Federal agencies are switching to a zero trust model to improve their chances against constant cyberattacks. Most companies should do the same if they want to prevent catastrophic scenarios, such as data breaches. So, what is zero trust?
Zero trust architecture is a model that assumes every user and device is unknown and must verify their connection, no matter how many times they connect to the network. This approach reduces the chance of an attack but comes with certain challenges, such as productivity drops.
Is this security model the right one? That depends on your business and the way you work. That doesn’t mean most companies are not moving towards a zero trust approach – or at least something similar to it. Understanding zero trust architecture is the first step toward adoption.
- What’s Zero Trust Architecture?
- How Does Zero Trust Work?
- Traditional Models vs. Zero Trust
- Zero Trust Pillars
- Zero Trust Challenges
- Who Should Follow a Zero Trust Model?
- Who Must Follow a Zero Trust Model?
- The Benefits of Zero Trust
- How To Use Zero Trust Security
- Zero Trust Best Practices
What’s Zero Trust Architecture?
Zero trust architecture is a relatively new way of approaching cybersecurity. Instead of trusting users who’ve connected to a network before, a zero trust approach treats every user as an unknown figure until it can verify and validate their access.
In other words, every user and device is unknown to the network, no matter how many times it has connected to it in the past.
However, this tight security approach doesn’t stop there: users who have logged in must be constantly validated if they want to access different parts of the network.
Doing so prevents threat actors from downloading files using a compromised account or infecting the entire network with malware.
How Does Zero Trust Work?
Zero trust architecture is mostly centered around verification and monitoring. Both are essential to this approach.
Verification is the foundation of a zero trust approach. Every user and device has to undergo a verification process every time they want to connect to the network. At the same time, they have to validate their credentials when they want to access sensitive or privileged data.
It doesn’t matter how often you log in or request permission: you must go through a validation and verification process each time.
Monitoring is key: a zero trust approach will grant you access but won’t let you move forward unsupervised. Constant surveillance and data collection guarantee having enough information to mitigate any ongoing or coming attacks.
Traditional Models vs. Zero Trust
Old security models relied on a “trust but verify” approach. In contrast, zero trust models rely on a “never trust, always verify” approach. They may sound similar – but they are drastically different.
In a trust but verify model, a network will ask you to provide login credentials and give you a lot of permissions when you do. In some cases, connecting to a network once is enough to access privileged data. Unfortunately, this allows hackers to steal credentials or hijack devices to do damage.
Following a never trust, always verify approach prevents that from happening. Each user and device is treated as an unknown until the network has enough information to verify and validate their connection. This approach prevents hackers from abusing certain features of other models.
Zero Trust Pillars
- Verification. Zero trust security relies on constant verification: every user and device must undergo a verification and validation process to access the main network. Old security models rely on trusting old connections. However, as the name shows, zero trust models put zero trust in all users and devices, pushing them to verify their credentials before moving forward.
- Monitoring. Zero trust doesn’t stop after you verify and validate your credentials. Sure, the network will authorize you to use an app or access files – but that doesn’t mean there’s established trust. For that reason, constant monitoring is a must: surveillance and data collection are a must to face any issues.
- Isolation. There are no perfect security models, even if you use a zero trust approach. That makes network isolation an important part of this process: zero trust models always assume a breach is taking place, so different parts of the network are strategically isolated, ensuring no malware will spread if one part of the whole gets infected.
Zero Trust Challenges
- Productivity. One of the biggest issues with zero trust is maintaining your productivity levels. This security model forces every user to validate their connection – every time they connect to the network. At the same time, they have to verify their credentials every time they want to access a different part of the network, which may cause an unwanted productivity drop.
- Resource Management. Zero trust is resource intensive. Your network is constantly validating users, locking out devices, and so on. At the same time, it has to monitor everyone to prevent any attacks and collect data to facilitate further surveillance. Doing so costs money and time, especially if you’re not doing everything under one framework.
- Solid Framework. The biggest disadvantage of zero trust architecture is the lack of a unified solution. You’ll have a hard time shopping for one product that solves all your zero trust needs. Even worse, there are no standard definitions or solutions that are widely agreed upon, though we’ve seen some efforts to change that.
Who Should Follow a Zero Trust Model?
Most companies should follow a zero trust security model. That way, they’ll greatly reduce the chance of a data breach or data loss. In fact, this type of security architecture presents more benefits the bigger the company is.
Think about it: a big network has a lot of moving parts – and threat actors are bound to slip through the cracks if given enough space. At that point, making sure all users and devices are treated like brand-new connections will reduce the chance of someone gaining unauthorized access to your network.
Does this type of architecture solve all issues? Of course not. However, it does add an extra wall to your cybersecurity fortress. Even if it doesn’t solve all issues, some organizations must use a zero trust approach regardless.
