Cybersecurity at U.S. federal agencies has been running behind the times for years. It took an executive order by President Joe Biden to kickstart a fix across the agencies. The government initiative also serves as a wake-up call to enterprises lagging in getting zero trust up and running.

Several organizations, including the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) responded to the president’s order with detailed guidance for federal agencies. The National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence issued how-to guides and example approaches to using a zero trust architecture.

The OMB gave federal departments and agencies until 2024 to implement zero trust. CISA has outlined five pillars for zero trust: identity, devices, networks, applications and workloads and data. NIST plans to publish its guide in four phased volumes: summary; approach, architecture and security characteristics; how-to guides; and functional demonstrations. Cybersecurity experts are keeping close eyes on these, as they may provide definitive best practices and guidelines for rollouts.

Benefits of following CISA’s guidance

CISA pointed out all this guidance does and will provide myriad benefits to organizations of all kinds, not just federal agencies.

The goals of the government’s zero trust push are familiar to chief information security officers (CISOs) steeped in the details of zero trust:

  • End reliance on securing perimeter defenses. Clear perimeters no longer exist for most organizations thanks to remote work, cloud computing, mobile devices and the Internet of Things.
  • Make sure both access for authorized parties and security aren’t tied to location. That means insiders aren’t automatically allowed and outsiders aren’t automatically excluded.
    Gaining access to one resource doesn’t mean other lateral resources open up without further authorization.
  • Other elements include strong data encryption, increased centralized visibility into who is accessing what and improved cybersecurity practices across the board.

The challenges of meeting zero trust requirements

NIST defines zero trust as a “collection of concepts and ideas designed to minimize uncertainty in enforcing accurate, least privilege per-request access decisions in information systems and services in the face of a network viewed as compromised.”

Sadly, a survey by General Dynamics Information Technology found that less than half of federal agencies are expected to meet all zero trust needs by the 2024 deadline. The survey found also that 58% of respondents felt that rebuilding or replacing existing legacy infrastructure was one of the primary challenges to using zero trust. Around half (48%) also thought that their agencies lack the needed expertise.

So, legacy infrastructure is a major challenge. That isn’t just because of the infrastructure itself, but the practices that go with it. The move will be challenging in part because of how governments manage and classify their datasets.

Another challenge is training. Note the famous ‘skills gap‘.

“We have enough people, the issue is training,” Department of Agriculture CISO Ja’Nelle Devore said. “When you have several tools that will be part of your zero trust utilization, you have to re-integrate how they work.”

Next, how do you adopt zero trust while maintaining or achieving regulatory compliance objectives? Start by aligning zero trust strategy with compliance requirements. (This is why the NIST guidelines will call for developing compliance and zero trust initiatives together.)

Lastly, vendors normally used by U.S. government agencies aren’t ready to support or execute zero trust in all cases.

A hands-on team effort

What the government’s zero trust initiative lays bare is that zero trust is not possible in isolation. Transforming authentication and security also demands transformation in legacy systems and legacy data management, employee training and in regulatory compliance. It demands change in IT architecture — namely, transformation in cloud security strategy.

And what’s true of federal agencies is also true for enterprises looking to embrace zero trust fast.

The truth is that zero trust is not a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. It takes ongoing change.

The mandates don’t provide enough help with funding, given other priorities. The government’s mandates also generally need better guidance on the specifics around avoiding tool sprawl.

After all, it doesn’t provide straight answers about how to establish authentication. Issues around biometrics and privacy, for example, also need to be resolved. Zero trust calls for ongoing monitoring and validation of every identity among authorized employees and non-employees alike.

How the NIST guidelines can help

One major benefit of all the material and guidance developed by NIST and the other agencies is that they help normalize, articulate and justify investment in zero trust architectures for enterprises. The days when lone, nerdy voices touted zero trust are dead and gone. Now it’s the stuff of emergency presidential executive orders and total federal government transformation.

Organizations not on board will suffer the consequences. It’s time to add quotes from and references to official NIST materials, mandates, white papers and even executive orders to C-suite and board-meeting pitches for zero trust investment. This improves leadership alignment, currently the biggest obstacle to zero trust in large organizations.

For example, the white paper Planning for a Zero Trust Architecture by NIST’s Scott Rose is excellent for these purposes.

There’s much to be learned, and much to be gained, by CISOs from NIST’s zero trust guidelines. Above all, understand that the zero trust era is truly here.

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