There was once a day and age when castles and moats were considered cutting-edge defense strategies. Now, in our digital and cloud-first world, it’s safe to say that times have changed.
And yet, perimeter-based cybersecurity policies are still the status quo for many organizations. Why? Because they work — at least, they did until recently.
The truth is that traditional data security doesn’t suffice in today’s increasingly complex environment. Enterprises are facing an unprecedented array of threats, all chomping at the bit to get ahold of sensitive data. Fortunately, that’s where a Zero Trust architecture comes into play.
In this guide, we’ll walk you through the value of Zero Trust security and how it can help you safeguard company assets. From its principles and components to the steps involved in the process, you’ll learn how to start implementing Zero Trust and protecting your business from its dynamic threat landscape.
Understanding Zero Trust
Security teams are excited about the Zero Trust framework, and for good reason. With its fresh approach to strong authentication and access control, it’s poised to usher in a major paradigm shift when it comes to cybersecurity.
Let’s dive into the ins and outs of Zero Trust architecture and why it should become a tentpole of your enterprise security policy.
What is Zero Trust?
John Kindervag, a former Forrester analyst, coined the term “Zero Trust” in 2010. Originally, the concept was specific to network protection, but has since evolved to encompass everything from endpoint to cloud security.
Forrester defines the Zero Trust model as a data security policy that denies the user access to applications and network resources by default. It eliminates implicit trust and acknowledges that threats exist both inside and outside traditional boundaries.
In other words, Zero Trust security takes a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach. Rather than blindly assuming certain users are always safe, it ensures all identities are validated before granting access to company assets. Additionally, it takes a hard stance against implicit trust by continuously requiring users to authenticate themselves, even after they already have.
When it comes to understanding what Zero Trust is, it also helps to clarify exactly what it isn’t. More specifically, implementing Zero Trust isn’t as simple as a single solution or cybersecurity platform. It requires a layered, multi-faceted foundation of technologies and policies. With these in place, you can continuously build upon and strengthen an evolving Zero Trust architecture.
Why is Zero Trust important?
It’s an open secret that cybercrime is running rampant across the globe. In fact, a recent Surfshark report revealed that the online crime victim count has increased 16 times since 2001. Financial losses have grown over 570 times during the same period, now costing the world $1 million per hour.
With a growing swarm of attack strategies at their disposal, bad actors are targeting sensitive data like never before. These sophisticated tactics include (but aren’t limited to):
- Distributed-Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks
- Zero-day strikes
- Structured query language (SQL) injections
Worse yet, security teams are encountering these threats at a greater volume and velocity than they’re able to manage. Why? Because their organization’s attack surface has expanded exponentially. Let’s consider the numbers:
- Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the vast majority of enterprises have implemented flexible work models. Globally, about 75% of businesses offer some form of hybrid work arrangement, many with a Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policy. That means employees are accessing network resources on unmanaged devices that the security team can’t protect.
- And, to accommodate these policies and stay productive, even more organizations are investing in cloud services. According to McKinsey, many large enterprises aspire to have at least 60% of their environment in the cloud by 2025.
In short, these factors are converging to create an expansive (and largely unprotected) attack surface. Each application, device, and network is an entry point hackers can exploit to their advantage.
To make matters even more complicated, many enterprises are still relying on outdated, legacy cybersecurity strategies. Per IBM’s research, almost 60% of organizations don’t have a Zero Trust security model. However, on average, those that do leverage Zero Trust save $1 million in data breach costs per incident.
Zero Trust vs. Traditional security models
Standard data security policies are based on the assumption that everything happening inside the network perimeter is inherently trusted. They’re developed to protect against external threats — not necessarily those that originate from within.
The main principle behind traditional security is the castle-and-moat analogy. The idea is simple: Keeping bad actors out will ensure any and all assets inside the perimeter remain safe. So, people must first cross the moat (i.e., your firewall) to access the castle (your network). Once they’re checked at the perimeter, they’re allowed to continue as they please.
But what happens when someone isn’t who they seem? What if a hacker gets their hands on someone’s login credentials? In this case, they’re free to roam about and access information at their convenience. Oftentimes, they can do so undetected, as they appear to be a legitimate user. And, as they do, bad actors are even taking the time to harvest encrypted data with hopes of cracking it at a later date with the help of powerful quantum computing.
