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Service Accounts: The Headache that Only Keeps Getting Worse!

Updated: Oct 5


A service account is a type of machine identity that can perform various actions, depending on its permissions. This could include running applications, automating services, managing virtual machine instances, making authorized API calls, and accessing resources.


Some of the most common service accounts in Windows environments include LocalSystem, a built-in service account with extensive privileges, and the domain user account, a standard user account that active directory centrally manages. Exchange, SharePoint, SQL Server, and Internet Information Services (IIS) are all common Microsoft applications that run under service accounts.


The usage of service accounts is becoming even more common as enterprises adopt service-oriented architectures, micro-services, DevOps practices, and cloud-native services. These practices often involve many services running on a large number of machines and automated processes such as pipelines for data engineering, AI/ML, and continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD). Service accounts are used to run these processes, and these accounts play a crucial role in scaling services up and down rapidly.


As the usage of service accounts has increased, the IT and security processes and associated technologies to manage and secure service accounts have failed to keep up. Often, enterprises struggle to understand how many service accounts are in use. Organizations often will attempt to keep a list of service accounts in a spreadsheet or some other system of record like a CMDB. However, this only works if everybody follows the rules for creating and using service accounts.


Beyond knowing how many service accounts exist, service accounts are often incorrectly set up. A common bad practice is associating a service account with a human user. This creates potential security risks, such as unauthorized access to the service account if the human user’s credentials are compromised. Furthermore, if the human user leaves the organization or changes roles, the service account could be left entirely unmanaged.


Another situation commonly found is service accounts reused for multiple hosts or services. This is like using a home user with one password for multiple apps. Though it is easy to remember the password, if hacked, now every associated application is in the control of an attacker. Now, returning to the IT context, if a service account is reused for multiple systems and associated with a human, this gets difficult to control and unravel. When that user leaves the company, typically, the account is locked, or worse, it is deleted. Then, the systems using that service account either stop working or become zombies since the account is not available or known to IT.


All of this technical debt associated with service accounts is not going unnoticed by cybercriminals. Service accounts generally have higher privileges than user accounts because they operate at the infrastructure level, and once compromised, they can allow lateral movement through systems.


Although service accounts are often a soft target for attackers, existing solutions often fall short. Privileged access management (PAM) solutions are limited in scope and mainly focus on storing and rotating credentials for privileged accounts. However, PAM solutions are often not used to secure service accounts since IT teams are concerned that rotating a credential for a service account could lead to downtime since all the dependencies associated with a service account are unknown. Identity governance and administration (IGA) solutions also struggle with service accounts since they are mainly geared toward managing the lifecycle of human vs. machine identities.


That is why organizations are now evaluating new identity security posture management (ISPM) and identity threat detection and response (ITDR) solutions from vendors such as AuthMind to improve their identity security posture and respond to identity threats involving service accounts.


AuthMind helps improve an organization’s identity security posture by detecting and enabling the remediation of service account-related blind spots. Some examples include discovering dormant and zombie service accounts, service accounts with improper associations to human identities, service accounts with poor or failing credentials, and service accounts making unauthorized accesses to other services, apps, or third parties. AuthMind can discover service account access issues within the entire application stack or pipeline and ensure service account usage complies with the organization’s access policies.


AuthMind also provides advanced ITDR capabilities with detailed contextual analysis that identifies service account exposures, threats, and attacks in real-time, across the various tools that create an identity infrastructure, including cloud IdPs, on-premises or hybrid directories, PAM solutions and more. This includes detecting access flows involving service accounts that deviate from the norm and flagging them for further investigation.


Interested in learning more about how AuthMind can help reduce your service account headaches? If yes, we’d love to talk!