Zero Trust architecture: What is Zero Trust security and how does it work?

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What is zero trust?

Modern workplaces have evolved considerably in the last two decades. Your cybersecurity strategy must evolve too. Conventional IT security models, where everyone worked on-site and could be trusted after basic verification are no longer effective.

Trusting everything within a modern organization’s complex network can be a recipe for disaster. In the increasingly complex hybrid workplace, devices, data, and apps need security with on-site and remote workers connecting from different locations. Errors can leave financial data, personally identifiable information, and intellectual property vulnerable to threat actors who seek to capitalize on information security framework flaws.

what is zero trust security

A Zero Trust security model reduces your margin for error. In a Zero Trust architecture, no one is trusted, and everyone is verified and monitored continuously and indiscriminately to reduce the risk of unsafe outcomes from human error, insider threats, malware attacks, and social engineering attacks.

The Zero Trust principle is certainly rising in popularity. Technology research firm Gartner predicts that 60% of organizations will adopt Zero Trust as a starting point for security by 2025. In this guide, you can learn more about:

  1. What is Zero Trust?
  2. How does Zero Trust work?
  3. What is Zero Trust architecture?
  4. The principles of Zero Trust security.

Zero Trust definition: What is Zero Trust?

In a nutshell, Zero Trust is an information security framework built on the philosophy that organizations must not trust anyone inside or outside their network. Within a Zero Trust system, organizations have the tools and protocols to monitor, manage, and secure all elements that employees, contractors, and even volunteers use to access data. These elements can include computers, devices, networks, users, and apps.

The concept of Zero Trust is the brainchild of John Kindervag, one of the world’s top cybersecurity experts. While Vice President and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, Kindervag realized that organizations were failing to stop lateral movements during cyberattacks because they assumed everyone within their network was dependable.

Instead of trusting everyone, IT teams “never trust, always verify” while following the Zero Trust model.

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How does Zero Trust work?

Conventional security approaches took rudimentary precautions, such as login verifications, before trusting endpoints and users within an organization’s environment. The rapid shift to a distributed work environment where employees work from different locations has left this approach outdated.

Modern networkers can be in the cloud, local, or a combination. Here, organizations face risks from threat actors with stolen login credentials, malicious insiders, and ransomware attacks.

Zero Trust works by continuously monitoring and validating the attributes and right privileges of users by leveraging cutting-edge technology, enforcement policies, and large-scale real-time visibility.

Zero Trust security

What is Zero Trust security?

Zero Trust security is based on the philosophy that all users are malicious. All traffic is treated with intense scrutiny and monitored constantly, including traffic within the perimeter. Zero Trust security relies on the effectiveness of an organization’s Zero Trust architecture.

The importance of Zero Trust security

Zero Trust security is important because it minimizes the attack surface. Instead of connecting to networks, users connect only to the apps and resources they need. By reducing the attack surface, organizations can mitigate the risk of lateral movement and malware propagation.

The privacy of users is improved with Zero Trust security too. Users and apps are less visible to threat actors with a smaller attack surface.

An organization’s Data Loss Prevention (DLP) efforts are also reinforced by Zero Trust Security. The reduced lateral movement lowers the risk of data exfiltration. Additionally, context-based Zero Trust policies protect data by offering access on a need-to-know basis. In other words, a Zero Trust security system grants access on the basis of user identity, location, device, application, and content type to prevent unauthorized access.

Zero Trust architecture

What is Zero Trust architecture?

A Zero Trust architecture is a set of policies, strategies, and technologies that establish Zero Trust security. The tools that help establish a Zero Trust architecture can include advanced endpoint detection and response mechanisms, multi-factor authentication systems, identity shielding, advanced user and system verification systems, and more.

Planning for a Zero Trust architecture

Know there are no easy answers

While most Zero Trust systems cover identity, data, devices, workloads, analytics, network, and endpoint, the road to adoption isn’t straightforward. Every modern organization’s set of challenges is distinctive and impacted by their industry, security strategy, and changing workflows through digital technologies.

