Service accounts are dedicated non-human accounts used by systems, applications, and services to interact with other systems. They perform important scheduled actions automatically and repeatedly – such as updating machines, scanning an environment, or running health checks – typically operating in the background of an IT stack.
Today, the number of non-human accounts used by organizations (and the number of applications that rely on these accounts) is increasing exponentially, driven by the use of AI to configure software “robots” to critical perform business tasks, known as Robotic Process Automation (RPA).
Why Are Service Accounts At Risk?
Since service accounts are spread across an organization and used not by human users but by business applications, they are often neglected or forgotten about entirely. This means their activity is completely unmonitored, with no processes in place to alert administrators if they ever deviate from normal behavior.
As well, domain-level service accounts typically require elevated privileges in order to accomplish their tasks, which makes them a valuable target for cyber attackers. With hundreds or even thousands of these unsupervised, highly-privileged accounts running, they can become a tool that enables threats to propagate throughout a network undetected.
The Limits of Passwords
A best practice for any account is ensuring that passwords are changed regularly. However, when it comes to service accounts, this is not easy to do. For example, domain service accounts require that passwords be changed at both the domain and the application level.
As well, in some cases, passwords are hardcoded into applications or scripts, with any changes potentially breaking dependencies that would then disrupt critical business processes. The use of password vaults can be an option, but this requires knowing exactly which service accounts need to be managed this way as well as modifying how applications use certain service accounts.
How to Secure Service Accounts
- Discover: It’s essential to be able to see all authentication activity – both human and non-human accounts – across an entire network in order to understand behavior. Because service accounts follow predictable patterns, there are ways to automatically discover and categorize them.
- Monitor: Once accounts have been identified, it’s critical to keep monitoring and auditing their use by assessing every authentication attempt so security teams can immediately spot any anomalous behavior that could indicate account compromise.
- Enforce Policies: Keeping service accounts safe means applying Zero Trust policies based on actual behavior patterns, including the ability to automatically determine whether to allow or deny access.
- Protect: It’s critical to have the ability to actively enforce policies across all service accounts without making any changes to applications, changing passwords, or requiring proxies.
To learn more about how Silverfort helps organizations protect service accounts, click here.
Are service accounts a security risk?
Service accounts can pose a security risk if they are not properly configured and managed. Service accounts are typically used to run processes and services, and they often have privileged access to resources. If a service account is compromised, the attacker may be able to use the account’s privileges to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information or perform malicious actions. To minimize the risk of a security incident, it is important to assign the least privilege necessary, use multi-factor authentication, and monitor the activity of service accounts. Additionally, it’s important to be aware of vulnerabilities and patches as well as enabling logging and using a security tool to monitor for suspicious activity.
What is an example of a service account?
An example of a service account is a Google Cloud Platform (GCP) service account. GCP service accounts are used to authenticate applications and services that run on GCP. They allow the application or service to interact with other GCP resources, such as Google Cloud Storage or Google BigQuery.
For example, if you are running an application on a GCP virtual machine (VM) that needs to access data stored in Google Cloud Storage, you would create a GCP service account and assign the appropriate permissions to it. The application running on the VM would then use the service account’s credentials to authenticate to Google Cloud Storage and access the data.
Additionally, Service accounts can also be used to authenticate to other services, like APIs, databases, and more.
What is the difference between a service account and a user account?
While service accounts and user accounts are both accounts used for authentication, they have some key differences.
A user account is a personal account that is associated with a specific individual. User accounts are typically created for human users, and they are used to log in to a system, application, or service. User accounts are typically associated with a specific person and are intended for interactive use. They typically have a username and password or another form of multi-factor authentication.
A service account, on the other hand, is a non-human account that is used to run processes and services. Service accounts are typically used by applications, services, and systems to authenticate to other resources and perform automated tasks. They are not associated with a specific person and are intended for non-interactive use. Service accounts typically use an API key or a JSON Web Token (JWT) for authentication, rather than a password.
In summary, user accounts are intended for human users, while service accounts are intended for non-human entities like applications, services, and systems.
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