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Zero trust is a security approach and philosophy that involves IT teams rethinking their perspective on cybersecurity. It bases the security strategy on the notion that a threat may have infiltrated the network, so teams must assume that malicious actors are already active within the network. This assumption requires rethinking the network architecture.
Many organizations use a network infrastructure that has not yet embraced the concept of presumed compromise. They focus on preventing attacks, not dealing with them when successful. These companies are especially vulnerable to escalation and lateral movement by malicious individuals.
Zero trust is a data-centric security model, focusing less on physical IT infrastructure and more on movement within the network. The most important thing for cybercriminals is the target’s digital assets, mostly represented as data. Therefore, organizations must protect the source of their data, its transmission, and storage.
A zero trust strategy enforces strict access permissions and controls and permissions. Users have limited access to specific digital assets. Users can only view and access the infrastructure components necessary to perform an assigned task. This approach is a fine-grained risk-driven access control strategy.
Although zero trust adoption has increased recently, many organizations are not leveraging zero trust security to protect their infrastructure.
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Zero trust security offers several important benefits.
The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many organizations to face challenges associated with a remote workforce. When allowing employees to work from home, organizations must give them the tools they need to do their jobs and keep their devices and data safe.
Similar to traditional VPN models, zero trust supports robust authentication and authorization. It also minimizes the overhead of extending corporate networks into employees’ homes.
Continuous monitoring of cloud networks produces massive amounts of data and provides increased visibility into corporate traffic. This data is useful for identifying potential inefficiencies and security vulnerabilities. Zero trust solutions typically generate reports and charts based on the collected data for contextual insights. The processed data helps organizations understand user behavior and implement enhanced defenses if needed.
According to industry research, a majority of corporate employees believe they need more cybersecurity training to do their job. Human error is a constant factor in defense protocols, and insider threats are frequent.
Adopting a zero trust security model ensures that all internal employees, teams, third parties, and other stakeholders have least-privilege access—IT systems deny access by default unless explicitly authorized. This approach makes IT resources more secure while providing training opportunities for employees.
Zero trust security systems monitor network activity, scanning all packets sent with requests, allowing them to stop attacks before they do more damage. A zero trust architecture contains threats and protects users’ privacy while reducing the impact and cost of a breach.
Related content: Read our guide to zero trust security
The zero trust security architecture emerged in 2010 when John Kindervag, a senior Forrester Research analyst, developed a general framework to protect valuable corporate assets. The model assumes that all endpoints and connections threaten the network. The zero trust framework helps protect organizations against internal and external threats, even once they are present within the network.
Zero trust network log and inspect all network traffic, control network access, and secure resources. A zero trust model renders all resources and data inaccessible by default. It uses the least-privilege principle, granting users limited access to specific resources under specific conditions.
Zero trust also involves verifying and authorizing each connection. For example, when users connect to a corporate application via an API or programs attempt to access data, they require explicit approval. This granular access control ensures all interactions meet the organization’s security requirements as set out in the security policy.
Zero trust systems authenticate and authorize all devices, network flows, and connections according to dynamic access control policies. They use context from multiple data sources to help ensure security.
Zero Trust Networks (ZTNs) are networks that operate according to zero trust security principles. Users and devices that want to access resources, whether inside or outside an organization’s corporate network, require strict authentication.
Traditional cybersecurity approaches usually perceive the protected network within the security perimeter as a safe zone. They rely on firewalls and other outward-facing security measures to make accessing the network from the outside difficult. However, they implicitly trust everyone within the network.
The main drawback of this strategy is that attackers can freely move within the network and escalate their access privileges after gaining initial access to the network. There is nothing to protect sensitive assets after the breach.
Modern IT environments have data and systems distributed between multiple on-premise data centers and clouds. Employees are increasingly working from home. Implementing consistent security controls across these decentralized networks is virtually impossible using traditional network perimeters.
Adopting a zero trust network ensures that no entity outside or inside the network is implicitly trusted. A ZTN solution continuously verifies that all users and devices can access only the specific resources they require. Access privileges are time-sensitive and depend on the entity’s location and activities. The ZTN immediately identifies unusual access, alerting the security team to handle the threat.
Learn more in our detailed guide to zero trust network (coming soon)
Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a remote access security solution that applies the zero trust security model by implementing specific privileges for applications. When remote workers request access to company assets, the ZTNA solution grants access based on granular policies. It evaluates each request for a specific resource individually, considering context and authentication details like role-based access control (RBAC) policies, location, IP address, role or user group, and time constraints.
ZTNA is most useful when deployed as part of a rounded Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solution that combines the full network security stack and network optimization features like software-defined WAN (SD-WAN). Organizations implementing SASE can adopt a zero trust security model instead of a traditional perimeter-based approach, leveraging a network architecture that provides better security for distributed enterprises.
Learn more in our detailed guide to zero trust network access (coming soon)
Organizations implement a zero trust architecture to protect their data. There is no single network architecture-rather, it is a set of principles that guide the design and operation of the network infrastructure. A zero trust security strategy provides consistent policies that govern how data can be accessed anytime, anywhere, and from any device.
