Non-Human Identity Management: A Guide

Advancements in AI, IoT, cloud services, and microservices architecture have fundamentally altered how we approach identity management, and necessitated the creation and management of service accounts, APIs, and application accounts. That’s where non-human identities (NHIs) come in. 

While NHIs enhance automation, scalability, and efficiency, they also introduce new security challenges that must be addressed to protect applications and data

This article explores what non-human identities are, their management, and the benefits of a robust non-human identities management (NHIM) strategy. We’ll also delve into best practices for NHIM and highlight how Application Security Posture Management (ASPM) can play a pivotal role in securing them.

What Are Non-Human Identities?

Non-human identities are digital entities that interact with systems and data, including service accounts, APIs, IoT devices, and bots. Unlike human users, these identities are created for applications, processes, and devices to perform specific tasks autonomously. 

Just like employee passwords act as unique identifiers for humans and give them controlled access to relevant systems, non-human identities ensure that devices and applications interact seamlessly and securely, allowing only the right machines and programs to connect with each other. 

Non-human identities have unique characteristics, including:

  • Machine-Readable Authentication: Typically use API keys, tokens, and certificates for authentication, designed for automated processes.
  • Automated Lifecycle Management: Managed through dynamic and automated processes, including provisioning, rotation, and de-provisioning of credentials.
  • Specific Technical Roles: Created for specific technical functions such as running scripts, accessing APIs, and managing cloud resources.
  • Continuous Operation: Non-human identities operate 24/7 without the need for rest, performing tasks and processes continuously.
  • High Precision in Repetitive Tasks: They execute repetitive tasks with high precision and consistency, reducing the risk of errors.
  • Rapid Scalability: Can be scaled up or down rapidly to meet application and service demands, often automatically.

Examples of Non-Human Identities

Non-human identities encompass a wide range of entities, each playing a crucial role in modern IT environments. They are most prevalent in cloud services, software development, and IoT ecosystems, where automation and scalability are essential. Here are just a few examples:

APIs and Microservices

APIs are essential non-human identities that enable communication between different software components. In a microservices architecture, APIs facilitate the interaction between services, making them a vital part of the application ecosystem. Securing APIs involves strong authentication and authorization mechanisms to prevent unauthorized access and data breaches.

Application Accounts

Application accounts are used by software applications to interact with databases, operating systems, and other applications. These accounts often have elevated privileges, which is one reason why developers have become even higher value targets for compromise. 

Service Accounts

Service accounts are used in cloud environments to manage access to resources. For example, AWS IAM roles, Azure Managed Identities, and Google Cloud Service Accounts are designed to provide secure access to services and data. Proper management of these accounts includes setting stringent access controls and regularly auditing permissions.

The sheer number and dispersed nature of NHIs, which often outnumber human identities by a ratio of 45 to 1, create significant security vulnerabilities. NHIs with excessive permissions, if unmanaged, can be easily exploited by malicious actors, leading to data breaches and other security incidents. Verizon’s latest DBIR report indicates that compromised secrets and stolen credentials remain the number one way that attackers gain access to systems causing security breaches. That’s why a non-human identity management is so important.

What Is Non-Human Identity Management (NHIM)?

NHIM is the practice of managing and securing identities not tied to individual users. Its purpose is to ensure that non-human identities are properly authenticated, authorized, and audited, maintaining the security and integrity of systems and data they interact with. Effective secrets management is integral to NHIM, and both are essential components of a good application security strategy.

Other key components include:

  • Identity Provisioning: Automating the creation and deployment of non-human identities based on predefined policies.
  • Authentication: Ensuring that non-human identities prove their identity through secure methods such as API keys, tokens, and certificates.
  • Authorization: Granting appropriate access levels to non-human identities based on the principle of least privilege.
  • Lifecycle Management: Managing the entire lifecycle of non-human identities, including provisioning, rotation, and de-provisioning.

Managing Non-Human Identities vs. Managing Human Identities

To implement an effective identity management strategy, it’s essential you understand the differences between managing human and non-human identities. We can summarize these differences in three broad categories.

Authentication and Authorization

Authentication for non-human identities typically involves API keys and tokens, while human identities use passwords and biometrics. Non-human identities require more granular authorization controls to ensure that each identity only has access to the necessary resources.

Lifecycle Management

Lifecycle management for non-human identities demands automation due to their large numbers and dynamic nature. Automated provisioning and de-provisioning based on workload requirements are essential to maintaining security and efficiency.

