Zero Trust: The Modern Approach to Cybersecurity
Zero Trust is one of the latest cybersecurity buzzwords.
There’s no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the movement to Zero Trust architecture as more workers are performing their jobs remotely and traditional network boundaries disappear.
Why the big push toward Zero Trust Security?
Well, organizations need to be able to access their data outside of their physical perimeter. The problem is that IT teams are finding it difficult to authenticate and verify who’s trying to access their network.
As a result, an increasing number of organizations are adopting the Zero Trust model into their security strategy.
What is Zero Trust?
Zero Trust is a security framework that’s focused on improved security by eliminating the concept of trust from an organization’s network architecture. Zero Trust stresses that organizations must verify anything and everything that is attempting to connect to their network before granting access.
Zero Trust security means restricting all access (internal and external) until the network can verify who requested access and if that person is allowed to gain access. Zero Trust embraces the ‘never trust, always verify’ mentality.
Unlike traditional network security architectures, Zero Trust assumes that there isn’t a standard network perimeter; networks can be local, in the cloud, or hybrid.
The traditional approach to network security followed the ‘trust but verify’ method. This approach automatically trusts users and endpoints located within the organization’s perimeter. This old-school method doesn’t cut it anymore. There’s still a risk from internal bad actors and rogue credentials. Once inside, hackers can laterally scale their attack and spread wide-reaching damage to your network.
Zero Trust architecture requires organizations to always check and verify that a user and their device have the correct privileges and attributes. Because threats and user attributes can change, all access requests must be continuously vetted before allowing connection to any of your organization’s assets.
Why is Zero Trust Important?
Zero Trust is becoming one of the most effective options for organizations to control access to their networks and data. It utilizes a wide range of preventative techniques such as identity verification and behavior analysis, network and micro-segmentation, endpoint security and least privilege controls to discourage would-be hackers and limit access if a breach occurs.
It used to be standard practice to believe that everything within your organization’s perimeter is safe. Most cybersecurity efforts were spent defending the perimeter from outside threats. This approach is no longer effective because the majority of cyberattacks happen when hackers gain access to an organization’s network. All they need is a compromised username and password to get their foot in the door.
The added layers of security that a Zero Trust framework provides are critical for organizations that are planning to grow and expand their current infrastructure to include cloud-based solutions. A Zero Trust framework is a great option to address the current security challenges many organizations are facing in our cloud-based, work-from-anywhere world.
Key Components of Zero Trust Networks
1. Audit all default access controls
With this framework, there is no such thing as a trusted source. It’s assumed that potential threats are both inside and outside the network. It's absolutely crucial that every request to access your system is authenticated, verified and encrypted.
2. Deploy a variety of IT security techniques
You’ve probably heard the saying, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." In this case, it could be worth thousands or millions of dollars. The Zero Trust model leans heavily on a variety of techniques to prevent breaches and mitigate damage in the event of an attack.
One of the most common and reliable methods to verify a user’s identity is through multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA requires multiple verification factors to gain access to resources like applications, online accounts, or a VPN. Incorporating more authentication points, such as MFA, will significantly strengthen your organization’s overall security.
Least privileged access is another technique that’s often used in a Zero Trust network. Limiting user access with just-in-time and just-enough-access (JIT/JEA) grants the lowest level of privileges possible to each user or device. If a breach were to occur, least privilege access helps limit lateral movement of the attack and minimizes the damage done by hackers.
Other security techniques used in Zero Trust architecture are network segmentation and micro-segmentation – dividing perimeters into separate zones to maintain separate access to every part of your network. This method helps contain attacks and prevent hackers from laterally moving from a compromised segment to another. Although effective, segmenting your network is a more advanced security strategy. It'll take some expert knowledge and organizational resources to implement.
Containing breaches if they occur will help protect your data from encryption by ransomware by not allowing hackers to compromise more of your network. Many organizations segment their networks based on end-user groups by examining user roles, department and application requirements.
3. Enable real-time monitoring and threat detection
Zero Trust is all about prevention, but the chance of falling victim to a cyberattack is still possible. The goal is to minimize that chance as much as possible. It’s important for organizations to be able to detect and respond to intrusions as soon as possible to prevent bad actors from laterally moving to other systems on your network.
4. Align Zero Trust with your overall security strategy
Incorporating Zero Trust into your security strategy isn’t a silver bullet in itself. You need to align this framework with your current strategy. Educating end-users and establishing strong security policies are also key to protecting your organization. Also, having a solid business continuity and recovery plan in place in the event of an attack can help ensure the safety of your data.
Tips to Achieving Zero Trust
Deploying Zero Trust into your network security strategy is often thought to be an expensive and complex task. However, in most cases, you can build a Zero Trust network upon your existing architecture by leveraging security products like MFA, least privilege principles, network segmentation and micro-segmentation. Every organization has unique security needs, but here are our general recommendations to develop and implement a Zero Trust model:
1. Assess your organization
The first step to achieving Zero Trust is to define your attack surface. You need to identify sensitive data, assets, applications and services (DAAS) within this framework. This will ensure that your organization’s most critical data and assets have the highest level of protection in your network. This would also be a good time to audit active credentials within your organization and remove stale accounts that could be vulnerabilities in your network.
2. Map transaction flows
Mapping your system's transaction flows will help you create a security policy that follows the principle of least privilege access. You’ll get a comprehensive view of the interactions between your DAAS elements and users so you can start to plan your Zero Trust network architecture. Once you understand your transaction flows, you’ll be prepared to separate your network into segments.
Plus, mapping transaction flows provides in-depth visibility into your network. This aids in disaster recovery planning and gives you an opportunity to optimize workflows and really examine who needs access to your organization’s DAAS elements.
3. Leverage preventative techniques
Once you’ve identified what you need to protect and how users interact with your DAAS elements, you need to choose what security techniques to put in place. Keep in mind that there aren’t any ‘Zero Trust Products’, but there are security protocols that work great in a Zero Trust model such as:
- Multi-factor authentication
- Least privilege principles
- Network segmentation & micro-segmentation
These three preventative measures are key to a Zero Trust network. There are numerous products sold by vendors that can help organizations achieve Zero Trust. But it’s important to work with an experienced vendor that understands how to put it all together. If someone is trying to sell you their Zero Trust product, they might not understand the concept. Zero Trust is a framework, not a product.
4. Continuously monitor your network
A Zero Trust network isn’t a "set it and forget it" solution. It takes continuous system monitoring to keep your network safe from breaches and lateral attack advances. You need to inspect, analyze and log all traffic on your network and store authentication logs for anomalous or suspicious activity. This also means having a clear action plan just in case disaster strikes.
Download: Cybersecurity Guide
 National Security Agency (2021), Embracing a Zerto Trust Security Model. Available on the NSA Website.
Randy is a CISSP and Manager of the Cybersecurity and IT Consulting teams at Loffler Companies. He is currently focused on bringing his 25+ years of IT experience to bear on the development and delivery of new and enhanced security services that provide a practical approach to IT security. He enjoys long walks on the beach and never conducts online banking transactions when connected to public WiFi.