NHIs vs Human Identities

Managing and securing NHIs presents unique challenges. Unlike human users, NHIs do not have the ability to respond to MFA prompts or change passwords regularly. This can lead to practices where passwords or tokens are hardcoded into scripts or applications, making them difficult to rotate or update. Additionally, NHIs often have elevated privileges to perform their tasks, increasing the risk if their credentials are compromised.

Another significant challenge is the sheer volume and variety of NHIs within an organization. With the rise of cloud computing, microservices, and automated workflows, the number of NHIs has grown exponentially. This proliferation makes it difficult for security teams to maintain visibility and control over all NHIs, especially those created without proper documentation or oversight.

AspectHuman IdentitiesNon-Human Identities
Authentication and Access ControlTypically involves MFA, enhancing security through multi-layered approaches.Cannot use traditional MFA. Authentication relies on static credentials like API keys or service account passwords.
Visibility and MonitoringUser activities are regularly monitored through behavior analytics and SIEM systems.NHIs are harder to monitor due to continuous operation and high volume, leading to longer periods of unnoticed unauthorized actions.
Lifecycle ManagementManaged through IAM solutions, ensuring appropriate access via provisioning, de-provisioning, and access reviews.Often lack comprehensive lifecycle management, leading to stale or overly permissive credentials.
Privilege ManagementRBAC and least privilege principles ensure minimal necessary permissions.Frequently have elevated privileges, making them attractive targets. Ensuring least privilege is complex due to varied functions.
Documentation and OversightTypically well-documented with clear processes for onboarding and offboarding.Often lack proper documentation, especially in dynamic environments, increasing the difficulty of effective management and security.

Examples and Use Cases for NHIs

. Below are some key use cases and examples that highlight the importance and functionality of NHIs across various platforms.

  • Integrating Applications: OAuth tokens enable seamless integration between applications, allowing them to share data and functionality securely. For instance, a marketing platform might use OAuth tokens to integrate with CRM systems, automating data synchronization.
  • Automating Workflows: Robotic Process Automation (RPA) relies heavily on NHIs to perform tasks that mimic human actions, such as processing transactions, manipulating data, and communicating with other digital systems.
  • Managing Cloud Services: NHIs, like service accounts in cloud environments, manage various cloud services, including provisioning resources, scaling applications, and monitoring performance. This ensures efficient and scalable cloud operations.
  • CI/CD Pipelines: Service accounts within CI/CD tools like Jenkins or GitLab automate the build, test, and deployment processes, ensuring rapid and consistent delivery of software updates.
  • Service Accounts within Active Directory: In an Active Directory environment, service accounts are used to run essential services like database management systems, web servers, and other critical applications. These accounts need to be carefully managed and monitored to prevent unauthorized access and potential security incidents.

These examples illustrate the diverse use cases of NHIs and their significance in enhancing operational efficiency. However, the increased reliance on NHIs also underscores the need for robust security measures to mitigate the associated risks.

Security Risks and Challenges of NHIs

Non-human identities (NHIs) introduce a unique set of security risks and challenges that can compromise the integrity of IT environments if not properly managed. Understanding these risks is crucial for developing effective security strategies.

Lack of Visibility, Monitoring, and Governance

One of the most significant risks associated with NHIs is the lack of visibility. Organizations often have difficulty maintaining an accurate inventory of NHIs, resulting in blind spots in their security posture. Unless properly monitored and governed, NHIs can easily be overlooked, making them prime targets for attackers.

Risk of Compromised Credentials

It is common for NHIs to use static credentials, such as API keys and service account passwords, which can be stolen or leaked. Compromised credentials can lead to unauthorized access and data breaches. A notable example is the Cloudflare breach, where API keys were exploited to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information​​​​.

Potential for Lateral Movement within Networks

Attackers can utilize compromised NHIs to move laterally within a network, escalating their privileges and accessing sensitive systems and data. As a result of the high privileges assigned to NHIs, which are necessary for them to perform their intended functions, this lateral movement is facilitated. Once inside the network, attackers are able to exploit these privileges in order to achieve their malicious goals.

