Zero-trust security has gained prominence over the years and has become the foundation of many businesses’ cybersecurity policies. A zero-trust approach to cybersecurity treats every attempt to access resources as a potential threat, providing businesses with higher quality and more proactive threat detection.

Ultimately, it decreases the risk of data breaches and insider threats. Through machine learning, a zero-trust policy can identify threats early and address them more efficiently than previous security models.

Zero-trust security is integral to businesses as environments shift to hybrid models, requiring comprehensive and adaptive security. However, moving to zero-trust architecture can be a long process requiring extensive planning and rigorous commitment to protect all resources.

Understanding Zero-Trust Security

Unlike the traditional perimeter security strategies that monitor users accessing and leaving the network through firewalls and network tools, zero-trust security architecture maintains a more holistic approach by assuming all connections are a threat.

Zero-trust architecture has three primary duties by default: log and inspect all network traffic, limit and control network access, and verify and secure resources.

The zero-trust architecture protects data and resources by making them inaccessible, only providing least-privilege access on a limited basis under specific circumstances. All connections must be authorized and verified based on the business’s security policies, conditional requirements, and context from available data sources.

Over the past years, zero-trust security has risen in popularity because it addresses today’s hybrid cloud approach. It is designed to be adaptable to verify every user, connection, device, and transaction while providing continuous, proactive, and precise threat management.

Additionally, it provides businesses with reduced subnet traffic and enhanced network performance, improves your ability to handle network errors, simplifies the logging and monitoring process, and provides quicker breach detection.

One real-world example of applying the principles of zero-trust security architecture can be seen in a financial institution. Let’s consider a large bank that wants to enhance its security measures to protect sensitive customer data and mitigate the risk of cyber attacks.

Traditionally, the bank relied on perimeter security strategies that monitored user access and traffic leaving the network through firewalls and network tools. However, with the increasing sophistication of cyber threats and the adoption of hybrid cloud environments, the bank recognizes the need for a more robust and holistic security approach.

By implementing a zero-trust architecture, the bank can address these challenges effectively. Here’s how the various aspects of zero-trust security architecture apply in this example:

  1. Log and inspect all network traffic: The bank sets up comprehensive logging and inspection systems that monitor and analyze all network traffic within its environment. This allows for the detection of anomalous behavior, potential threats, and suspicious activities.
  2. Limit and control network access: The bank implements strict access controls and policies, ensuring that users, devices, and connections are granted the least-privilege access necessary to perform their specific tasks. Every access request is evaluated and authenticated based on the user’s identity, device security posture, and other contextual factors.
  3. Verify and secure resources: The bank employs strong authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, to verify the identity of users and devices attempting to access sensitive resources. It also implements encryption and data protection measures to secure the data in transit and at rest.

By adopting a zero-trust approach, the bank significantly improves its security posture. It ensures that every user, connection, device, and transaction is continuously verified, reducing the risk of unauthorized access and potential breaches. The granular control and contextual evaluation enable the bank to adapt to changing security requirements and respond proactively to potential threats.

Moreover, the zero-trust architecture provides additional benefits to the bank’s network infrastructure. It helps reduce subnet traffic and improves network performance by minimizing unnecessary data transfers. The simplified logging and monitoring process enables quicker analysis of security events and easier identification of potential breaches.

Zero-Trust Security and Insider Threats

An insider threat is a potential for employees or otherwise authorized personnel to use their authorized access to harm the business intentionally or unintentionally. Because a zero-trust policy provides strong protection against outsider threats, insiders can potentially pose the most significant threat to security.

One of zero-trust architecture’s best defenses against insider threats is a least-privilege policy. This policy ensures users only have the lowest access level needed to fulfill their duties. This way, no one has extraneous access that can potentially threaten data security.

Monitoring activity and understanding what is considered “normal behavior” or expected behavior based on job requirements and access is also essential to maintaining a zero-trust policy. With an understanding of normal behavior, an automated response is initiated whenever security systems detect anomalous behavior.

Zero-trust security principles include mediating, logging, and analyzing all access and verifying every user that accesses the data or requests access to new resources.

By assuming all users, activity, and transactions are a potential security threat, a zero-trust policy ensures a higher level of security and defense against insider threats.

