What Is Zero Trust? A Complete Guide for Security Professionals

September 30, 2021
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6 min read

Trust, for anyone or anything inside a secured network, should be hard to come by. The global shift to cloud environments has changed online security protocols. Therefore, strict verification (of everyone and everything) is now essential. The zero trust model isn’t overkill — it’s now a crucial tenet of network protection.

The pandemic helped push the digital landscape toward the zero trust framework. Remote work became the new norm, and e-commerce increased. With a greater reliance on online channels, threats grew in response, with cyber crime alerts to the FBI rising to 4,000 a day compared to 1,000 pre-pandemic.

This article will explore the zero trust model. How can it help protect your network? Then, see how to implement the framework in your business or agency.

What Is Zero Trust?

Zero trust is a framework that assumes an organization is always at risk. Strategic tactics to prevent data breaches impart strict rules for authentication, authorization and validation for all network traffic.

The History of Zero Trust

John Kindervag is credited as the original creator of the zero trust model. He coined the term while working at Forrester Research in 2010.

IT security once functioned on the premise of ‘trust, but verify’. That meant giving all users easy access through standard validation. This helped reduce login friction and also put extended faith in endpoint security. Kindervag noticed that as business operations transitioned into cloud-based platforms, the old model let too many unchecked or malicious internal actors into accounts, which led to data breaches.

The zero trust model proposed by Kindervag moved verification and security protocols away from privileged access. Every user is now considered a threat and requires ongoing validation. If a perimeter breach occurs (i.e., someone gains access to an otherwise trusted user’s account(s), steals credentials or gains entrance through business hardware), zero trust security can locate and protect against any malicious attacks when an authentication request fails.

What Is Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)?

Zero trust network access (ZTNA) is a collection of solutions that protect remote access by applications on a deny-first basis.

The ZTNA hides any sensitive data storage or app held within your IT Infrastructure. Only those users that follow explicit login credentials receive access as the program follows the core principles of the zero trust model.

With apps hidden behind the third-party service, you reduce the potential attack surface open to bad actors and close potential gaps. Adopting zero trust with a ZTNA is one of the best tactics to combat the persistence of malicious actors on a network, even if they are using a VPN (virtual private network).

What Are the Principles of the Zero Trust Model?

Zero trust architecture is effective because it follows several core principles of authentication to strengthen your security posture.

1. Ongoing Monitoring and Validation

Continuous monitoring means that authenticated users can move through your business’s digital channels but are never left unattended (i.e., trusted). Routine checks can catch any user that becomes compromised for any number of reasons. Your zero trust monitoring solution will discover the bad actor before any extended damage or malicious attacks occur through the compromised user.

2. Principle of Least Privilege

This principle grants access to the smallest amount of IT resources users need to complete their tasks — and nothing more. Restricting connections and user exposure to sensitive parts of the cloud improves the total security of your network.

Using least privilege rule-sets is standard zero trust practice. Be sure to offer permissions only when required, as even high-level admins can have their login info and credentials stolen.

3. Device Access Control

Be cautious about endpoint devices as users attempt to connect to their networks. For example, your solution will track the movements of different devices as they make login attempts. Moreover, your zero trust system will create data logs with information, such as IP addresses and the geolocation of each device, giving better levels of monitoring.

4. Preventing Lateral Movement

Lateral movement refers to a bad actor shifting into sensitive or protected sections of your IT infrastructure after gaining access. It is hard to locate the attacker once they have moved from the initial breach.

With a zero trust approach, you can segment your systems and re-establish network elements over time so that attackers cannot move laterally.

5. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA requires more than one piece of evidence to verify a user. For example, entering a password is not enough to gain access — all users need a second step for login, such as a text SMS code.

MFA can reduce password-based cyber crime by 99% and stands as a clear example of the effectiveness of the zero trust model.

6. Microsegmentation

Microsegmentation refers to the practice of defining security perimeters into zones, limiting access to compartments of your network. If one zone becomes compromised, the rest of the network remains secure, limiting downtimes and helping to sequester fraudulent users.

Today, data storage is held globally within clouds. So, microsegmentation as a zero trust solution is very useful at limiting breaches.

Why Do We Need the Zero Trust Model?