Lack of Service Account Visibility

Service accounts, a common type of NHI, are frequently created and forgotten, leading to a large number of accounts with unknown or poorly documented purposes. This lack of visibility hampers the ability to monitor and manage these accounts effectively, increasing the risk of misuse. Organizations cannot implement proper security controls without a comprehensive understanding of all active service accounts.

Increased Attack Surface

The presence of NHIs significantly increases the attack surface of an organization. Each NHI represents a potential entry point that can be exploited by malicious actors. In order to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches, this expanded attack surface requires vigilant monitoring and robust security measures. NHIs can be easily compromised without proper visibility and control, leading to severe consequences for the organization’s security posture.


Over-permissiveness is a common security issue in environments where NHIs are assigned amplified privileges more than necessary. This can be a result of poor security practices or misconfigurations, and it can allow attackers to exploit these excessive privileges to gain broader access within the network.

There are several ways that attackers can exploit over-permissiveness. For example, an attacker could gain access to a privileged account and use it to modify system settings, install malware, move laterally, or access sensitive data. Additionally, an attacker could use a privileged account to launch attacks against other systems on the network

Inadequate Lifecycle Management

Without proper lifecycle management, NHIs can remain active long after they are needed, retaining access to critical resources and posing ongoing security risks.

Outdated NHIs may not have the same level of security features as newer versions, leaving them more susceptible to cyberattacks or insider threats.

Failure to decommission NHIs in accordance with regulatory requirements can also result in compliance violations and potential penalties.

Redundant or unnecessary NHIs can also strain IT systems and resources, leading to performance issues and increased operational costs.

Best Practices for Securing NHIs

Securing non-human identities (NHIs) requires a multifaceted approach that addresses their unique challenges and vulnerabilities. Here are some best practices to ensure robust protection for NHIs:

Implementing Robust Access Policies and Tools

  1. Least Privilege Principle: Ensure that NHIs are granted only the permissions necessary to perform their specific tasks. Regular audits of NHIs and adjust access controls to minimize excessive privileges.
  2. Role-Based Access Control (RBAC): Implement RBAC to manage and enforce access policies based on the roles and responsibilities associated with each NHI.
  3. Access Policy Automation: Use automated tools to enforce access policies and ensure compliance. This reduces the risk of human error and ensures that policies are consistently applied across all NHIs.

Real-Time Monitoring and Auditing Credentials

  1. Continuous Monitoring: Implement continuous monitoring solutions to track the activities of NHIs in real time. This helps in detecting anomalies and potential security threats promptly.
  2. Audit Logs: Maintain detailed audit logs of all actions performed by NHIs. Regularly review these logs to identify suspicious activities and investigate potential security incidents.
  3. Alerting Mechanisms: Set up automated alerting systems to notify the security or SOC teams of any unusual or unauthorized activities involving NHIs. This enables quick responses to potential threats.

Using Ephemeral Certificates and Zero Trust Principles

  1. Ephemeral Certificates: Utilize short-lived certificates for authentication instead of static credentials. Ephemeral certificates reduce the risk of credential compromise and limit the window of opportunity for attackers.
  2. Zero Trust Architecture: Adopt a Zero Trust approach to security, where no entity is trusted by default, regardless of whether it is inside or outside the network perimeter. Continuously verify the identity and access privileges of NHIs.
  3. Micro-Segmentation: Implement micro-segmentation to isolate NHIs within the network. This limits lateral movement and reduces the impact of a potential breach.


Non-human identities have become indispensable for automating processes and ensuring operational efficiency. However, the proliferation of NHIs introduces unique security challenges that cannot be overlooked. These entities often possess elevated privileges and operate without direct human oversight, making them attractive targets for cyber attackers.

Real-world incidents, such as the Cloudflare breach, highlight the potential consequences of inadequate NHI management. These cases underscore the importance of visibility, governance, and the need for specialized security measures tailored to the unique nature of NHIs.

For cybersecurity and IT professionals, the call to action is clear: prioritize the management and protection of NHIs as a critical component of your overall security strategy. By doing so, you can safeguard your organization against unauthorized access, data breaches, and other cyber threats, ensuring a secure and resilient IT environment.