Best Practices for Securing Service Accounts

While service accounts solve many of the challenges presented by automation, they can also create serious problems when it comes to cybersecurity.

Now is the time to establish cybersecurity best practices to prevent service accounts from becoming the attack vector for today’s cyber thieves.

Service accounts are responsible for granting the appropriate rights to applications so that they can perform scheduled tasks automatically in the background, reducing the burden on IT staffers. However, they have a dark side, which illustrates how automation of tasks can become so ubiquitous that those actions often occur unnoticed and unmonitored, falling outside the purview of cybersecurity best practices. Simply put, as the number of service accounts in an organization increases, so does the potential attack surface of that organization. 

While service accounts can be credited for solving many of the challenges presented by automation, they can also create serious problems when it comes to cyber hygiene. These problems must be addressed to protect organizations from breaches, lateral movement attacks, and numerous other cyber concerns. 

Visibility is the Key to Cybersecurity
“You cannot secure what you are not aware of” might be a hackneyed expression; however, it rings true in the world of cybersecurity. Service accounts are created to implement business processes and, in most cases, are created outside the knowledge of cybersecurity teams. In other words, service accounts go undocumented, unmonitored, and unmanaged, which creates potential attack vectors. 

Over time, problems can arise, as admins fail to keep track of service accounts, change passwords, or make necessary changes for fear that they may create service disruptions. Those factors turn service accounts into static elements that can be compromised without anyone knowing it. One solution is instituting a unified management platform for service accounts. This platform not only discovers active and inactive service accounts but also provides insights into how an account is used and if it is a service account, an account used by a human, or both.  

Service Accounts Must Be Monitored
Having an inventory of service and user accounts will not tell you what an account does. Active monitoring is key to deriving insights into actual account activity. Monitoring should provide visibility into account behavior and determine if an account is displaying abnormal activity. What’s more, accounts should be audited, and every authentication attempt should be monitored to detect brute-force attacks or other attempts at compromise. The monitoring platform should also incorporate intelligence to identify known threat vectors and account flaws. Monitoring, auditing, and anomaly detection provide needed insight to cybersecurity professionals to make decisions based upon facts, not assumptions. 

The Importance of Policies
Knowledge without action accomplishes very little in the battle against compromise and cyberattacks. This point should not be lost on anyone attempting to secure service accounts. Policies are a critical tool for addressing account security and should be implemented using clear definitions and more enforcement.  

With service accounts, as well as user accounts, defined policies that enforce security best practices are a must-have in today’s complex environments. Innovative solutions will not only allow administrators to define policies but will also suggest the most appropriate policies for any analyzed service account. Polices provide another layer of protection and should enable administrators to define granular elements to fully lock down any abnormal behavior.   

Real-Time Response Is Critical
Policy enforcement is a tactical method for preventing breaches and exemplifies the ability to respond to any unauthorized attempt to access a protected resource. However, the response needs to be immediate as well as automated. When selecting technologies to protect service accounts, administrators must ascertain how well a platform responds to threats. That also means it must incorporate active monitoring and policy enforcement backed by detection and response and do it all in real time. A response to a threat that is delayed by the need for human interaction is less than effective since compromise and lateral movement attacks can happen in a matter of seconds.  

Protecting service accounts from compromises and other attack vectors requires being able to tear down the silos of access and apply intelligence to identifying service accounts so that policies can be defined to protect them from compromise. What’s more, in today’s fast-paced world of cyberattacks, automation has become a must, and automated responses must happen in real time before any damage can occur. This combination of automation, discovery, policy, and response is the difference between successfully protecting service accounts and exposing them to attacks. 

Yaron Kassner is CTO and co-founder of Silverfort, a provider of unified identity management technology. He is a recognized expert in cybersecurity and big data technology. Prior to founding Silverfort, Yaron served as a big data expert consultant for Cisco and also worked on … View Full Bio

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