There will be teething issues

A Zero Trust implementation may require a significant overhaul with partial measures taken over a period of time. Expect to face teething issues, such as security flaws during the step-by-step adoption.

A Zero Trust strategy is as good as its access control

An effective Zero Trust strategy requires real-time administrative updates to user identities, roles, and permissions.

Consider how it may impact productivity

You’ll need to find the right balance between security and workflow. A tight Zero Trust system can hinder productivity by blocking access too readily.

Know it may require some technological overhauls

Although many companies adopt a Zero Trust strategy to shield legacy systems in their infrastructure deployment model, conflicts can arise that require significant upgrades.

Zero Trust pillars

  1. Identity: Utilize lifecycle management, multi-factor authentication (MFA), and Single sign-on (SSO) to manage access across accounts and regulate security policies.
  2. Device: Shield your organization with effective Zero Trust practices and technologies.
  3. Network: Your Zero Trust infrastructure should shield your network, infrastructure, and endpoints from risks.
  4. Workloads: Manage endpoints, secure applications, and protect your devices and workloads.
  5. Data: Manage and categorize data access by risk factors. 

Zero Trust principles: Principles of Zero Trust security

Your organization must follow several security principles to execute the Zero Trust model effectively:

  1. Reduce the attack surface.
  2. Accept that threats can be internal and external.
  3. Authenticate and authorize constantly.
  4. Use the best security tools, such as technologically advanced endpoint protection solutions.
  5. Constantly monitor and verify access for all sources indiscriminately.
  6. Collect intelligence from the complete IT surface for more effective responses.
  7. Establish a baseline to reduce risk.
  8. Terminate every connection to prevent malware from reaching destinations.
  9. Minimize the impact of a potential breach.

Benefits of a Zero Trust architecture

Reduces data loss risk

Zero Trust security mitigates the risk of data loss by reducing your exposure and securing your endpoints. Malware that can corrupt, hijack, or exfiltrate data is less likely to penetrate an organization with Zero Trust architecture.

Compliance laws

With Zero Trust micro-segmentation, you can leverage fine-grained controls to segment data and shield some kinds of sensitive data to solidify your data loss prevention strategy and help your organization comply with privacy laws.

Reduces risk of data breaches

Data breaches are less probable in a Zero Trust environment because requests are inspected, devices are authenticated, and permissions are given after careful scrutiny. The system also leverages least privilege access to reduce the risk of lateral movements. In other words, even if an attacker breaches a Zero Trust network, they can’t move in any direction to execute a data breach.

Mitigates ransomware

Ransomware is a modern malware menace. It costs US organizations billions of dollars annually. Moreover, ransomware attacks can disrupt essential industries such as healthcare or oil and gas. Here is how Zero Trust security system can be a critical defense mechanism against ransomware:

  • Reduces the attack surface to stop attackers from targeting and exploiting users, apps, and devices.
  • Assumes all traffic is malicious, encrypted or otherwise.
  • Leverages advanced technology to detect and stop emerging threats, including new or heavily modified ransomware.
  • Restricts access to reduce lateral movements and prevent threat actors from spreading ransomware.
  • Stops remote workers and devices from becoming ransomware infection vectors.
  • Prevents unverified workloads from communicating, potentially blocking interaction with ransomware gangs’ command-and-control servers.
  • Some Zero Trust security environments leverage decoy endpoints, databases, user paths and other honeypots to help IT teams gain intelligence on attackers or waste their time.

Reduces cost and time

The initial costs of setting up a Zero Trust system can be high. However, it can pay off in the long term with improved data security.

Secure remote access

Hackers can exploit conventional tools such as firewalls by exploiting network designs, settings, ports, or applications. Hackers with stolen login credentials to VPNs can also breach security.

That’s why organizations need more secure remote access.

A Zero Trust system provides secure remote access to applications, data, and systems in different types of environments.

