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Paolo for Mia-Platform

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Zero Trust Architecture: Principles and Practical Use Cases

The constant progression of technology brings a drawback in the form of increased cyber threats. In recent years, there has been a surge in the rate of cybercrimes and threats to various organizations, as in the cases of LastPass and Twilio.

These attacks come in various forms: phishing attacks, malware, email attacks, IoT, DDoS, and other attack vectors. In this landscape, enterprises need solutions that enhance security and provide robust protection against the constantly evolving internet threats.

The zero trust architecture (ZTA) is a security approach based on the principle that “trust is good, control is better”. It assumes the need to treat every access request as potentially dangerous and conduct a thorough check before granting access, regardless of the requester’s identity or location. It’s a concept that emphasizes proactive, granular, and dynamic approaches to safeguarding data and resources.

This article dives deep into the following:

  • The three pillars of ZTA and its principles;
  • The advantages and disadvantages of migrating to a ZTA;
  • Some practical use cases of ZTAs and how organizations can leverage them to fortify their defenses.

What is a ZTA?

The term “zero trust” refers to the cybersecurity concept that guides the development of defense strategies that deviate from the static, network-based perimeters and instead focus more on users, assets, services, and resources. ZTA assumes an organization should never grant implicit trust and should prioritize securing resource access irrespective of network location, subject, or asset.

The principle behind zero trust is that “every device, user, and application is untrusted”. It is an end-to-end approach to securing enterprise networks, resources, and data—it encompasses identity, credentials, operations, endpoints, access management, hosting environments, and interconnecting infrastructure.

This security concept safeguards modern digital businesses, including DevOps, robotic process automation (RPA), public and private clouds, and SaaS apps. Companies like Microsoft, AWS, and Google have created ZTA frameworks and solutions, which is a testament to its popularity.

What is zero trust network access (ZTNA)?

Zero trust network access (ZTNA) is a critical component of the zero trust model, emphasizing a context-aware and proactive approach to remote access management. It offers centralized management and flexibility for IT and security teams to achieve an effective zero trust model based on defined access control policies.

ZTNA is often implemented through various technologies and solutions, including software-defined perimeter (SDP) solutions and secure access service edge (SASE). It utilizes identity-based authentication to establish trust and distributes access to internal applications while concealing physical network data like IP addresses.

Limitations of traditional security models

The traditional security model, often known as the perimeter-based approach, is no match for the threats within our dynamic and ever-evolving environments for the following reasons:

  • It relies heavily on the idea that everything within the network perimeter is trustworthy and uses perimeter defenses, like firewalls and virtual private networks (VPNs), to keep threats out.
  • Authorization is checked only at the perimeter, and an attacker can avoid the authorization perimeter through software bugs.
  • Since this authorization applies only to one layer, once an attacker enters a network, they can move laterally through it until they come across a target.

The limits of traditional perimeter security are more evident as cloud-based assets and remote work become prevalent, increasing the proliferation of security blind spots. As a result, attackers can easily infiltrate a business network using traditional security models.

According to IBM, there was a 15% rise in the worldwide cost of data breaches in 2023. Meanwhile, the Identity Security Threat Landscape (ISTL) report states that 71% of organizations have suffered from confidential data loss through employees, ex-employees, and third-party vendors.

Why is a zero trust strategy important?

Organizations increasingly align their security policies with business goals rather than leaving cybersecurity as an afterthought. Adopting the zero trust approach can boost business flexibility and enhance overall security, thus preventing reputational harm, financial losses, and regulatory penalties.

Moreover, ZTAs employ rich intelligence and analytics technologies like security information management, advanced security analytics platforms, and user behavior analytics. Thus, security experts leverage it to observe real-time network activities for more intelligent defense strategies.

How does zero trust work?

The ZTA concept handles security tasks by combining various security controls and processes. These security processes include identity and access management (IAM), risk-based multi-factor authentication (MFA), next-generation firewall (NGFW), next-generation endpoint security, end-to-end encryption, and robust cloud workload technology. Together, they authenticate and verify the health of assets and endpoints before authorizing access requests for resources or a more comprehensive network.

The ZTA divides security into multiple layers. It eliminates pre-authorized access and enforces specific user access controls at a highly granular level. Thus, authentication and authorization (subject and device) are performed before a connection on a corporate network is established.

ZTA requires organizations to enforce risk-based access controls, continuously inspecting, monitoring, and logging interactions to identify and verify user and systems access. Effectively implementing ZTA necessitates comprehensive monitoring and verification of users, traffic, and application identity attributes, including those encrypted across different environment segments.

Foundations of the zero trust architecture

The ZTA is built upon foundational pillars and principles designed to fortify security in modern technologies.

Pillars of zero trust

Zero trust operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify”. According to the NIST, organizations should develop a zero-trust strategy based on these guiding principles applied across the six core pillars.

  • Applications;
  • Data;
  • Endpoints;
  • Identities;
  • Infrastructure;
  • Network.

Principles of zero trust

Every organization has its needs in terms of security depending on the size, industry, existing infrastructure, and risk profile. As a result, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to implementing ZTA in an organization. The following core principles create the foundation for a ZTA.

