What is non-human identity management

All online users have identities: credentials that verify (i.e.,authenticate) that someone is who they claim to be. But there’s also a less familiar, faceless, silent cog in our digital machinery: non-human identities (NHIs). 

A non-human identity helps automated actors, like computers and devices, talk to each other. NHI management is an important part of modern business systems, especially as companies rely more on machines to communicate or in scenarios where non-human identities outnumber humans

This guide has everything you need to know about non-human identities and how to manage them, including definitions, examples, and best practices. With this information, your organization can begin to understand the importance of managing non-human identities and how to get started.

What are non-human identities?

Non-human identities are the digital credentials and permissions of automated actors. They’re integral to cloud services, automated processes, and service-oriented architectures.

Imagine if your computer, smart home devices, or background programs on your phone had their own “social security numbers” so they could prove who they are when they need to communicate or share information. 

This helps everything work together smoothly and securely, ensuring that only the right machines and programs are talking to each other. But managing NHIs isn’t important just for technical reasons—it’s also critical for cybersecurity. 

Non-human identity management organizes and protects the unique IDs assigned to machines and computer programs. It ensures that every device or software has its own identity, like a digital fingerprint, which it uses to communicate and interact securely with others. 

This process involves keeping track of these identities, verifying that each is genuine, and managing what they can access. Essentially, it’s like overseeing a system in which every non-human participant knows its place and role so that everything operates smoothly.

Examples of non-human identities

Non-human identities can be found in many forms, from the devices we use every day to the complex systems that manage vast networks. 

Here are some examples:


Devices like smartphones, computers, and IoT (Internet of Things) gadgets have unique identities, allowing them to connect and interact securely over networks. 


  • Smartphones
  • Smart home devices (e.g., thermostats, security cameras, etc.)
  • Wearable health monitors
  • Industrial sensors

Software-defined infrastructure (SDI)

SDI involves managing IT infrastructure through software, making it more flexible. The components of SDI, like servers and networks, are treated as NHIs for seamless and secure automation. 


  • Virtual machines
  • Containers orchestrated by Kubernetes
  • Software-defined networking components
  • Cloud-based storage resources

DevOps Tools

DevOps tools automate the processes between software development and DevOps teams, allowing them to build, test, and release software faster and more reliably. They often use NHIs for secure and efficient operations. 


  • Jenkins for continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) pipelines
  • Docker containers
  • Terraform for infrastructure as code
  • Ansible for automation and configuration
  • Custom scripts

Service accounts

Service accounts are special accounts used by applications or services to interact with other parts of the IT environment. They ensure these interactions are authenticated and authorized. 


  • Database service accounts
  • Cloud service accounts (e.g., AWS IAM roles)
  • Application service accounts for internal messaging
  • SaaS integrations and IPaaS

System accounts

System accounts are used by operating systems and services running on servers and other devices. They facilitate tasks and processes that don’t require direct human oversight. 


  • Root account in Linux/Unix systems
  • Local administrator account in Windows
  • Network service accounts

Application accounts

Application accounts are used within software applications to perform actions or access data. They often require specific permissions and security measures to operate safely. 


  • Database user accounts for applications
  • Internal messaging system accounts
  • Third-party API accounts for integration

Understanding the differences between human identities and non-human identities

Human and non-human identities are quite different in how they’re made and controlled. Unlike personal IDs that IT or identity teams often manage, NHIs are usually created by software developers, including those who might not have a deep understanding of security. They make these identities so that the programs they write can “talk” to other computer systems securely. 

However, using NHIs can be risky. If people don’t fully understand who or what has access to specific digital resources, it can cause problems in the systems that businesses rely on. Also, trying to rotate “secrets” (like digital keys or passwords for NHIs) without messing up important processes can be tricky. 

In this context, a “secret” is a piece of information that only certain computers, programs, or people are supposed to know, like a password or digital key. It’s used to ensure that the person or NHI trying to access something digitally can do so. 

Centralized management 

NHIs aren’t overseen all in one place. Different people or groups across various platforms might make and manage them, making it hard to tell if an identity belongs to a person or a machine. 


There are considerably more NHIs than human identities–sometimes up to 17 times more in a single organization–which makes them a big target for cyberattacks. 


NHIs don’t belong to just one person. They are often shared among many users or programs, which can skip some rules that apply to human identities. 

Authentication methods

NHIs can use many ways to prove they’re allowed access. This can vary greatly compared to human identity security, which often involves a password, something physical like a phone, or biometrics like a fingerprint. 

For NHIs, the main security measure is the “secret”—a username/password combination, encoded token or API Key. If a hacker gets this secret, there might be no way to stop them because NHIs often don’t have extra security checks like two-factor authentication. 

Rate of change

NHIs are constantly created and removed, keeping up with the speed of technology change, making them hard to keep track of. However, some NHIs might never change, even without updates or checks on who can use them.

Why do we need non-human identity management

As technology evolves—think cloud computing, DevOps, robotic process automation (RPA), the IoT, and the latest AI breakthroughs—non-human identities have become more important. They work behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. 

But, if they fall into the wrong hands, they can become a hidden doorway for attackers into the most protected parts of our digital world. To an attacker, access is access, and non-human identities can be compromised and used just as easily as human identities.

Managing NHIs isn’t just about security; it’s about keeping our digital operations running properly, meeting regulatory compliance standards, and ensuring the efficiency of our data and digital projects.