According to IBM’s 2023 Cost of a Data Breach report, compromised or stolen credentials are the two most common initial attack vectors, responsible for 16% and 15% of breaches, respectively. Worse yet, it takes organizations, on average, about 10 months to identify and contain these types of attacks. This means, more likely than not, an ongoing data breach could be happening right under your nose.
This threat underscores the inherent risk created by the typical username-and-password posture. Recognizing as much, many Zero Trust enterprises are adopting passwordless security policies and certificate-based authentication procedures as a safer alternative.
Additionally, given the fluid nature of cloud services and how they can span many locations and providers, perimeter-based defenses simply don’t provide adequate cloud security. Employees can access resources on any number of unmanaged devices, making it inherently difficult to enforce consistent security policies across the enterprise. All things considered, it’s no surprise that 82% of breaches in 2022 involved public, private, and multi-cloud environments.
Bottom line: Traditional frameworks are no longer sufficient, as attackers can easily bypass defenses and gain unfettered access to critical information.
Zero Trust security
In contrast, the Zero Trust security model is designed to prevent unauthorized network and cloud application access. It requires users and devices to authenticate themselves continuously regardless of identity or location. This ensures that only verified, legitimate users can access information.
Overall, deploying a Zero Trust architecture has a number of tangible benefits, including:
- Enhanced data security: Zero Trust’s continuous monitoring and verification allow you to enforce security policies at scale, no matter how the user access request originates. It ensures all users, devices, and applications are authenticated beforehand, thereby mitigating the risk of untrusted connections.
- Greater visibility: It’s difficult to keep tabs on a cloud-first environment. Luckily, Zero Trust security offers an unparalleled line of sight into the network, allowing you to spot suspicious activity from miles away. With granular control, you can ensure security operations are performing at their best.
- Increased scalability: Rapidly growing businesses are adopting new cloud technologies at an accelerated rate. Network security tools have difficulty scaling at pace, but a cloud-based Zero Trust model can flex to meet your changing needs. That way, you can confidently expand your tech stack without jeopardizing sensitive data.
- Seamless user experience: Zero Trust empowers you to offer employees secure access to critical resources without hindering their productivity. Security measures work in the background, meaning that although identities are constantly verified, there’s no impact on the user experience.
- Improved risk mitigation: The Zero Trust model aims to close security gaps and prevent lateral network movement. That means it not only augments your security team, but also enhances their risk management skills through robust capabilities and proactive policy enforcement.
- Reduced attack surface: In contrast to traditional approaches, Zero Trust adequately defends against a wide variety of risk factors, including ransomware, malware, phishing, and Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs).
That’s what you stand to gain from implementing Zero Trust. Now, let’s break down the security model and get to know the building blocks of the Zero Trust framework.
A closer look at Zero Trust architecture
The Zero Trust Maturity Model is built upon three foundational principles and five core pillars. When used in combination, they empower organizations to strengthen their cybersecurity posture and eliminate implicit trust from top to bottom.
Zero Trust principles
Based on the concept of “never trust, always verify,” the Zero Trust framework operates on three fundamental tenets:
- Explicit verification: Organizations must establish trusted identities through strong authentication and continuous authorization. This includes evaluating context-aware risk signals and user behavior for suspicious activity, thereby verifying the entity requesting access is actually who they claim to be and has the right to do so.
- Least-privilege access: Because credentials are often the root cause of a breach, businesses must limit access based on user roles and responsibilities. In simple terms, this Zero Trust principle ensures that employees can only access resources essential to their job — no more, no less.
- Assume breach: The Zero Trust framework underscores the notion that breaches are inevitable. So, it’s critical for organizations to minimize the blast radius during an ongoing attack through various methods, such as microsegmentations, encryption, and so on.
With these three concepts in mind, remember that Zero Trust is more of an enterprise-wide strategy than it is a single solution. As the sum of its parts, an effective architecture requires a cohesive effort from all stakeholders, tools, and processes. According to the Zero Trust Maturity Model, security teams can best strengthen their posture by focusing on five distinct pillars:
- Identity: As with any cybersecurity strategy, an organization’s people are at its center. It should ensure every user has access to the right resources without granting excessive permissions. In an optimal environment, a user’s identity is constantly verified.
