In a perfect world, there would be no ransomware, phishing, or unauthorized access. Every resource you need is right at your fingertips. Security is a given, regardless of user identity, device, or location. And here’s the best part: Your organization would be safe and sound, no questions asked.

Sounds perfect, right?

Sadly, this dream scenario is exactly that — just make-believe. In the real world, bad actors are targeting your sensitive data in leaps and bounds. They’re evaluating your organization’s defenses, testing its network security, and taking note of every weakness. All the while, insider threats and unwitting employees are leaking credentials, exposing the organization to potential attacks from the open web.

So, how can you be sure your users are who they say they are? The answer is strong and continuous authentication. As one of the basic building blocks of a Zero Trust architecture, your enterprise must have a series of user verification strategies at its disposal.

If you’re not sure where to begin, don’t worry. Read on to learn how you can start implementing Zero Trust throughout your organization with a series of strong authentication procedures.

The role of user authentication in enterprise security

In simple terms, authentication is the process of identifying users who request access to a system, network, data, server, application, device, or other company asset.
The goal is simple: Ensure a user is who they claim to be. Once authenticated, the user encounters an authorization process that determines whether they can access whatever resource they requested.

Why is strong authentication important?

Authentication is foundational to cybersecurity in general. It enables your security team to ensure that only authorized users can access protected network resources, such as applications, databases, and more.

Although authenticating users has always been critical, it’s even more important given the rising demand for remote access. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for classic security tools to verify identities now that people are requesting access across a sprawling and distributed environment. From Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies to cloud applications, the authentication process is more complex than ever before.

Perhaps most significantly, strong authentication is essential to Zero Trust security (but more on that later).

How does authentication work?

Traditionally, most organizations deploy password-based authentication processes. Users type in their credentials, the system checks them against a directory, and if it finds a match the user is granted network access.

However, for many enterprises, this is merely a one-and-done process. The user identity is confirmed once and assumed to be trustworthy for the duration of the session. That’s a problem, and here’s why:

If a hacker manages to get hold of a user’s credentials, they’d gain unfettered and unauthorized access to any number of critical applications, allowing them to exfiltrate, manipulate, or destroy sensitive data with ease. And in fact, that’s exactly how the majority of cyber incidents begin. According to Verizon’s 2021 Data Breach report, stolen or compromised credentials are the most common attack vector, accounting for almost two-thirds of all breaches.

One way to mitigate this risk is to use more granular access control policies. This means restricting permissions based on user identity and other parameters, thereby reducing the impact of a compromised credential. Whereas some people may have the authority to open one resource, others may not have the same permission.

However, even with strict access management policies, organizations may still be vulnerable to attack. Bad actors don’t take their foot off the gas; they simply get more focused, homing in on “high-value” credentials as their primary targets.

Simply put, privileged accounts open more doors than the average identity. Hackers consider users with privileged access especially high-value targets, as these accounts have more access and typically are authorized to use an organization’s most critical assets. When the locks on these doors are cracked, there’s almost nothing stopping bad actors from using a wealth of corporate information for nefarious purposes. For instance, a cybercriminal may leverage stolen data in exchange for ransom payment or sell it to the highest bidder.

Worse yet, these attacks are often successful. Roughly 540 million assets associated with Fortune 1,000 employees were circulating the internet in 2021 — a 29% increase compared to 2020. This total included over 133,000 C-suite credentials, marking an average of almost 26,000 stolen passwords per organization.

Challenges of traditional authentication

Organizations are likely to be more vulnerable to attack if they stick with their security status quo. Traditional authentication and secure access tools are falling short of the mark. Why? Because they’re running into several obstacles that have rendered them inadequate:

  1. Implicit trust: Classic network security tools and authenticators run on a policy of implicit trust, meaning they assume all users, devices, and so on are inherently trustworthy once they’ve been authenticated.
  2. Lack of visibility: Legacy methods are often siloed and aren’t scalable. This makes it difficult to enforce a comprehensive access policy across the entire enterprise.
  3. Weak password security: Many authenticators are still password-based. This is worrisome given that over half of employees reuse passwords for multiple accounts across applications and services. More often than not these are weak passwords that are easy to break or guess. If they fall into the wrong hands, it could spell disaster.
  4. No context or risk signals: Traditional tools may not be context-aware or take important risk signals into account, such as device security, location, and so on.

It should also be noted that some authentication strategies are burdensome on the user experience. They may derail productivity or require employees to jump through hoops, so organizations should bear this in mind when designing authentication schemes.

What is strong authentication for Zero Trust?

The Zero Trust security model assumes all users, devices, applications, and resources are vulnerable at any given time. It considers all connections potential threats, even after they’ve already been verified. By eliminating implicit trust, this framework mandates strong and continuous authentication and reduces the risk of a stolen credential compromising the rest of your security posture.

Generally, there are three concepts fundamental to a Zero Trust architecture. They apply to all areas of cybersecurity, including access control and authentication. These include:

  1. Continuous authentication: The Zero Trust framework advocates for explicit verification based on multiple risk signals, including user identity, device, location, workload, sensitive data classification, and more. Moreover, organizations must constantly evaluate these signals every time a request is made to access a resource or data — not just once at the beginning of a session.
  2. Least privilege access: This extremely granular access policy limits user access only to the specific network resources required to do someone’s job or complete certain tasks.
  3. Assume Breach: With inevitable breaches, it is critical to minimize the blast radius during a cyberattack through strong encryption and segmentation of users, devices, and networks.

