What is Zero Trust? Zero Trust Security Definition, Explanation

What is Zero Trust Security?

Zero Trust is a security concept based on the belief that organizations should not automatically trust anything – users, data, documents, etc. – inside or outside its perimeters. Therefore, organizations must constantly verify anything and everything trying to connect and pass through systems before granting access.

The Zero Trust security model assumes that a breach is inevitable or has already occurred, which constantly limits access only to what is being sought after and seeks out anomalous and/or malicious activity.

Zero Trust architecture requires organizations to continuously monitor and validate that a user and their device has the right privileges and posture. The organization must inventory all their service and privileged accounts and should establish controls about what and where they connect. One-time validation isn’t enough because threats and user attributes are all subject to change.

This framework is defined by various industry guidelines such as Forrester eXtended, Gartner’s CARTA, and more recently NIST 800-207, as an optimal way to address current security challenges for a cloud-first, work from anywhere world.

Why is Zero Trust Important?

Zero Trust is one of the most effective ways for organizations to control access to their networks, applications, and data. It combines a wide range of preventative techniques including identity verification and behavioral analysis, microsegmentation, endpoint security and least privilege controls to deter would-be attackers and limit their access in the event of a breach.

It is not enough to establish firewall rules and block access by packet analysis – a compromised account that passes authentication protocols at a network perimeter device should still be evaluated for each subsequent session or endpoint it attempts to access. Having the technology to recognize ordinary versus anomalous behavior allows organizations to enhance authentication controls and policies rather than assume connection via VPN or SWG, meaning the connection is secure and trusted.

What are the Components of Zero Trust Architecture?

There are three guiding principles for Zero Trust:

  1. Never trust, always verify. Always authenticate and authorize based on all available data points, including user identity, location, device health, service or workload, data classification, and anomalies.
  2. Use least privileged access. Limit user access with Just-in-Time and Just-Enough (JIT/JEA), risk-based adaptive polices, and data protection to protect both data based adaptive polices, and data protection to protect both data and productivity.
  3. Assume breach. Minimize blast radius for breaches and prevent lateral movement by segmenting access by network, user, devices, and application awareness. Verify all sessions are encrypted end to end. Use analytics to get visibility, drive threat detection, and improve defenses.

Benefits of Leveraging Zero Trust

Implementing Zero Trust is a continuous journey, as it cannot be implemented overnight. For many networks, existing infrastructure can be leveraged and integrated to incorporate Zero Trust concepts, but the transition to a mature Zero Trust architecture often requires additional capabilities to obtain the full benefits of a Zero Trust environment.

Embracing a Zero Trust security model, and re-engineering an existing security stack based on this model, is a strategic effort that will take time to achieve full benefits. It is not a tactical mitigation response to new adversary tools, tactics, and techniques.

A mature Zero Trust environment will afford cybersecurity defenders more opportunities to detect novel threat actors, and more response options that can be quickly deployed to address sophisticated threats. Adopting the mindset required to successfully operate a Zero Trust environment will further sensitize cybersecurity defenders to recognize ever more subtle threat indicators. Tactical responses will likely still be necessary even in a Zero Trust environment, but with the appropriate security model, mindset, and response tools, defenders can begin to react effectively to increasingly sophisticated threats.

Common Questions

How do I implement Zero Trust security?

As mentioned above, the path to achieving Zero Trust is an ongoing process. Often, Zero Trust is built upon your existing architecture and does not require you to rip and replace existing technology.

When assessing your organization to implement and maintain Zero Trust, there are five key points to keep in mind. With them, you can understand where you are in your implementation process and where to go next. These steps are:  

  1. Define the protect surface. The attack surface is always expanding, making it difficult to define, decrease, or defend against. The protect surface encompasses the critical data, application, assets and services—DAAS—most valuable for your company to protect.
  2. Map the transaction flows. The way traffic moves across a network determines how it should be protected. Cataloging how certain resources interact allows you to enforce controls and provides valuable context to ensure the controls help preserve your data.
  3. Architect a Zero Trust network. Zero Trust networks are completely customized – not cookie cutter duplicates of a single, universal design. Instead, the architecture is constructed around the protect surface. Once you’ve defined the protect surface and mapped flows relative to the needs of your business, you can map out the Zero Trust architecture.
  4. Create the Zero Trust policy. Once the network is architected, you will need to create Zero Trust policies using to whitelist which resources should have access to others. With this level of granular policy enforcement, you know allowed traffic or legitimate application communication is permitted.
  5. Monitor and maintain the network. This final step includes reviewing all logs – internal and external – and focusing on the operational aspects of Zero Trust. Since Zero Trust is an iterative process, inspecting and logging all traffic will provide valuable insights into how to improve the network over time.

Who uses the Zero Trust framework?

Ideally, all organizations should use the Zero Trust framework. Organizations that shift from traditional perimeter security to a zero-trust model increase their level of continuous verification capable of detecting threat actors faster and often stop them before damage occurs.

Is Zero Trust a viable long-term framework?

Yes, Zero Trust is a viable long-term solution so long as your organization practices and maintains good security hygiene. Zero Trust is a journey, not a destination, and will require tuning depending on the growing and shifting needs of your organization.

Are there downsides to Zero Trust?

Having a comprehensive approach to securing access across networks, applications, and environments is critical to detecting and stopping threats. Because Zero Trust is a long-term commitment that requires constant attention, the amount of time and cost necessary for implementation, configuration, and maintenance can be a deterrent. However, the value of up-to-date security practices and the safety that often follows is worthwhile in the long run.

Zero Trust with Vectra

The Cognito® platform from Vectra® continuously monitors the behaviors of accounts, hosts and services, and applies supervised and unsupervised AI models to score these behaviors for threat, certainty and prioritization of risk.

As a result, Vectra delivers a continuous real-time assessment of privilege. This empowers security teams with the right information to anticipate what assets will be targeted by attackers, and to rapidly act against the malicious use of privilege across cloud and hybrid environments.

By using AI to efficiently find and prioritize hidden attacks in real-time inside your cloud services like Microsoft Office 365, Azure AD, cloud, data center, IoT, and enterprise networks before attackers cause irreparable harm to the organization, the platform allows security teams to prevent attacks earlier in the kill chain, ensuring that applications essential to business continuity are available and accessible for the entire extended workforce.

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