With the move to remote work and growth in e-commerce, there has been a surge in digital crime, fraud and ransomware attacks. Here are seven advantages zero trust offers in an age of increased threats:

1. Protect Your Customer Data

The average global cost of a data breach was $4.24 million in 2021. These most often involve the loss of sensitive user information such as addresses, credit card files, social security numbers or health records. The zero trust model can prevent consumer data loss and other costs of breaches that steal personal information.

2. Decrease Breach Detection Times

By keeping an eye on all network activity and every packet sent through as a request, security systems can prevent attacks before they can do further damage.  Enhanced containment protects user privacy and can further limit the costs that come with a breach.

3. Gain Visibility Into Your Enterprise Traffic

Continual monitoring of your cloud networks generates a large amount of data that offers better visibility into your enterprise traffic. You can use that data to locate potential weak points or inefficiencies. Zero trust software solutions also create charts and reports built from the collected data to provide insights. You can better understand user behavior and install improved defensive measures as required.

4. Make Your Security Stack Less Complex

With each device attempting to access your business operations from the perimeter, your virtual environments can become unwieldy. Because the zero trust model contains the same protocols across all user access, it is far easier to organize and control users through a single, centralized location.

5. Solve the Skills Shortage

Recent reports stated that 65% of current corporate employees felt they needed more training in cybersecurity techniques to fulfill the duties of their position. Human error is always present within defensive protocols, and internal threats often occur. By adopting a zero trust model, all employees, internal teams and third-party stakeholders remain deny-first, helping increase IT resource safety while promoting clear training opportunities for workers.

6. Optimize the End-User Experience

Zero trust policies create an environment that is safe — and therefore more enjoyable for all users. Data breaches can have a negative impact on your name that can deter long-time users from working with your business. The more confidence your clients have that your digital footprint is secure, the higher your retention and engagement metrics will rise.

7. Make the Move to the Cloud

Enterprises that ignore cloud migration or fail to adapt to the demand for modern environments are more likely to fall behind in security compliance. In turn, preventing sophisticated attacks will become a more difficult challenge to keep at bay. A zero trust model better represents the changing environment, meaning it can help a business remain secure with new deployments along the network edge.

How to Implement Zero Trust

When it comes to putting a zero trust security policy in place, here are five steps you should follow:

1. Determine Your Protect Surface

The protect surface (or attack surface) involves all critical data and apps within your IT systems. You want to outline those elements and ensure you only select the most crucial aspects to secure. The smaller the attack surface, the harder it is for bad actors to infiltrate your sensitive information. This surface will evolve within cloud-based environments. However, you should attempt to maintain the optimal space that will provide access for users and make it easier to protect.

2. Map Your Transaction Flows

First, take note of how your users flow between your business systems. Next, add protections to eliminate lateral movement. When certain users do not need access to specific areas of your traffic map, update your permissions for them.

3. Build a Zero Trust Network

Not all systems are alike. An effective zero trust model will have a customized and unique construction. Build out from your protect surface and any outgoing traffic maps, enforcing control along lines that limit access when possible.

4. Write a Zero Trust Policy

After you build your zero trust network, you can next write up a clear policy that outlines who and what can access each aspect of your IT systems. With such a detailed enforcement strategy, it becomes easier for internal teams to manage and prevent security incidents.

5. Monitor and Maintain the Network

After installing all of the monitoring software and any services needed for your network, you must remain vigilant. The zero trust model builds upon continual updates that reflect any changes made to the digital environment. First, your team should inspect and log all traffic to derive valuable insights. Next, you can figure out how you can improve the network as time goes on. In the long run, that makes it more efficient and effective.

Final Thoughts: Zero Trust Offers Better Protection Than Traditional IT Models

The adoption of multi-cloud architecture has created a growing need for more secure and resilient systems. As online fraud and ransomware attacks are growing, security teams must prepare for the possibility that any individual or device could lead to a data breach. That’s true even if it’s an internal source you would expect you can trust.

The zero trust model offers better protection than traditional IT models, helping locate attacks. By 2022, Gartner predicts that over 80% of business applications will be accessed through a ZTNA, proving that this model is highly effective.

If your systems don’t yet take advantage of the zero trust model, consider making the shift. At best, it can improve your security posture and protect your sensitive data. In the end, what that comes down to is offering your workforce, users and customers the peace of mind they need.

C.J. Haughey
Tech Writer

With a passion for creative writing and an unquenchable thirst to learn about futuristic tech, Christopher John Haughey segued from a journalism degree into ...
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