Over the past few years, how we interact with corporate networks and devices has significantly changed. Office workers now bring their smartphones, tablets, and laptops to and from the physical spaces where they work, blurring the boundaries between work and personal devices. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend, with remote work becoming the new normal for many organizations.
However, this shift towards digitalization and remote work has also brought new security challenges, particularly in the form of data breaches. In 2021 alone, more than 2,300 public sector organizations suffered ransomware attacks. In response, companies prioritize cybersecurity by implementing stricter security models such as zero trust, which takes a more comprehensive approach to data protection.
This article will explore the evolution of corporate security models and the rise of zero trust as a necessary security measure in today's digital landscape.
What is Zero Trust Security?
Zero Trust is an IT security model that grants access to users and devices only after authentication and only to the resources they need to operate. This model mandates strict identity verification for every user or device inside and outside the network perimeter. Former Forester Research Principal Analyst John Kinderbag developed this model in 2010 after concluding that the traditional security model, which is based on the assumption that all entities within an organization's network can be trusted, is an outdated approach to data security.
The core idea of this approach is to "never trust, always verify," as opposed to the "castle and moat" approach, where every entity inside the network system is trusted by default. In the Zero Trust model, no source is trusted, and identities both inside and outside the network perimeter are seen as potential threats. Thus, access can only be granted to each request after it has been verified, authorized, and encrypted.
Zero Trust takes a more stringent, granular, dynamic, and continuous approach to trust. As users are constantly authenticated, their devices are also continuously monitored for compromise. Frequent device health checks ensure that only equipment with the latest patches and updates can access protected resources. Zero Trust takes context into account, too. An employee using a company device on business premises may be granted greater privileges to a wider range of in-house resources for longer periods of time.
On the other hand, remote workers using a public Wi-Fi network may have their credentials checked more frequently or some access selectively restricted. Access from an unfamiliar location, like a country that the user doesn't normally work from, can trigger higher levels of security. In fact, any suspicious activity can prompt increased scrutiny and re-authentication.
Since its inception, Zero Trust has become one of the more popular concepts in cybersecurity. The implementation of the Zero Trust security model or architecture requires the combination of advanced technologies such as identity and access management (IAM), multi-factor authentication (MFA), identity protection and more that we'll see right away. These technologies will verify the user's identity and defend system security. The main goal of the Zero Trust architecture is to prevent breaches and curb damage if the system is ever compromised.
Why Zero Trust?
Zero Trust security is a critical model for safeguarding corporate data in today's work-from-anywhere world. By creating multiple layers of security, the Zero Trust approach helps to protect data from cyber threats, ensuring that intruders have limited access to sensitive information. In addition to enhanced security, it also offers increased agility and productivity as threats and malware are streamlined.
Key benefits of Zero Trust implementation include improved defense against external and internal threats, privileged access authority, limited lateral movement within the network perimeter, enhanced visibility into user activity and across the enterprise, reduced possibility of data leaks, reinforced security both in the cloud and on-premises, secured remote workforce, and improved organizational agility.
Traditional security measures like firewalls, VPNs, and network access control are becoming outdated with the rise of the remote workforce and cloud computing. The Zero Trust approach concentrates on securing the network perimeter from both outside and inside threats, making it more effective in preventing data leaks and protecting network infrastructure. While the Zero Trust model is relatively new, it is expected to evolve further in the coming years.
Fundamentals of Zero Trust Security
Zero Trust Security is a model that integrates several principles and technologies to achieve optimum protection. There is no specific technology associated with the Zero Trust architecture; some technologies work well in a Zero Trust environment, and some don't. The following are some of the principles of the Zero Trust security model:
Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a core element in building a Zero Trust infrastructure. IAM enables enterprises to manage various entities, such as people, software, and hardware. Proper management of identities and access permissions helps enforce user authentication-related policies, validation and privileges, and most importantly, helps identify access creep. IAM assists in authenticating user identities before granting the right level of access to sensitive information.