- Devices: Any hardware or virtual asset that connects to the network is an entry point and can be used to infect the network with malware and other malicious threats. This pillar addresses device tracking and management and how users operate them according to rules and procedures.
- Networks: Ideally, organizations adopt micro-parameters that prevent lateral movement and enable early threat detection. Isolating network resources can stop bad actors from accessing them, thus greatly reducing the potential blast radius.
- Applications & Workloads: This pillar refers to cloud-based resources and processes used by an organization for operational purposes. Security measures aim to protect assets and prevent unauthorized access or tampering with sensitive cloud services.
- Data: Categorizing and classifying corporate data allows it to be isolated from all but those who need constant access. This pillar also includes the process of encrypting data at rest, in movement, and use.
Implementing Zero Trust
By now, it’s clear that the Zero Trust architecture is well worth the effort. However, it’s wise to understand the roadblocks you might encounter along the way.
Challenges of Zero Trust implementation
Unfortunately, achieving Zero Trust maturity isn’t an overnight process. More often than not, implementing Zero Trust is a multi-year journey — one that won’t always be easy to navigate. Knowing how to steer your business in the right direction effectively requires an understanding of the obstacles in your path. These most often include:
- Complexity: Organizations may have a tough time if their IT infrastructure consists of many interconnected and distributed systems. You may have hundreds of databases, servers, and third-party applications that need consideration.
- Cost: Implementing Zero Trust can be expensive, especially if you’re transitioning from legacy technologies. You may have to replace old hardware and deploy new solutions, which can mean a long-term, multi-phase rollout process.
- Legacy systems: Another challenge of having dated solutions is that they’re designed specifically for implicit trust. It may be hard to configure legacy tools in a way that aligns with Zero Trust principles.
- Stakeholder buy-in: Key stakeholders must sign off on the transition; otherwise, you won’t have the resources to get the job done right. Leaders may not always see the value in Zero Trust right away. One way to circumvent this issue is to communicate the cost of security in terms they’ll best understand: the bottom line.
Steps in the Zero Trust journey
Not sure how to get started? Don’t worry — we have you covered. Here’s a breakdown of the most critical steps you need to take as you implement a Zero Trust architecture:
- Evaluate vulnerabilities: It’s best to assess the environment before getting ahead of yourself. Take a comprehensive inventory of devices, users, applications, and accounts that have access to your network. This helps you pinpoint vulnerabilities and determine key network flows.
- Identify the protect surface: The “protect surface” refers to everything that must be shielded from harm. That includes sensitive data, critical assets, cloud services, and internal applications.
- Strengthen access control: It’s not enough to implement strict policies. You should support them with specific technologies, such as phishing-resistant multi-factor authentication (MFA) and risk-based adaptive verification, which make it harder for bad actors to bypass defenses even if they’ve stolen credentials.
- Segment the network: Microsegmentation is a process of creating smaller, more secure network areas. These micro-perimeters limit the spread of a data breach and make it easier to contain the incident.
- Practice continuous monitoring: Keep an eye on network traffic and user activity so that you can spot risks in real-time. More importantly, continue to strengthen security operations over time, as Zero Trust is an iterative process that demands dynamic enforcement.
Continue your Zero Trust transformation with Entrust
At Entrust, we know that implementing Zero Trust can seem like a daunting task. But, it’s also one that must be done. With increasingly sophisticated threats targeting your data, it’s mission-critical that you take the first steps toward building a robust Zero Trust architecture.
The good news? We’ll help you get there. Our industry-leading solutions focus on three key components of an effective Zero Trust framework:
- Phishing-resistant Identities
- Secure Connections
- Secure Data
From encryption to MFA and everything in between, Entrust is here to help you leverage a broad portfolio of tools — all designed to help you keep critical assets under lock and key.
Looking for more information on Zero Trust security? Check out our eBooks on the evolution of Zero Trust and how your organization can leverage it to your advantage.