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Blog Post Apr 07, 2021

Digital Identity Management Automation - Why It’s Necessary

Digital identity management automation has never been more important. Learn about how it works and the benefits it can bring.

What Is Digital Identity Management?

Digital identity management is the systems and processes for managing credential authentication that is required for access to resources and applications in secure network environment or online. Every user, machine, and software process in a modern enterprise digital ecosystem has a digital identity. A digital identity management system establishes layers of cybersecurity protocols and practices set forth within your organization to protect these digital identities as well as access to sensitive data and intellectual property from the ever-grasping hands of cybercriminals.

The utilization of digital identities enables interactions that take place countless times every second of every day by portraying each end-user of applications, software, and services with a digital credential. Digital identity management provides recognition, verification, and an organized system of digital identities that can serve quite effectively and efficiently. But, as with most any type of system, exponential growth can spark exponential difficulties in keeping the system functionality working as intended. And that’s why it’s essential that the complete identity lifecycles that serve as the foundation of digital identity management are properly managed, assuring that access is only granted to legitimate users or machines no matter how many identities or how complex the environment. It’s also crucial that the deployment of a digital identity platform provides ironclad security without compromising the user experience.

The validation of digital identities is particularly important in supporting a Zero Trust security strategy, where trust is never granted implicitly and must continually be evaluated. This strong approach incorporates granting detailed access control and permissions to each user, device, and process in the network. Using Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) certificates and cryptographic key pairs can strengthen the verification of digital identities, and can also serve to secure the connections between entities that lie beyond the firewalled network architecture.

In this age of digital transformation, the Zero Trust model enhances security while simultaneously increasing the need for a consolidated, automated, and modern approach to PKI.

What Is a Digital Identity?

A digital identity is much more than a digital ID number or simple identifier, such as a driver’s license or employee ID card. In essence, it is an amalgam of the authenticated credentials that certify that a user is authorized to be granted access to online resources or to a network.

But digital identity extends beyond access control to networks and computers for users. It is also used to identify each component of a system or network, including each user, machine, and application. Each of the following, for example, would be assigned a unique digital identity:

  • Mobile devices and smartphones
  • Internet of Things (IoT) devices
  • Web servers and application servers
  • DevOps containers
  • WiFi and VPN access
  • Network appliances and routers
  • Cloud applications and services

It’s important to note that a digital identity is not a universal construct, since any id is valid only within the network or system for which it was created. Modern computer networks, in fact, utilize an entire class of software in managing digital identities. Identity and Access Management software (IAM) is singularly tasked with the job of assuring that all digital identities are properly and safely managed.

Why Is Digital Identity Management Important?

As technology has evolved in recent years, the enterprise security landscape has grown increasingly complex. Applications and data running across multiple cloud environments, distributed workforces, and innovative connected devices, are all intersecting in ways that demand a strong digital identity approach to protect against persistent and emerging threats.

Enterprises now rely on PKI certificates as the gold standard for ensuring identity. PKI serves as a foundational component of a Zero Trust architecture that adheres to strong security parameters for all end-user, device, and application identities.

But as already-complex environments expand to include mobile devices, cloud infrastructure, DevOps, Internet of Things, and more, the financial risks inherent in failing to effectively manage PKI certificates have increased dramatically. While improper certificate management makes enterprises more vulnerable to criminal activity and fraud, it also exposes organizations to risks related to employee productivity, customer experience issues, and compliance shortfalls.

How Is It More Secure than Passwords and Multi-Factor Authentication?

Today’s IT security teams must be able to recognize and authenticate identities throughout the enterprise — whether those identities belong to humans, devices, data, or applications. Passwords offered a certain measure of security in the past, but they are no longer as effective as they once were. That’s because bad actors have become increasingly adept at stealing identities through a range of devious methodologies, including:

  • Tricking users into entering passwords at phishing websites
  • Stealing users’ identities from transactions in transit across the internet
  • Lifting passwords from password repositories
  • Discovering places where stolen passwords have been reused
  • Obtaining passwords through brute force

Additionally, a reliance upon passwords in managing digital identities burdens individual users with the responsibility of remembering and updating passwords, and with managing their own security. IT teams are inundated with time-consuming password reset requests. And, even worse, employees often resort to using half-measures or bypassing the use of security solutions altogether, simply to avoid lost productivity. The result, of course, is a lapse of security that provides an opening for cybercriminals.

Many organizations have turned to two-factor authentication (2FA), multi-factor authentication (MFA), and, in some cases, biometric-based authentication. Often touted as a secure alternative to passwords, phone and one-time password OATH token multi-factor authentication solutions are riddled with many documented vulnerabilities, and have been proven susceptible to high-profile attacks that are as easy and scalable as stealing passwords. Additionally, the effort an employee must expend in using an application with MFA — much more burdensome than simply remembering a password — makes life even more complex for both employees and IT administrators.