  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): MFA is a principle of zero trust that enhances security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of verification before gaining access to a system or application. It often involves presenting two or more authentication factors like PIN, security questions, email verification, text messages, biometric ID checks, etc. Before authorization is given, each verification step must be confirmed.
  • Micro-segmentation: Micro-segmentation is breaking up security perimeters into small logical units and applying policies to control access to data and applications within these segments. This limits lateral movement for attackers even if they gain access to a part of the network without separate authorization. Security teams use this to determine how applications share data, regulate data transfer limits between servers and applications, and implement authentication processes for specific interactions.
  • Least privilege access controls: ZTAs enforce least-privileged access controls, establishing trust based on context. Using role-based access control (RBAC), companies can authorize and restrict system access to users, devices, and applications based on their roles. So, all network traffic is prohibited by default, permitting only authorized connections. Strict authentication is mandatory before access is granted, even from familiar individuals.
  • Device Access Control: Zero trust requires strict rules on device access, as it does for users. Identity-centric controls are extended to the device endpoints to continuously verify devices, which means organizations can ensure that all endpoints accessing corporate resources are initially enrolled according to system requirements.

Pros and cons of zero trust

If you are considering implementing ZTA, remember that, like any other technological approach, it has pros and cons.

Pros Cons
ZTAs provide robust protection against security breaches ZTAs aren’t entirely immune to insider attacks
Decrease attack surface Requires more time and effort to set up
Reduce susceptibility to insider attacks Complex implementation
Limit the impact of a breach Increased cost considerations
Provide increased visibility More applications, devices, and users to monitor and manage
Offer improved data protection Introduces more data to protect

Best practices for implementing zero trust

ZTAs involve securing your endpoints, adopting the principle of least privilege, and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation. This undoubtedly demands meticulous planning and adherence to best practices to guarantee its effectiveness. Here are four core best practices for implementing a Zero Trust strategy.

  • Re-evaluate legacy investments: When implementing a zero trust strategy, assess legacy systems, processes, and tools to ensure that they align with the principles of this security approach by reviewing and enhancing data protection measures. To centralize and streamline user identity controls, ensure existing systems seamlessly integrate with solid identity management solutions, such as identity and access management (IAM) platforms.
  • Always assume breach: Consider designing a network with a zero trust mindset, assuming that threats may already exist within the network. This will help detect anomalies and automatically revoke access once malicious activity is identified.
  • Continuous monitoring: While implementing a zero trust strategy, consider proactive approaches to preventing data loss, like continuous monitoring and authentication. Even if a breach occurs, real-time monitoring can help identify and limit the ‘blast radius’ without sacrificing user experience.
  • Strong authentication mechanisms: Enforce robust authentication mechanisms, including implementing MFA. This will give a system an additional layer of protection, ensuring that only authorized users with verified identities gain access to sensitive resources.

Practical use cases of the ZTA

As more employees work remotely and organizations embrace cloud solutions, more attack vectors are inevitably exposed. Organizations can leverage the zero trust security model to apply consistent security policies across all environments, maintain a unified security strategy, and protect against potential threats.

Historically, businesses seeking remote access have often relied on traditional VPN solutions. Alternatively, the ZTA leverages secure web gateways and SASE to securely provide access for any user, from any device to any corporate resource, regardless of where it’s hosted, in the cloud or on-premises.

Google has pioneered the implementation of zero trust security through its framework “BeyondCorp“. Essentially, BeyondCorp establishes detailed access control rules for Google Cloud Platform and Google G Suite, considering variables such as IP address, device security status, and user identification.
Financial institutions handle sensitive customer data and are attractive targets for cyberattacks. For instance, Wells Fargo has proactively invested in a zero-trust security model to protect its network and customer data. “One of the key tenets of a ‘zero trust’ framework is to assess the risk exposure of the organization, which starts with privileged access”, said Sridhar Sidhu, senior vice president and head of the enterprise security services group at Wells Fargo.

How to Implement ZTA with Mia‑Platform

Mia-Platform can be instrumental in simplifying the implementation of a ZTA. It can help your organization in the following ways.

  • Connecting the product to your identity provider of choice to enable authentication and role-based authorization.
  • Allows you to configure your infrastructure by providing robust and reliable authentication and authorization mechanisms that control access to your microservices and APIs.
  • You can also standardize how your microservices are created, with security rules and access checks already in place.
  • In cases of many users, you can create groups to manage access to Mia-Platform Console and create Service Accounts to enable M2M authentication to the microservices and APIs.
  • Through Mia-Platform’s open-source Rönd project, you can create access policies and distribute security policy enforcement throughout your application. It also allows you to build an RBAC or attribute-based access control (ABAC) solution by defining roles, permissions, and users.

If you want to learn more about ZTAs and how RBAC operates, this white paper about RBAC is a great place to start.

Summing up

Unlike the traditional security model, zero trust suggests that organizations should not automatically trust any user, device, or system, even if they are inside the corporate perimeter. Though the zero trust security model is a complex and continuous interactive process, it can seamlessly be integrated into existing architectures; organizations need not remove their existing infrastructure. Implementing a zero-trust strategy goes beyond combining technological solutions and robust policies to eliminate potential threats and breaches. It involves a cultural shift toward a security-first mindset to meet the realities of today’s networks, workforces, and threats.

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