Who Must Follow a Zero Trust Model?
Few organizations must follow a zero trust model. We’re talking about federal agencies and their service providers. In other words, the government and businesses working with the government have to transition to this security model by 2024.
What’s the point of doing that? It’s simple: Over 25% of all cyberattacks are aimed at America. Cyberwarfare is a complicated issue, but it’s not difficult to see having an edge in cybersecurity will prevent losing the wars being waged online.
Does that mean you need to switch to zero trust if you’re working with the government? Probably so. Certain companies will be asked to do so now, while others will receive a direct order to do so soon enough. The federal government will only work with companies that follow a zero trust security model soon enough.
The Benefits of Zero Trust
- Threat Protection. Hackers carry out more than 2000 cyber attacks per day. That’s more than 700,000 every year. Odds are you will be on the receiving end of an attack at least once per year (if you’re lucky). Zero trust models drastically reduce the chance of a successful attack, as every user and device has little privileges or access around the clock.
- Data Loss Prevention. Network isolation is one of the biggest advantages this security model provides. That means there’s little chance of a ransomware attack locking you out of your files. At the same time, constant monitoring prevents any mistakes or issues from being permanent, increasing your chances of never losing your files.
- Infrastructure Oversight. Monitoring doesn’t protect your data alone. It also helps you see how you’re doing when it comes to software and hardware. Outdated software and hardware lead to unpatched vulnerabilities, so staying on your toes about those two things will help you fend off any attacks.
How To Use Zero Trust Security
Switching to a zero trust model is a three-step process: preparation, transition, and evaluation. Doing so won’t happen overnight. At the same time, it’ll take a certain degree of maintenance once you do.
Preparation is all about planning ahead. You need to see the type of software and hardware you need to get. At the same time, you’ll have to prepare employees for the switch unless you want burnout and other trouble to be prevalent.
The transition is the toughest part of this process. You’ll have to update your framework, wait until all employees are familiar with the process, and test things out. Now is the time to look for vulnerabilities with an audit or a penetration test.
At last comes the evaluation part of the process. You have to see where your zero trust model succeeded – and where it needs work. You’ll have to update your system and work from there. Following best practices always help companies meet their goals.
Zero Trust Best Practices
Create (And Update) Your ZT Guidelines
The very first thing you have to do is create a policy or guidelines for employees to follow. Otherwise, they won’t understand what they have to do when facing a zero trust approach.
Most people are used to logging in once and then forgetting about their credentials. In fact, 8 in 10 people forget their password three months after creating it.
Tackling that kind of issue is key to making your zero trust deployment a success. You have to figure out the way your employees behave – and train them to overcome certain common difficulties.
There’s an adaptation period you can take advantage of. Starting to work before it happens is the best way to get ahead: train employees in zero trust before you deploy this architecture.
Always Assume Breach
A great way to understand how a zero trust approach works is to see it as a permanent state of alarm. In other words, this model works on the basis that a breach could happen at any time (and it’s true!).
For that reason, zero trust architecture isolates your network, asks every user to verify their credentials, and more.
By acting as if a breach is taking place or recently took place, the zero trust model greatly reduces the chance of such a thing from happening.
Follow a Least-privilege Principle
Did you know users have more privileges than they need? In certain cases, things like APIs will become inherently dangerous because of how reckless they are with authorizations and privileges.
Of course, zero trust is the polar opposite of granting privileges by default. In fact, this approach requires users to have as little power as possible to complete a task.
A simple way of understanding that idea is this: let’s say you need to read a report to complete a task. Under zero trust architecture, you’ll have to request permission to read that report – and you’ll receive that and nothing else (i.e., you won’t be able to edit, download, or replace said report).
In most cases, having access to a file means having the power to alter or delete it. That’s not the case under zero trust.
Document the Process
A zero trust approach leaves nothing to chance, including the way you implement said approach. In other words, you have to take the time to document how you deploy this type of architecture, so you can improve it in the future.
One of the biggest challenges you’ll face is a possible productivity drop. Does that mean you have to endure it and wait until it’s over? Not at all! You have to take the time to study why it happens, so you can figure out how to fix it.
Do employees need more training or time to adapt to this new methodology? Are you asking users to jump through one too many hoops for validation? You can only improve your zero trust approach by documenting and updating it.
Zero trust models assume a “never trust, always verify” way of thinking that prevents threat actors from easily infiltrating your company. It’s difficult to transition to such a model because of certain challenges (e.g., dealing with resource intensiveness and a productivity drop), but zero trust provides more benefits than issues in the long run. We at U.S. Cybersecurity are experts in implementing Zero Trust. Contact us today to review more about zero trust.