With zero trust, no system has implicit trust based on its physical location or place within the network. This approach requires ongoing verification and authorization regardless of the original request’s location. It improves visibility and security analytics across the corporate network.
The zero trust architecture protects resources, modeled after the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) zero trust principles:
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A zero trust approach should eliminate the notion that trust is binary and that an attacker cannot simultaneously exist inside and outside the network. It assumes all users, devices, applications, and even the network are hostile and require authentication before granting access.
As such, the basis of the zero trust model is identity and access management (IAM). However, zero trust is not a single, one-size-fits-all solution. Organizations must analyze their needs and establish a custom approach based on their existing technologies and processes. Here are some of the strategies to implement zero trust security.
A zero trust approach requires identifying the protected surface comprising the network’s most critical applications, services, and data. This protected surface is usually smaller than the attack surface. Once an organization has identified its protected surface, it can monitor and analyze traffic throughout the network, focusing on protected assets. The organization then builds a micro-perimeter around this protected surface.
Microsegmentation is a process that enables fine-grained access and control by dividing the traditional security perimeter into smaller, more manageable segments. Each segment has independent access controls for added security. Microsegmentation minimizes the attack surface and limits unauthorized lateral movement inside the network.
Least privilege access is a major part of a zero trust security strategy. The principle of least privilege involves granting each user the minimum access required to perform a given task, restricting overall access to resources and data. Users only have access to specific resources if essential, so they have limited exposure to critical or sensitive areas within the network.
Thus, even if an attacker compromises user devices or credentials, the attacker will only gain access to the same limited resources as the targeted user. Organizations use various methods to enforce least privilege access, although the most common approach is role-based access control (RBAC). RBAC policies assign a role to each user in the organization, which forms the basis of granting or denying access to applications and data.
Single sign-on allows users to log in to protected services and applications with the same set of credentials. SSO helps organizations achieve passwordless authentication because it significantly reduces the number of passwords users must remember. SSO also helps minimize the number of attacks that exploit stolen credentials. SSO addresses the security gaps that arise from fragmented identities across cloud-based and on-premise solutions.
Multi-factor authentication is another key aspect of zero trust. Multi-factor authentication requires users to authenticate themselves using multiple authentication factors. Organizations typically use MFA by combining several factors or credentials—for example, what the user knows (a code), what the user has (a token), and what the user is (biometric identification).
The simplest form of MFA is two-factor authentication (2FA), which might require users to provide biometrics (i.e., fingerprints) and a password. Some MFA methods involve sending a one-time password (OTP) to users’ devices. The idea is that requiring more credentials to access network resources makes it significantly harder to execute a credential-based attack. Many authentication solutions combine MFA and SSO to improve the login experience while providing an added layer of security.
Zero trust requires continuous monitoring and auditing of all user activity. Security teams and tools can proactively monitor and block malicious attacks using threat detection and user behavior analysis. Attackers now use technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to carry out sophisticated attacks—organizations must leverage the same tactics and techniques as the attackers to stay ahead.
The most important aspect of implementing and managing zero trust is the distribution of responsibilities between the security and network teams:
Policy development and enforcement is one of the most important and time-consuming steps in creating a strong zero trust network. Fine-grained policies should be applied to all network workloads via centralized security tools.
A key to developing and implementing zero trust policies is to determine:
Device identities help manage protected assets efficiently and expose untrusted devices that might be trying to access them. There are several ways to identify a device, depending on its hardware, platform, and type. When devices have strong identities, you can check for permissions and enable access using the device as a criterion, according to access policies you define.
It is important to have strategies for creating identities for any devices accessing the network—whether they are computers, mobile devices, or internet of things (IoT) devices, and whether they are company owned, privately owned, or managed by third parties.
Pay particular attention to how devices and services interact. Each device must be evaluated individually, by evaluating device data in the context of events occurring on the network. You can evaluate the activity of a single device across multiple services, or the activity of multiple devices of users on the same service, to identify anomalous behavior.
Extended Detection and Response (XDR) is a new type of security platform, which helps organizations combine data across all layers of the IT infrastructure, including endpoints, cloud systems, networks, and email systems. XDR has two key capabilities that support your zero trust strategy:
Cynet 360 AutoXDR™ is the world’s first Autonomous Breach Protection platform that natively integrates the endpoint, network and user attack prevention & detection of XDR with the automated investigation and remediation capabilities of SOAR, backed by a 24/7 world-class MDR service. End to end, fully automated breach protection is now within reach of any organization, regardless of security team size and skill level.
Cynet 360 AutoXDR™ can be deployed across thousands of endpoints in less than two hours. It can be immediately used to uncover advanced threats and then perform automatic or manual remediation, disrupt malicious activity and minimize damage caused by attacks.
Together with our content partners, we have authored in-depth guides on several other topics that can also be useful as you explore the world of Cybersecurity.