In contrast to both passwords and MFA, digital identity management with PKI eliminates the reliance upon secrets to be shared (or intercepted by cybercriminals). Authentication occurs when the user proves possession of the private key. The transaction is then signed by the private key and verified by the public key. This process offers far superior data protection and security against identity theft than password-based authentication for a number of reasons:

  • The private key never leaves the client. In contrast to passwords, which are easy to share intentionally, or unintentionally, via phishing attacks.
  • The private key cannot be stolen in transit, because it is never transmitted. Unlike passwords, which can be stolen in transit through the internet, private keys are never transmitted.
  • The private key cannot be stolen from the server repository. Passwords stored in central server repositories can be stolen; private keys are known only to the user's device and are not stored centrally.
  • There is no need for users to remember passwords or enter usernames. The user's device simply stores a private key to be presented when needed, providing a more seamless user experience.

Why Automate Digital Identity Management?

While there is no stronger, easier-to-use authentication and encryption solution than the digital identity provided by PKI, the challenge for busy IT teams is that manually deploying and managing certificates is time-consuming, and can result in unnecessary risk.

Whether an enterprise deploys a single SSL certificate for a web server or manages millions of certificates across all its networked device and user identities, the end-to-end process of certificate issuance, configuration, and deployment can take hours. Manually managing certificates also puts enterprises at significant risk of neglected certificates expiring unexpectedly and of exposure to gaps in ownership — dropped balls that can result in sudden outages, critical business systems failures, and security breaches and attacks.

Customers and internal users rely on critical business system to be always available. But in recent years, expired certificates have resulted in many high-profile website and services outages. The result has been billions of dollars in lost revenue, contract penalties, lawsuits, and the incalculable cost of tarnished brand reputations and lost customer goodwill.

Organizations Must Be in Compliance with Regulations — Or Face Staggering Penalties

Insufficient identity security can certainly leave organizations at risk of attacks and data breaches. But security vulnerabilities can also put enterprises in jeopardy of failure to comply with regulatory mandates. Privacy regulations such as HIPAA/HITECH, GDPR, and the U.S. federal government’s DFARS define instances and use cases that require encryption to mitigate or minimize the consequences of a breach — all designed to guard against information theft vulnerabilities.

Failure to meet compliance requirements can result in substantial fines. For example, the EU recently charged GDPR-related fines to Google for €50 million, to Marriott for £99 million, and to British Airways for £183 million. And the GDPR has mandated that fines should be based on both the scale of an individual breach and on the degree of negligence exhibited by an organization. So, applying a strong security solution to your digital certificates helps to reduce the risk of a breach. But doing so also indicates a good-faith effort, or lack of negligence, that may help to reduce the amount of the fine should a breach occur.

Administration Costs Add Up Quickly Too

Though certificate management may sometimes be regarded as a simple, day-to-day task for an IT or web administrator, ensuring certificates are valid one at a time is costly. Using manual processes to discover, install, monitor, and renew all the PKI certificates in an organization is labor-intensive and technically demanding.

Consider, for example, that even a minimal manual SSL certificate installation with a single webserver and domain instance involves multiple steps, and can easily add up to over $50 per web server. Now multiply that effort across the thousands or millions of PKI certificates in an organization, and it becomes readily apparent that the costs of manual certificate management add up quickly.

How To Automate

With the above-noted pitfalls and financial ramifications inherent in managing PKI certificates manually, the return on investment for automated digital identity management is clear for CIOs and CSOs to see.

IT professionals must rethink their certificate lifecycle management strategies. Particularly as enterprises increasingly go to market with services reliant upon rapidly changing DevOps environments, organizations need an automated solution that ensures certificates are correctly configured and implemented without human intervention. Automation helps reduce risk, but also aids IT departments in controlling operational costs and streamlining time-to-market for products and services.

Recently, PKI has evolved to become even more versatile. Interoperability, high uptime, and governance are still key benefits. But today’s PKI solutions are also functionally capable of improving administration and certificate lifecycle management through:

  • Automation: Completing individual tasks while minimizing manual processes.
  • Coordination: Using automation to manage a broad portfolio of tasks.
  • Scalability: Managing certificates numbering in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions.
  • Crypto-agility: Updating cryptographic strength and revoking and replacing at-risk certificates with quantum safe certificates rapidly in response to new or changing threats.
  • Visibility: Viewing certificate status with a single pane of glass across all use cases.

Given the disparate systems, applications, and devices that use digital certificates, IT teams often find themselves managing distinct automation services from many different vendors. Running multiple automation platforms typically results in a reduction in efficiency. A single certificate management dashboard that automates discovery, deployment, and lifecycle management across all use cases and vendor platforms delivers the efficiency that automation promises. And IT teams still maintain control of configuration definitions and rules so that automation steps are performed correctly.

Sectigo provides digital identity management automation solutions that enable enterprises to be agile, efficient, and in full control of all the certificates in their environment. Sectigo supports automated installation, revocation, and renewal of SSL/TLS and non-SSL certificates via industry leading protocols, APIs, and third-party integrations. And Sectigo eliminates the problem of certificate volume caps that can occur with open-source alternatives.

In sum, Sectigo’s automation solutions enable your security team to easily:

  • Enforce cryptographic security policies
  • Protect communications
  • Prevent personal data loss via unauthorized access
  • Future-proof systems, applications, and devices across the enterprise

To learn more about how you can use PKI to replace passwords for identity and access, read The Passwordless Enterprise whitepaper.