When organizations apply Zero Trust principles to user access, they’re effectively creating a Zero Trust authentication process. This includes three basic steps:

  1. Once a user requests access, they must verify their identity through multi-factor authentication (MFA). In its simplest form, this involves providing a combination of identity factors such as a username, password, or one-time passcode. A truly robust Zero Trust architecture will deploy more advanced MFA techniques, such as phishing-resistant MFA with continuous risk assessment (but more on that later).
  2. The device in use must also be authenticated to ensure it complies with the requisite security policies.
  3. Once both are authenticated, they are then authorized to access the desired resource — but no more. Because the Zero Trust model advocates for continuous authentication, the user is continuously evaluated and verified in the background during every access request to ensure their identity hasn’t been compromised during a session. Additionally, this helps the organization enforce the principle of least privilege.

Benefits of strong authentication for Zero Trust

Implementing the Zero Trust framework has plenty of advantages. For example, strong authentication allows you to:

  • Prevent lateral movement through continuous authentication, thereby minimizing the attack surface.
  • Expedite threat detection by increasing visibility across the corporate network as well as public and private cloud environments.
  • Improve security policy enforcement through repeated, continuous authentication.

Supporting Zero Trust with layered authentication strategies

Zero Trust security draws upon a range of identity and access management (IAM) technologies, including cloud security, identity protection, and encryption.

The more effectively organizations implement these solutions, the more mature their security posture. However, it’s impossible to truly advance your place on the Zero Trust Maturity Model without strong authentication.

There’s a vast ocean of authentication options available, ranging from basic to advanced. Each operates a bit differently, but all serve the same purpose. Rather than choosing just one, your security may deploy a combination of the following methods:

Single sign-on (SSO)

SSO allows the user to authenticate once across multiple applications or services with a single identity. The benefit of this approach is that you don’t have to remember a mixed bag of login credentials, making it exceptionally easy and user-friendly.

SSO helps reduce the risk of unauthorized access. On the downside, it can create a single point of failure, which is why it’s wise to implement multiple layers of authentication.

Multi-factor authentication

Multi-factor authentication requires a user to provide at least two verification factors to receive access to a particular resource. These factors include:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Possession
  3. Biometrics
  4. Location

There are many types of MFA, but phishing-resistant passwordless MFA is considered one of the safest. This method doesn’t require a static password, instead using a combination of biometrics and digital certificates or security keys to act as verification.

Device authentication

The Zero Trust model recognizes the fact that remote access is greatly lengthening the classic network perimeter. Therefore, it encourages authentication strategies that account for all levels of risk, including those at the device level.

Organizations can deploy a variety of authenticators to verify device security. These may involve provisioning digital certificates on each device, evaluating its reputation, and more. Combining user and device certificate-based authentication provides the highest level of assurance for identities and protects against phishing and MFA bypass attacks.

Risk-based authentication

Also known as risk-based step-up or adaptive authentication, this strategy evaluates the risk associated with a user or device. If the risk is deemed to be too high, it issues another challenge or denies the request outright based on the risk levels configured by the administrator.

This method is context-aware, meaning it factors various attributes into the authorization decision. It monitors user activity and dynamically adjusts authentication requirements, thereby “stepping up” security when it’s needed most.

Challenges of implementing Zero Trust

Unfortunately, embarking on a Zero Trust journey is easier said than done, especially as it relates to authentication. There are several roadblocks you may face that could complicate the process, including:

  • Complexity: Implementing Zero Trust can be difficult, especially in large and expansive IT infrastructures. Integrating a robust authentication framework requires careful planning and execution.
  • User experience: It can be challenging to strike the right balance between security and a frictionless user experience. Ideally, organizations want to enforce policies and authenticate identities without hindering productivity and only adding friction to the process when necessary.
  • Legacy technology: Custom or legacy applications and systems may not integrate well with modern methods. Adapting legacy systems to fit within the Zero Trust architecture could require significant effort.
  • Scalability: Growing organizations need IAM solutions that will evolve alongside them without skipping a beat. Scaling up Zero Trust technologies to accommodate new users, devices, and applications can be difficult without the right guidance.

Not sure how to implement the Zero Trust framework? Check out our guide for more information.

Entrust: Your ideal Zero Trust partner

More than a technology provider, security teams need an expert partner with the knowledge and experience to help them implement Zero Trust solutions at scale. With a comprehensive IAM portfolio, Entrust offers a fully functional suite of advanced capabilities that can easily deploy over existing infrastructure.

From SSO and passwordless access to risk-based adaptive authentication, you can rest assured that user identities, data, and connections are safe and secure. These solutions are available in a single platform. As a cloud-based solution, it scales quickly to accommodate new use cases and evolving threats, empowering you to future-proof your enterprise security posture.

Ready to get started? Learn more about how Entrust’s Zero Trust solutions can help you implement strong authentication and secure access management as part of your Zero Trust strategy today.