Least Privilege Access involves granting access to the resources each individual needs to function. Essentially, this entails only granting the level of privilege needed to carry out a certain task for only the amount of time needed to perform such a task. The goal is to prevent lateral movement across the network, as attackers get access to sensitive data by compromising user access and moving laterally across the network. By implementing this principle, organizations can reduce risk and minimize surface attacks. According to the 2020 Global State of Least Privileged Cybersecurity report, 67% of organizations now prioritize the least privileged security strategy.
Micro-Segmentation involves separating network assets down to a granular level to reduce the potential attack surface. Micro-segmentation helps mitigate the spread of attacks and ensures potential threats can be easily contained. This is a core principle for Zero Trust as it greatly improves threat detection and response times in the event of an attack. Micro-segmentation tools can automatically generate alerts in real-time and obstruct unauthorized activity.
Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is a key component to achieving Zero Trust. Since Zero Trust regards trust as a vulnerability, all sources need to be authenticated multiple times before they gain access to the corporate resources. MFA requires continuous validation to prove the identity of users. Leveraging intelligent continuous MFA to provide additional security layers enables businesses to add next-level security, even remotely. Ultimately, MFA decreases the chances of user identity becoming compromised.
Intelligence and Security Analytics is another pillar used in building a Zero Trust infrastructure. Using rich intelligence and analytics, businesses can monitor their network perimeter, detect and respond to threats in real time. In a Zero Trust environment, users cannot be trusted by default, even when they have been verified. Hence, it is imperative to ensure each user is who they claim to be by monitoring their behavior while inside the network perimeter. User behavior analytics uses algorithms, machine learning, and statistical analysis to sense any unusual behavior or cases where there are deviations from the normal conduct of the user. Because user behavior analytics focuses on internal threats, organizations can utilize this tool to get proper visibility and also improve internal defenses.
Components of the Zero Trust Architecture
Key components of Zero Trust architecture include logical elements that work together to form a comprehensive security barrier that reduces threats. Below are some of the major components of a Zero Trust architecture deployment:
- Policy Engine (PE): The PE is the decision-making point of the Zero Trust architecture. It processes large amounts of data to make access requests decisions. It collects necessary data from a variety of connected resources that monitor and collect actionable information. The PE makes and logs decisions, while the Policy Administrator (PA) enforces them.
- Policy Administrator (PA): The PA creates or severs the communication path between the subject and the resource. It works with the Policy Enforcement Point (PEP) to authenticate all access requests based on policy decisions made by the PE. If an access request is authorized, the PA alerts the PEP to grant access.
- Policy Enforcement Point (PEP): The PEP is the entry point where adaptive access control capabilities are enforced. Only requests authenticated and authorized by the PEP are granted access to resources. All authenticated access to resources is encrypted.
Implementing a Zero Trust Architecture
The success of a Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) deployment depends on the proper implementation of its components. Zero trust is a security concept, so there is no specific technology that is exclusively associated with the deployment of a ZTA. As a result, companies must rely on a combination of existing technologies to establish a zero-trust infrastructure across their IT environment. Although there is an approach to ZTA implementation known as the greenfield approach, which involves building the architecture from scratch, this approach is quite rare since most organizations already have a perimeter-focused cyber defense system in place.
- The first step in implementing a ZTA is to identify the protect surface, which is where the organization's most valuable data assets, applications, and services are located. The protect surface of each organization is unique since it contains data critical to its operations. In a zero-trust architecture, the protect surface is identified, and the traffic around it is closely monitored.
- Once the protect surface is identified, a micro-perimeter can be created around it using a Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW). This way, only authorized users and legitimate applications can be granted access to the protect surface.
- The micro-perimeter must be closely monitored, and users and devices that interact with these resources must be identified and monitored as well. Attention must be paid to how users and devices interact within the network in relation to the protect surface.
- The last step involves configuring and enforcing access policies and monitoring and maintaining the network architecture in real-time to improve the network's security continuously.
In late 2022, the U.S. Defense Department officially unveiled its strategy to achieve Zero Trust capabilities by 2027. Businesses of all sizes should follow the lead of federal agencies. On-premises security based on protecting the network edge can no longer cope with modern work practices, where employees use their own devices in the office, at home, and in public places.
Once your organization has started on the Zero Trust security path, it can operate with much greater assurance than ever before in a dynamic and diverse world with computing right at its center. This is essential and will put your organization in line with national security priorities.
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