Zero Trust methodology: foundations and benefits

Posted date
09/10/2023
Autor
INCIBE (INCIBE)
Zero Trust Cover

With each passing year, the scale and severity of cyber threats and data breaches is increasing. Traditional security approaches, which sought to protect this data through protection measures focused on external threats, are no longer sufficient. Currently, the implementation of comprehensive methodologies, which also address internal threats and risks in an effective and sustainable way, have become a necessity.

Many of the common security tools are not able to protect us against certain internal attacks perpetrated by insiders or errors due to the human factor, since they usually trust the entities within the network, which are implicitly protected. In turn, once the external perimeter of the network is passed, attackers have an easier time stealing confidential data, gaining elevated privileges, or installing persistent threats that are capable of operating before they are detected.

In this context, Zero Trust methodologies are  positioned as a fundamental strategy for data protection in current and future organizations, ensuring that both information and applications are secure.

In essence, the Zero Trust methodology  focuses on not trusting anything or anyone implicitly, meaning that all access requests and activities must be verified and authorized before granting access. In this way, all resources are protected, both internally and externally, and are restricted by default.

In addition, it extends responsibility for security to the entire organization, implementing ubiquitous access controls to ensure that all entities within the network are authenticated and authorized before granting them access.

Principles and foundations

The fundamentals of a Zero Trust methodology  allow defining the strategies and protection measures to be implemented within the organization, focusing on ensuring each user, device and application that accesses the systems, regardless of their location:

  • Visibility and control over who has access to what resources. This helps to quickly detect any suspicious activity and block access to resources accordingly. It also helps comply with safety regulations and policies.
  • Granular context-based policies: Access requests and rights are verified based on context, including user identity, device, location, content type, and the application being requested. Policies are adaptable, allowing continuous reevaluation of user access privileges as the context changes.
  • Reduction of the attack surface that involves minimizing the number of access points and exposure that can be exploited by an attacker. Instead of having a wide network with multiple inputs and outputs, Zero Trust promotes a flat, distributed network architecture that limits user and application access to only the resources they need to do their jobs. Therefore, by restricting access to only the specific applications and resources that a user needs to perform their work, the attack surface is reduced and the risk of lateral movement of attackers on the network is minimized, decreasing the chances of a successful attack.
  • Network segmentation that involves creating separate networks and limiting access to only authorized users and devices. This reduces the attack surface and limits the impact of security breaches.
  • Continuous verification of the identity and authorization of users, devices, and applications, leading to the removal of access to resources when they are no longer needed. This reduces the risk of insider attacks and ensures that only authorized users and devices are granted access privileges.
  • Termination of all connections to allow an  online proxy architecture  to inspect all traffic in real-time before it reaches its destination, preventing ransomware, malware,  and more. If a verification is not performed within  the established timeout, the identity or context may be  considered to have changed and additional security measures may be applied, such as requesting a new authentication or closing the connection. Timeout values  are set according to risk tolerance, usage patterns, and security levels required by the organization.

Benefits of the Zero Trust methodology

The benefits of implementing this methodology can be reflected in some of the following use cases:

  • Secure access to the company network: Today, many companies are adopting a hybrid work model, which allows employees to access applications and data from anywhere, but it has also created new security challenges. The Zero Trust methodology  allows to address them, while ensuring the security of the network.
    • The presence of a single point  of authentication reduces the exposure surface and centralizes the access control of the services required by the employee for the performance of their activity. In practice, this boils down to the fact that the fewer different authentication apps used, the better.
    • The use of NAC (Network Access Control) allows you to restrict access only to those devices that verify that they  are free of vulnerabilities. This promotes secure access to cloud applications and protects the network from potential attacks. If suspicious activity is detected, access can be revoked immediately, minimizing the impact of any attacks or security breaches.
    • Micro segmentation extends the concept of access control to any application or information, limiting it granularly to those users who really need access, and only, for as long as necessary. This results in greater network security and tighter control over access to enterprise resources. Automatic removal of access privileges when they are no longer needed also minimizes the risk of insider attacks.
  • Secure online service: Zero Trust can help implement increasingly secure online services, increasing the security of online transactions, helping to protect both the company and its customers from potential threats.
    • The use of MFA (Multi Factor Authentication) reduces the risk of credential exposure. Companies can verify the identity of users and ensure that only authorized users have access to applications and data . This significantly reduces the risk of security breaches and protects enterprise resources.
    • Continuous verification of identity and authorization is equally important to ensure that only authorized users and devices can access protected resources. In combination with MFA, it can be very powerful, such as when identity is continuously verified using different authentication factors and at specific times (when accessing sensitive information, or periodically, randomly, etc.).
    • Terminating all connections helps remedy open and unattended sessions, preventing information theft and information spoofing. This makes it possible to detect and block any malicious activity before it causes damage. 

However, a misinterpretation of Zero Trust, in which overly restrictive security controls are applied, or access to an organization's digital resources is inappropriately limited, can increase the risk of using technology or applications not authorized by the organization, to evade security controls, which is known as Shadow IT. This situation can lead to the exposure of sensitive data or the introduction of security vulnerabilities into the network. If security controls are very restrictive, employees may look for ways to circumvent them to access the resources they need to do their jobs, which can lead to unauthorized technology adoption.

The implementation of the Zero Trust strategy  must balance the level of security needed with accessibility to resources for authorized employees. In addition, it is important to educate and make employees aware of the organization's security policies and provide them with the appropriate tools and resources to perform their jobs. Therefore, the user experience must be considered when implementing these measures and work to minimize any negative impact on productivity. 

Conclusion

The Zero Trust methodology  can have a positive and very significant impact on organizations by addressing cybersecurity challenges in an increasingly connected environment.

By adopting the philosophy of "never trust  and  always verify," organizations can reduce the risk of security breaches and minimize the impact of any security incidents that occur. However, implementing the Zero Trust methodology  also presents challenges. For example, it may require significant investment in security tools and monitoring solutions, which can be difficult for some organizations to implement. In addition, the implementation of strict safety policies can result in a reduction in flexibility and efficiency over daily work, which can affect productivity.

However, as cybersecurity threats continue to evolve, adopting a Zero Trust methodology may be one of the  most effective ways to stay one step ahead and protect against future attacks that may not only be much more costly than the initial investment, but may also mean the cessation of business activity. 

However, no security strategy is 100% perfect. The application of the principles of a Zero Trust architecture  make it one of the most effective strategies today for the protection of information and the security of corporate infrastructure.
 

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