Today, data breaches are common, and businesses are always on the verge of severely compromising sensitive information, so cybersecurity best practices are necessary now more than ever. For years, enterprises have modeled their cybersecurity around a virtual perimeter of trust that includes trusted network infrastructure, users, and devices.
Unfortunately, cybercriminals and malicious actors have exploited this cybersecurity model for years. Undoubtedly, there is an immediate need for robust cybersecurity systems that don’t leave loopholes (think of numerous devices, digital touchpoints, and users), providing a risk-free ecosystem. Here is where a zero trust model comes into play.
So how can you turn the zero trust security concept into a reality for your business or organization? This definitive guide explains what zero trust means and how it works.
Table of Contents:
What does zero trust mean?
What is a zero trust network?
How does zero trust work?
Principles of zero trust security
What is zero trust architecture?
Zero trust technology
Why is zero trust important?
How to implement zero trust security?
Benefits of zero trust security
Challenges of zero trust security
The bottom line
Zero trust refers to a security philosophy stemming from the concept of “trust nothing, verify everything.” The cybersecurity approach ensures organizations grant access to only confirmed authorized and safe users, systems, networks, and processes. As a result, it prevents bad actors from gaining access and doing damage. Businesses can also defend against ever-emerging threats like ransomware.
Zero trust is a relatively new IT security model requiring strict identity verification for every device or user trying to access a private network’s resources, regardless of whether they sit within or outside the network perimeter.
Although the primary technology associated with the zero trust model is Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA), the framework is a holistic approach to network security, incorporating several different technologies and principles.
Simply put, traditional IT network security trusts users and devices inside the network, while the zero trust architecture trusts nothing and no one.
The traditional IT network security relied on the castle-and-moat concept where it was hard to gain access from outside while the network trusted everyone inside by default. However, problems arose when malicious actors gained access and enjoyed free rein over everything inside the network.
At its core, the zero trust security model relates to a paradigm shift in how businesses and organizations conceive their networks, systems, and IT infrastructure. Under the previous model, all the servers, computers, and other devices existed in the same network and trusted each other.
IT teams had to set up security tools like antivirus and firewalls, which viewed anything outside the virtual perimeter as bad and everything inside as good, warranting no additional scrutiny. However, the explosion of mobile devices, remote work, and cloud services has radically challenged those assumptions. Today, organizations no longer keep their data in one place. Instead, it’s spread across servers and cloud vendors, making it challenging to have primary security control for the entire network.
Today’s organizations cannot physically control every device their employees use anymore. Additionally, even if they could control every device within their networks, the old model was never secure. Once an attacker bypassed the perimeter defenses remotely or physically by infiltrating the organization, the network granted them access, trust, and freedom.
Zero trust is a concept and a going concern, not a one-off action. For example, instead of trusting particular connections, users, and devices from certain places (such as employees of an organization), zero trust demands users prove they should gain access.
Typically, gaining access to the network means logging into a corporate account using usernames and passwords plus biometrics or hardware security keys, making it harder for malicious actors to impersonate users.
What’s more, the system is configured on a need-to-access or need-to-know basis even after getting through. So, for example, it means that if invoicing a contractor is not part of your job, your corporate account shouldn’t have access to the billing platform. Thus, a zero trust network:
What this means is that the zero trust model ensures data and network resources remain inaccessible by default. Consequently, users can only access them under the right circumstances and on a limited-time basis; this is known as least-privilege access.
The security model verifies and authorizes all connections, such as when users connect to applications or software to data sets using an application programming interface (API). In addition, it ensures all interactions meet the organization’s security policies’ conditional requirements.
Additionally, a zero trust security strategy authenticates and authorizes devices, network flows, and connections based on dynamic policies. It uses context from numerous data sources.
Zero trust requires a portfolio of security capabilities and experiences, including:
Zero trust relies on the following core principles to secure and protect the enterprise IT environment:
1. Continuous Monitoring and Validation
The zero trust model assumes the presence of attackers both within and outside the network. Therefore, it does not grant anyone or anything automatic trust and access. Instead, it verifies every user’s identity and privileges, plus device identity and security. Moreover, organizations can set connections and logins to timeout periodically once established, which forces continuous re-verification of users and devices.
2. Principle of Least Privilege
The least privilege access means giving users access on a need-to-access and need-to-know basis. As a result, it minimizes each user’s exposure to a network’s sensitive parts.
Implementing least privilege requires the careful management of user permissions. Additionally, VPNs are not suitable for least privilege approaches to authorization because they give users access to the entire connected network.
It’s the practice of breaking up a network’s security perimeters into smaller zones, ensuring separate access for separate areas. For example, a network that stores files in a single data center could microsegment them into dozens of distinct, secure zones. Therefore, a user or program requires separate authorization for the different file zones.
4. Device Access Control
Zero trust also requires strict device access controls. These should monitor how different devices try to access their network, ensure they are authorized, and assess them to determine if attackers have compromised them.
5. Preventing Lateral Movement
Lateral movement in network security refers to the ability of an attacker to move within the network after gaining access. Attackers can compromise other network parts as they move through them, making it difficult to detect them. Network segmentation prevents lateral movement and allows the IT team to detect and quarantine the compromised user account or device.
6. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
It requires more than a single piece of user-authenticating evidence, meaning just entering a username and password is not enough to gain access. For example, the 2-factor authorization (2FA) is a common application of MFA used on platforms such as Google and Facebook. 2FA requires users to enter a password plus a passcode sent to a secondary device.
