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What Is Zero Trust?

Mark Lukehart

Group of colleagues working on project in office

Zero Trust architecture is a modern approach to cybersecurity that many leading tech companies are using. 

As the name implies, the Zero Trust model eliminates any implied trust throughout a cybersecurity network, requiring all users to verify their credentials regardless of where they are in relation to the network perimeter.  

The way we work has changed rapidly over the past few years, and security strategy has had to evolve along with it. Many companies are using a hybrid work model, which means that team members are working from a variety of devices and locations. 

Zero Trust networks are designed to keep sensitive data secure, regardless of where your team is working or what applications you are using. There are advantages and disadvantages to the Zero Trust approach – let’s take a look at this framework to see if it is the right fit for your business.  

What Is Zero Trust?

So how exactly does the Zero Trust security model work?

The driving principle behind Zero Trust is “never trust, always verify”.

This means that users will need to verify their identity and credentials at every potential vulnerability point in your network. 

This is true regardless of whether the device is in or out of your network security perimeter. With a Zero Trust model, even secure devices within your network will require users to verify themselves, typically by using multi-factor authentication (MFA). 

Additionally, the Zero Trust model removes any implicit trust in infrastructure components or applications. Both must be set up in a way where they can consistently verify their security status. 

With Zero Trust, applications and infrastructure assets also need to be configured in a way where your team can easily monitor them for potential data breaches and other security threats. The implication is that no user or asset is fully trustworthy. 

Technology is constantly evolving, and systems need to be able to identify and stop threats immediately to prevent long-term damage to your organization.  

One of the most important concepts of Zero Trust is the principle of least privilege. 

This means that each user or application is given the lowest amount of access necessary in order to perform its job effectively. Related to this is the concept of segmentation, which isolates highly sensitive pieces of data to keep them more secure. 

A Brief History of Zero Trust

A Forrester Research analyst named John Kindervag coined the term “Zero Trust” in 2010. 

During his research on the state of cybersecurity at the time, he determined that no digital entity could be fully trusted and that consistent verification and access control were essential for keeping a network safe. 

The concept of Zero Trust started to spread over the next few years. Major tech companies like Google started using Zero Trust for their own systems. 

In fact, Google published one of the first practical applications of Zero Trust in 2014. It was called BeyondCorp and has been quite successful at preventing phishing scams and other complex cybersecurity threats. 

In the years following, remote work and bring-your-own-device models started to become popular. 

This was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many offices to switch to hybrid work or close completely. Remote work isn’t going away anytime soon – in fact, recent research suggests that over a quarter of the workforce will be fully remote by 2025. 

With so many people working off-premises and using their own devices, it became clear that companies would need to make adjustments to account for these new cybersecurity risks. Additionally, many companies started using IoT devices and other forms of cloud technology even while working in the office, which resulted in even more potential risk points. 

Interest in Zero Trust principles grew as a result of these changes. Many industry thought leaders expanded the concept of Zero Trust to address other cybersecurity challenges. 

In 2018, Forrester Research published the Zero Trust eXtended Ecosystem report (ZTX), which expanded greatly on the initial concept. This report broke Zero Trust down into key elements and processes. 

Since 2018, many companies have created their own approaches to Zero Trust. However, the ZTX report is still considered standard. 

Benefits of Zero Trust

The Zero Trust framework offers many benefits for the organizations that use it. These include: 

Cybersecurity Risk Management: The Zero Trust approach helps companies manage cybersecurity threats effectively. In fact, an IBM Security report shows that companies see a 43 percent reduction in data breach costs after implementing Zero Trust. Cybersecurity risks are consistently evolving, and by consistently re-assessing each entity that interacts with the network, Zero Trust gives your team the opportunity to pinpoint risk factors and adjust your defenses in real time. Over time, you can adjust your Zero Trust system to account for new technologies and the risks that come with them. 

Access Management: One of the biggest challenges of working remotely or via the cloud is verifying your employees’ security clearance. Zero Trust ties access management to specific projects and workloads while requiring consistent employee verification. This helps keep your assets more secure even while your teams are working off-premise. It also streamlines workloads for your team by giving them faster access to the items they need most. 

Better Compliance: With Zero Trust network access, each request is tracked in detail. This means that if you are audited for any reason, you’ll have the records you need to ensure security compliance. 

Can Be Automated: A Zero Trust system can be automated,  approving standard access requests automatically using MFA and other tools. More sensitive access requests are sent to your team for approval. This streamlines the workload for your IT team and uses resources more efficiently. 

Challenges With Zero Trust

While Zero Trust works well for many organizations, it is not without its challenges. 