Secured third-party access

Securing third-party access is one of the clearest benefits of the Zero Trust model. The framework applies least privilege access by relying on context to provide secure access to third-party entities such as partners or contractors.  

Zero Trust vs POLP

Zero Trust security and POLP (Principle of Least Privilege) are similar. POLP provides access to users and devices on a need-to-know basis. But Zero Trust security goes further. In addition to least privilege access, Zero Trust utilizes authentication and authorization for enhanced protection.

Zero Trust vs VPN

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is an encrypted network that secures connections between devices and servers. While a VPN is a useful cybersecurity tool, it only operates inside a network instead of securing the network externally. On the other hand, a Zero Trust system protects the entire network and its assets by verifying and monitoring any entity seeking access.

Any traffic with the correct login credentials can pass through a VPN. The Colonial Pipeline attackers may have exploited this flaw by using a compromised VPN password.

We still recommend that you use a VPN for privacy. But please, follow good password hygiene by setting long and complex passwords and changing them regularly.

Zero Trust vs SDP

An SDP (Software Defined Perimeter) is a way to execute Zero Trust security. An SDP is a virtual layer of invisibility that hides infrastructure from outsiders. Only authenticated users and devices can access the infrastructure.

Zero Trust vs zero-knowledge proof

Although Zero Trust and zero-knowledge proof sound similar, they’re different concepts. Zero-knowledge proof allows entities to authenticate information without actually sharing it by leveraging cryptographic algorithms. Zero-knowledge-proof technology is handy in business deals where entities wish to protect their anonymity or trade secrets.

The strengths and weaknesses of a Zero Trust model

Before implementation, your organization should examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Zero Trust model completely to determine if the system matches your needs. The positives of a Zero Trust system include improved user identification, enhanced network segmentation, increased data security, and more comprehensive security orchestration.

However, a Zero Trust strategy isn’t suitable for every organization, in part because it can be challenging to implement. Defining policies effectively for every variation in a modern user base can be expensive and time-consuming. Similarly, outlining measures for different types of devices and operating systems can be difficult.

Organizations should also consider the number of apps employees, third-party services, vendors, and agencies use. The number, type, and versatility of applications can complicate the implementation of a Zero-Trust framework.

Further complicating matters is that data is no longer in one fixed location. Your resources may be stored in cloud-based environments in locations across the globe.

While implementing a Zero Trust security system is undoubtedly beneficial, it requires a full examination of department functions, devices, access levels, and requirements. You may find that building a Zero Trust network from scratch is more feasible than modifying your current network. However, that can also raise costs.

If a Zero Trust security system doesn’t suit your organization’s needs, you can still implement other measures that enhance your cybersecurity. For example, these 5 security tips for SMBs shield your data and prevent ransomware like LockBit from dismantling your operations.

You can also invest in Managed Detection and Response (MDR) technology. With MDR, you gain 24/7 threat detection, alerting, and response from security experts, allowing you to allocate your in-house IT team to other tasks. Moreover, MDR can drive business growth in meaningful ways.

As far as cybersecurity tools, measures, and policies go, there are plenty of choices. Picking the right one depends on the size of your organization, resources, and risk factors. Even Managed Service Providers (MSPs) can benefit from cybersecurity integration.

Organizations most likely to benefit from an investment in a Zero Trust architecture may be ones with a hybrid infrastructure, unmanaged devices, and Software as a service (SaaS) apps. Risk factors may include social engineering, ransomware, insider threats, and supply chain attacks

Additionally, companies with cyber liability concerns or organizations that need to satisfy compliance laws, such as FISMA, HIPAA, GDPR, or CCPA, can benefit from a Zero Trust implementation.

Related articles

Zero Trust FAQs

The drawbacks or cons of zero trust, include:

  • Can be heavy on bandwidth and demands resources
  • Requires complex implementation
  • Can slow down applications
  • Hinders productivity

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