Security and Compliance

NHIM faces unique security challenges, such as preventing token theft and ensuring compliance with regulations like GDPR and HIPAA. ASPM tools can help maintain a strong security posture by continuously monitoring and managing these identities.

Learn more about achieving compliance in the SDLC.


Category Non-Human Identities Human Identities 
Authentication Passwords, Biometrics API Keys, Tokens
Authorization Role-Based, User Groups Granular Permissions
Lifecycle Management Manual Provisioning, HR Systems Automated Provisioning, Dynamic Management
Security Risks Phishing, Social Engineering Token Theft; Misconfiguration
Compliance GDPR, HIPAA, PCI-DSS GDPR, HIPAA, Industry Standards


Why Is Non-Human Identity Management Important?

Non-Human Identity Management (NHIM) is critical to preventing unauthorized access and potential data breaches. 

Just look at Capital One’s data breach. A misconfigured service account in the cloud environment allowed a hacker to access sensitive customer data, including Social Security numbers and bank account details. The breach affected over 100 million customers, leading to significant financial and reputational damage for Capital One, as well as regulatory fines and lawsuits. 

Now that we’ve seen the consequences of poor NHIM let’s look at the benefits of an effective NHIM.

Enhanced Security

Well-managed non-human identities significantly reduce the risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and malware spread. By securing these identities, organizations can protect sensitive data, including source code, and maintain strong security postures. For instance, poorly managed service accounts or leaked API keys can lead to source code leaks, as seen in high-profile breaches

Improved Operational Efficiency

Effective NHIM enhances operational efficiency by automating the management of non-human identities, reducing the need for manual intervention. This streamlining of processes enables scalability and ensures smooth and secure application deployment, particularly in DevOps and CI/CD practices.

Regulatory Compliance

NHIM is essential for meeting regulatory requirements and industry standards. Proper management facilitates audits and ensures ongoing compliance, helping organizations avoid penalties and reputational damage while maintaining trust with customers and stakeholders.

Non-Human Identity Management Best Practices

Security teams and developers face significant challenges when it comes to creating and executing effective NHIM strategies. For example:

  • Managing a large number of non-human identities across diverse environments
  • Achieving visibility into the activities and interactions of non-human identities across systems
  • Ensuring robust authentication and authorization for non-human identities
  • Continuously monitoring and auditing non-human identities for anomalies
  • Balancing security with functionality in application integration
  • Ensuring appropriate permissions without over-privileging non-human identities
  • Maintaining and updating non-human identities as applications evolve
  • Keeping up with evolving security threats
  • Prioritizing identity management tasks 

To help you overcome these challenges, we recommend considering the following best practice tips.

Principle of Least Privilege

Granting the minimum necessary permissions to non-human identities is paramount. In cloud environments, this can be implemented by creating finely-tuned policies that restrict access based on specific roles and functions.

Automated Lifecycle Management

Automation in provisioning, rotating, and de-provisioning credentials is crucial. Various solutions (including Identity as a Service (IDaaS) tools, cloud access management tools, secrets management tools, DevOps tools, and ASPM) facilitate automated alerting and remediation, ensuring that non-human identities are managed efficiently and securely.

Regular Auditing and Monitoring

Continuous monitoring and regular audits are necessary to detect anomalies and ensure compliance. Regular auditing helps maintain visibility into the activities of non-human identities and ensures that any potential security issues are identified and addressed promptly.

Use a Complete ASPM Platform

Utilizing a complete Application Security Posture Management (ASPM) platform can significantly enhance NHIM. A complete ASPM platform provides unparalleled visibility into the security posture of non-human identities, enabling proactive risk prioritization, threat mitigation, remediation and ensuring compliance with security policies. 

Importantly, complete ASPM platforms do more than just manage NHIs. They unify various security tools and data sources into a single interface, improving security posture from code to cloud.

How Can Cycode Help With NHIM?

Cycode offers a complete ASPM platform that delivers a comprehensive suite of security capabilities, including:

Unlike standalone ASPM platforms, Cycode offers proprietary scanners and allows companies to integrate their third-party security tools, providing a holistic view of risks associated with NHIM. 

Better still, the platform’s Risk Intelligence Graph (RIG) enhances visibility, prioritization, and remediation of critical vulnerabilities. Once vulnerabilities are identified, Cycode’s developer workflows empower teams to quickly and easily address critical vulnerabilities within their own environments without the need to log into the Cycode platform. 

This seamless integration and the complete approach to ASPM makes Cycode an essential platform for managing the secrets associated with non-human identities (and other vulnerabilities) across the entire SDLC.

Book a demo now to learn more.