The biggest challenge associated with Zero Trust is the amount of time and energy it takes to implement. The initial adoption of Zero Trust requires you to completely restructure your data so that it is appropriately segmented. 

You’ll also need to set up each user’s access to reflect their qualifications using the least-privilege access principle. This includes employees as well as clients and any third-party service providers or contractors. 

You’ll also need to make sure that your system is set up to work with many different kinds of devices. Although you can automate many aspects of a Zero Trust system once it is set up, the initial implementation can be very resource-intensive. 

Zero Trust vs. VPN

Many people wonder what the difference is between implementing a Zero Trust model rather than just using a VPN, or virtual private network. 

A VPN encrypts the connection between the device you are using and the network you are connecting to. 

Many consumers use VPNs to hide their IP addresses, location, and other secure information while surfing the internet. 

In a corporate context, many businesses use VPNs to create a secure connection for remote work. 

However, VPNs are not compatible with all mobile devices or IoT technologies. This makes it very difficult for companies to guarantee secure access across devices. Additionally, many cybercriminals have identified VPNs as a point of entry, making them even more vulnerable. 

Ultimately, a Zero Trust model is going to be much more secure than just using a VPN for remote work. You’ll have more control over your security levels and be able to protect your data from threats. 

Zero Trust vs. Least Privilege

The phrases “Zero Trust” and “Least Privilege” are often used together, which can cause some confusion. 

The concept of least privilege is part of the Zero Trust security model. Within a Zero Trust network, a user is given the lowest amount of access privileges necessary for them to do their job effectively. 

Three Main Concepts of Zero Trust

There are three core concepts that make up the Zero Trust model. These are overarching principles that can be applied to the entire Zero Trust system, from implementation to enforcement and maintenance. These concepts are:

1. No entity has inherent trust. This includes both internal and external assets. Regardless of the user, device, or location, there is always an inherent lack of trust. 

2. Always verify every access request, regardless of what it is or where it is coming from. 

3. All traffic should be monitored and assessed for threats. Analytics can help to prevent future security issues by indicating where security adjustments need to be made. 

What Comprises A Zero Trust Network?

A Zero Trust network starts with an enforcement gateway. This is the access point through which all users will need to verify their credentials. All data in a Zero Trust network must be behind one of these access points. 

Most Zero Trust networks use multiple access points in order to keep data safely segmented. These access points are typically separated by application. 

The next component of a Zero Trust network is the administrator. This either authorizes or denies access through the gateway depending on the user’s credentials. The administrator can be programmed to manage most access requests on its own, but some access requests will still need to be done manually. 

Finally, the Zero Trust network uses a policy engine to provide ongoing trust evaluation. It communicates with the administrator about the trust criteria it should use. Since cybersecurity threats are consistently evolving, your Zero Trust network needs to be able to change with it. 

What is Zero Trust Architecture?

Your Zero Trust architecture is the framework through which you implement zero trust principles. 

While Zero Trust architecture can be built by adapting your existing technologies, many organizations opt to start from scratch so they can build a network that is best suited for Zero Trust. 

Designing A Zero Trust Architecture

When designing your Zero Trust architecture, you’ll first need to determine which assets need to be protected. 

In many cases, these assets will be interdependent, so you will need to understand the flow of traffic within your network as well. Defining the assets you want to include in your system makes it easier to determine where you are going to place your controls and your access points. 

Because every organization has its own unique assets, no two Zero Trust systems are going to be exactly alike. You will need to build your system in a way that best protects your assets and minimizes vulnerability. Once you’ve determined how you want to segment your assets and where you want to place your access points, you can add firewalls and other extra layers of security. 

In order for Zero Trust to work, you’ll also need an identity management system. Your Zero Trust architecture will need to know who or what is trying to access your system in order to determine whether or not they have the appropriate credentials. 

When building this, you will need to determine who exactly should have access to which segments and in which contexts. This is your organization’s Zero Trust policy. 

Factors like timing, devices used, and physical location can all affect your policy, but ultimately your policy should start without inherent trust for any entities. 

Implementing your Zero Trust policy and architecture can take time. Once the architecture is in place, you will need to set up protocols for monitoring it. 

An important component of Zero Trust is that all logs must be monitored. You should also make sure you are regularly updating your Zero Trust policy to best reflect current security risks. 

Zero Trust: Final Thoughts

The Zero Trust framework is just one of many approaches to cybersecurity, and while it may not be effective in every scenario, it has proven to be effective for organizations in many different industries. 

Implementing a Zero Trust framework can stop security threats before they happen by limiting user access and requiring constant security verification.