Application or SaaS sprawl 

Today, businesses use many SaaS applications. On average, small businesses might use around 172 SaaS apps, mid-size ones about 255, and large companies around 664. Each SaaS app potentially adds more NHIs, making managing them complex and disparate. 

Larger attack surfaces 

More NHIs mean a larger attack surface area for cyberattacks. Each identity is like a door; the more doors you have, the more chances someone might find one that’s unlocked. Since non-human identities can outnumber humans by between ten and fifty to one, you could be neglecting the vast majority of your identity attack surface if you’re not taking non-human identities into account.

Limited visibility 

One major challenge is keeping an eye on all of your NHIs. As the number of NHIs grows, tracking each one’s activities and roles within your organization becomes increasingly difficult. This includes understanding which resources they can access and the actions they’re authorized to perform.

Not knowing exactly what NHIs you have and what they’re up to can open up significant security gaps and operational risks. The problem is often exacerbated by NHIs being decentralized across different systems, making maintaining a complete view of their functions and interactions a huge challenge, especially for larger organizations. 

Excessive permissions  

Another issue with NHIs is that they frequently have more access rights than necessary for their intended purposes. Since developers are often creating these accounts, they allow the access they expect the function to need–not necessarily the access that’s best for security. 

This situation is risky. If one of these NHIs gets compromised, it could give attackers access to sensitive areas they shouldn’t reach, much like giving a house key to someone for a simple task, only to find they now have the run of the entire house. 

These systems’ decentralized and disparate nature further complicates the ability to effectively manage and restrict these permissions. 

Compliance requirements 

Compliance is a critical aspect of managing NHIs, with different industries subject to various data protection and privacy regulations. 

For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) mandates strict rules on data privacy and security for organizations operating in or handling data from the EU. NHIs that access or process personal data must be managed to ensure data protection by design and default. This includes maintaining detailed records of data processing activities and ensuring that any access to personal data by NHIs is necessary and lawful. 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requires organizations in the healthcare industry to protect sensitive patient health information. NHIs accessing healthcare systems must have their access strictly controlled and monitored to ensure they do not inadvertently expose protected health information (PHI). 

Other compliance regulations that require organizations to manage NHIs include the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA), and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). 

Properly managing NHIs is important for ensuring that your organization adheres to these regulatory standards and avoids potential fines or penalties. However, the challenge of decentralized identities and the difficulty in tracking their specific purpose and access make it harder to demonstrate compliance during audits or regulatory assessments. 

Contextualize the risk of non-human identities 

Not all NHIs pose the same level of risk to your organization. Some might be integral to your operations, while others are less critical. Understanding the role and significance of each NHI is key to effectively prioritizing your security measures and focusing resources on the areas of highest risk. 

This nuanced approach to risk management is essential, especially when dealing with a large and varied landscape of NHIs that might be spread across numerous platforms and systems, each with its own set of permissions and potential vulnerabilities. 

Non-human identity management best practices

It’s just as important to manage the identities of machines and software as it is to manage the identities of people. 

  1. Use the Zero Trust model

Don’t automatically trust any access request. Every time an access request is made, verify that the requesting authenticated identity is authorized.  

  1. Follow the principle of least privilege

Only give the necessary permissions that a machine or software needs to perform its tasks. This is called “the principle of least privilege” and minimizes risks if something goes wrong. 

  1. Don’t allow overly permissive identities 

Be careful not to assign more access rights than needed. Keeping access limited helps protect sensitive information and systems. 

  1. Monitor for anomalous behavior 

Keep an eye on the behavior of these digital identities. If they start doing things they’re not supposed to, it might indicate a security problem. 

  1. Conduct audits regularly  

Frequently check and update the permissions of all digital identities. This helps catch any access going unused, which in turn reduces the blast radius if an identity is compromised.

Gain complete visibility into your organization’s non-human identities

Today, understanding and managing non-human identities is just as important as overseeing human ones. These digital IDs are key to keeping things running smoothly and securely. But to do this well, you need to see clearly who has access to what and make sure only the right machines and software can get into certain parts of your digital world. 

That’s where Veza comes in. Veza’s Access Platform is designed for today’s digital challenges. With comprehensive management tools that align with the strategic goals of securing and streamlining modern technology infrastructure, it helps organizations manage both human and non-human identities in one platform. By focusing on practicality and quick time-to-value, our platform streamlines the monitoring and governance of NHIs so your organization can easily mitigate risks and uphold business continuity in the ever-evolving digital landscape. 

With Veza, you can be sure that your digital space is organized and protected from risks, even as technology evolves and becomes more complex. 

Learn how Veza can make managing your machines and software more straightforward and secure. 

Schedule your demo with Veza. 

Non-human identity terms to know

In the world of digital security, and especially in terms of the machines and software we use, a few keywords pop up often. Understanding these terms helps us understand how we protect and manage digital identities that aren’t tied to humans.

Non-human accounts

These are accounts used not by people, but by machines or software to access and interact with digital systems. Think of them as user accounts for machines instead of humans.

Non-person entities

This term broadly covers any digital identity representing something other than a person. A non-person entity could be a device, an application, or even a piece of automated software.

Non-human privileged accounts

Some non-human accounts have special permissions to perform high-level tasks like administrators. These accounts need extra protection because they can access sensitive system parts.

Application accounts

These are specific types of non-human accounts used by software applications. They allow these applications to access databases, files, or other necessary resources to function correctly.

Machine identities

Machine identities are the digital “fingerprints” for devices and software, helping them prove who they are when they connect and communicate with other systems. They can include certificates or keys used for secure connections.

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