Zero trust architecture (ZTA) refers to an enterprise cybersecurity infrastructure based on zero trust components and principles designed to prevent data and network breaches while limiting internal lateral movement. ZTA strengthens an organization’s cybersecurity, keeps unauthorized users out of its private network, and protects its assets from threats.
Essentially, ZTA allows network users to only access what they require to perform their jobs. It also identifies potentially malicious or anomalous activities and allows the quarantining of affected segments to prevent the spread of cyberattacks across the network.
Zero trust security assumes users or devices have compromised the network and challenges them to prove they are not attackers.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) already established principles of zero trust architecture for government agencies. These NIST principles are also applicable for private organizations and include the following:
There are a few technologies and considerations organizations need to implement an efficient and effective zero trust architecture. These include:
The dawn of the zero trust model was a response to a borderless digital world where innovations like cloud technologies, bring your own device (BYOD), and even the internet of things (IoT) shape the landscape of organizations worldwide. Today, users can work remotely from any device and collaborate online via network sharing and cloud-based SaaS tools.
Organizations store information in the cloud, making it accessible anywhere, while personal devices have flooded the market and found their way into companies’ trusted internal networks. As the world becomes more interconnected, it has led to the disappearance of digital borders, increased cybersecurity threats, and shifted the virtual trust perimeter to end devices and user accounts.
For hackers, it is now easier to target individual employees and personal devices using a phishing scheme (such as social or email phishing) to gain access to private networks than it is to take on the secured networks directly.
Therefore, the premise of zero trust is avoiding granting any device or user implicit trust. Instead, the network must verify such trust before granting access with regular re-evaluation. Furthermore, the model consists of a set of technologies facilitating constant trust evaluation and the control of digital devices, identities, and services.
Organizations need to plan and implement a zero trust security model to help advance their cybersecurity and discover the benefits of an evolving zero trust paradigm.
Follow this six-step zero trust implementation plan to ensure your bases are covered:
1. Rally a Dedicated Zero Trust Security Team
First, organizations need to identify and rally a dedicated zero trust security team tasked with planning and implementing the zero trust migration. The team could include members pooled from IT teams or departments such as applications and data security, user and device identity, and network and infrastructure security.
2. Assess the Environment
The next step involves taking a comprehensive inventory of the devices that have access to the network. The list should include both privately-owned and organization-owned devices. Then, they should go a step further and understand the devices’ security status and controls.
The organization can further look at software resources and users, including accounts, groups, group memberships, identities, non-human identities (apps and service accounts), and virtual machines and containers.
3. Define the Protect Surface
It is not viable or advisable to try and reduce an organization’s expanding attack surface, given today’s fast-evolving threat landscape. However, IT team personnel can identify and define the organization’s protect surface, encompassing the following:
The organization can then move its controls to secure the protected surface and create a security perimeter with limited, precise, and understandable policy statements.
4. Review the Available Zero Trust Technology
NIST identifies three primary approaches to implementing zero trust models. These are micro-segmentation, software-defined perimeter, and enhanced identity governance – IAM and PAM (Identity Access Management and Privileged Access Management, respectively).
Essential technology you may need includes Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA), next-generation firewalls, and Data Loss Prevention (DLP), among others.
5. Plan Your Zero Trust Security Strategy
Zero trust networks are customized and constructed around an organization’s protected surface. An example zero trust network configuration plan :
After architecting a zero trust network, organizations will need sound policies to safelist resources and access levels. Create a high level of granular policy enforcement to ensure only allowed traffic and legitimate applications communication occur.
6. Monitor and Maintain the Network
The final step includes reviewing internal and external logs, focusing on zero trust’s operational aspects. Because it is an iterative process, organizations will need to inspect and log all traffic to get valuable insights into how effective the network is and improve it over time.
The primary benefit of a zero trust approach is it offers protection from all sides – within and outside the network. Traditional security models are failing organizations because they focus defense on the network perimeter. In contrast, many breaches occur from within the network. For example, it could be explicitly from employees or by external threats that infiltrate the network through VPN connections, email, browsers, endpoints, and other means.
Therefore, zero trust security takes away access from everyone until the protected network can ascertain authorized users. It then continuously monitors how users use data and potentially revoke permissions to copy or delete data elsewhere.
IT teams can design zero trust capabilities into business processes, systems, and services, making them better equipped to:
Zero trust security models also simplify IT management, optimize for existing IT and security personnel, secure remote workforces, ensure continuous compliance, streamline user access, and give senior management peace of mind.
It is not easy to achieve a complete zero trust state, and it’s challenging to find one solution or technology that resolves the different issues involved in achieving a zero trust digital environment in many cases. It is a journey that requires incremental steps and not a one-and-done effort.
Some of the challenges of zero trust implementation include:
Due to the diversity of solutions and technologies organizations can apply, it is necessary to consider integration to avoid overlapping functionality. It will also minimize costs and reduce support and maintenance complexity.
As cyberattacks against organizations increase and evolve, traditional “trust but verify” network cybersecurity approaches are no longer enough to deter attacks and protect data and systems. Security teams should understand that implicitly trusting endpoints, devices, and users within their network puts the entire organization at risk from malicious actors, unauthorized users, compromised accounts, and careless insiders.
Therefore, a zero trust security model is critical to secure the organization. The “never trust, always verify” security approach and principles of least privilege and micro-segmentation provide better protection against the ever-evolving and expanding cyber threat landscape.
Zero trust allows organizations to implement better access control, contain breaches, protect their assets, and mitigate the potential for damage. However, without a carefully planned architecture and strategy, it all might end up wasting efforts and resources.
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