Protecting the Invisible Workforce: Securing Non-Human Identities in SaaS Environments

Ensure robust security for non-human identities in your SaaS environment with our comprehensive guide on mitigating risks and protecting your digital assets.
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TL;DR - Non-human identities (NHIs) like service accounts, API keys, and OAuth tokens are crucial for automation in SaaS environments but pose significant security risks. These risks include limited visibility, over-privileged access, inactive integrations, and third-party vulnerabilities. Recent incidents highlight the need for robust NHI security measures. Organizations can mitigate these risks by applying the principle of least privilege, timely offboarding, vetting third-party vendors, continuous monitoring, and fostering collaborative responsibility.

Modern businesses thrive on automation and seamless integration, relying heavily on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications. These integrations, powered by non-human identities (NHIs) such as service accounts, API keys, and OAuth tokens, are crucial for maintaining smooth operations. However, this convenience introduces significant security challenges that organizations must address.

Understanding Non-Human Identities (NHIs)

NHIs are digital identities used by machines rather than humans. They include service accounts, API keys, and OAuth tokens that enable automated processes and integrations between different SaaS applications. These identities are essential for the uninterrupted flow of data and functionality across platforms.

The Rise of SaaS and Its Security Challenges

As SaaS adoption increases, so does the number of NHIs. According to the 2024 State of SaaS Security Report, there are approximately 8.6 non-human identities for every human identity in some organizations. This proliferation of NHIs presents several security challenges:

  • Limited Visibility: Different business units independently adopt SaaS applications, often without IT oversight, leading to fragmented visibility and control over integrations.
  • Over-Privileged Access: Granting excessive access privileges to third-party integrations can expose sensitive data. The report found that one-third of integrations have access to more data than necessary.
  • Inactive Integrations: Integrations that are no longer in use but remain active pose security risks, as attackers can exploit these forgotten credentials.
  • Third-Party Risk: The security posture of third-party applications and their vendors can impact the overall security of the integrated SaaS environment.

Highlighting NHI Vulnerabilities

Recent security incidents underscore the vulnerabilities associated with NHIs:

  • Microsoft Attack: Attackers compromised a legacy, non-production test account lacking multifactor authentication, highlighting the risks of unsecured NHIs.
  • Dropbox Sign Breach: Attackers accessed a service account, exposing user data, API keys, and OAuth tokens, demonstrating the need for robust security controls for NHIs.

Mitigating NHI Security Risks

To secure NHIs in SaaS environments, organizations should adopt the following strategies:

  • Principle of Least Privilege: Grant NHIs only the minimum access necessary to perform their functions.
  • Timely Offboarding: Regularly review and deactivate NHIs that are no longer in use to prevent unauthorized access.
  • Vetting Third-Party Vendors: Conduct thorough security assessments of vendors and their practices before integrating their applications.
  • Continuous Monitoring: Implement solutions to monitor NHI activities in real-time and detect suspicious behavior.
  • Collaborative Responsibility: Foster a culture of shared responsibility among security teams, SaaS administrators, and end users, and provide regular security awareness training.

In the age of automation, securing NHIs is not just a luxury but a necessity. By implementing robust security measures and fostering collaboration, organizations can protect their SaaS ecosystems from unauthorized access and potential data breaches.


  1. What are non-human identities (NHIs) in SaaS environments?
    • NHIs refer to service accounts, API keys, and OAuth tokens used to automate and integrate applications without human intervention.
  2. Why are NHIs critical to business operations?
    • NHIs enable seamless automation and data exchange between various SaaS applications, enhancing productivity and efficiency.
  3. What are the primary security risks associated with NHIs?
    • Key risks include limited visibility, over-privileged access, inactive integrations, and vulnerabilities in third-party vendors.
  4. How can organizations mitigate the risks associated with NHIs?
    • Organizations can mitigate risks by applying the principle of least privilege, timely offboarding NHIs, vetting third-party vendors, continuous monitoring, and fostering collaborative responsibility.
  5. Why is it important to secure NHIs?
    • Securing NHIs is essential to prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, and ensure the overall integrity and security of the organization's SaaS environment.
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