Consider a real-world example of a healthcare organization. To comply with HIPAA and other regulations, the organization must protect sensitive patient data and prevent potential harm caused by insider threats. Healthcare institutions handle vast amounts of confidential information, making them attractive targets for both external attackers and malicious insiders.

To address the potential risks posed by authorized personnel, such as employees or contractors, the healthcare organization adopts a zero-trust policy with a focus on mitigating insider threats. Here’s how the various aspects of zero-trust security architecture apply in this example:

  1. Least-privilege policy: The organization implements a least-privilege policy that ensures employees are granted only the minimum level of access required to perform their job responsibilities. This approach minimizes the risk of insiders abusing their access rights or accidentally causing harm by limiting their privileges to the necessary systems, applications, and data.
  2. Monitoring and anomaly detection: The organization employs robust monitoring systems that track user activity and analyze it against baseline behavior. By establishing patterns of expected behavior for each role within the organization, any deviations or suspicious activities can be detected promptly. Automated responses are triggered when security systems detect anomalous behavior, such as accessing unauthorized resources or attempting to download a large volume of sensitive data.
  3. Mediation, logging, and analysis: The organization mediates all access attempts and logs every action taken by authorized personnel. This includes verifying every user and their access privileges when attempting to access data or requesting access to new resources. The logs provide an audit trail that can be used for forensic analysis and investigation in case of any security incidents involving insiders.

By adopting a zero-trust approach, the healthcare organization significantly reduces the risk of insider threats. The least-privilege policy ensures that employees only have access to the information and systems necessary for their specific roles, minimizing the potential impact of any unauthorized activities. Continuous monitoring and anomaly detection enable early detection of suspicious behavior, allowing for timely intervention and investigation.

Zero-Trust Security and Data Breaches

A data breach occurs whenever an unauthorized party accesses sensitive or confidential data, including but not limited to social security numbers, bank account numbers, healthcare data, or corporate data, such as customer records, financial information, or intellectual property.

Data breaches cost businesses the public’s trust and a lot of their own money. Businesses can lose millions of dollars due to a data breach in both lost business and fines. While no security system can protect a business from every single data breach, safeguarding your data with comprehensive zero-trust security can fortify your defenses.

A zero-trust security approach assumes anyone or anything attempting to make a connection is potentially compromising or malicious until proven otherwise. As a result, the zero-trust architecture continuously authenticates, authorizes, and validates.

Giving users the least-privileged access is also part of the first-line defense against data breaches. Without extraneous permissions, there are fewer avenues for bad actors to exploit.

Lastly, all network activity must be under comprehensive and continuous monitoring to minimize the possibility of a data breach. Monitoring user activity should include reasonable expectations on how users interact with resources based on their job roles and responsibilities.

Let’s consider a real-world example of a retail e-commerce company that processes a large volume of customer data, including sensitive payment information and personal details. With the increasing number of data breaches reported in the industry, the company decides to implement a comprehensive zero-trust security approach to safeguard customer data and protect its reputation.

Here’s how the various aspects of zero-trust security architecture apply in this example:

  1. Continuous authentication, authorization, and validation: The company implements a zero-trust architecture that ensures every connection and user attempting to access its systems and data is continuously authenticated, authorized, and validated. This involves strong authentication mechanisms, such as multi-factor authentication, to verify the identity of users and devices. Any suspicious or unauthorized access attempts are flagged for further investigation and intervention.
  2. Least-privileged access: The company adopts a least-privileged access policy, granting users only the minimum level of access required to perform their specific job functions. By minimizing extraneous permissions, the attack surface is reduced, and potential avenues for bad actors to exploit are minimized. This approach ensures that even if an unauthorized party gains access to one user’s account, they would have limited access to sensitive data and systems.
  3. Comprehensive and continuous monitoring: The company implements robust monitoring systems that track and analyze all network activity within its infrastructure. User activity is closely monitored, and reasonable expectations are established for how users should interact with resources based on their job roles and responsibilities. Any deviations from normal behavior or suspicious activity are quickly detected, triggering automated responses or alerting security teams for immediate investigation.

By implementing a zero-trust security approach, the e-commerce company significantly strengthens its defenses against data breaches. It assumes that any connection or user could potentially be compromising or malicious until proven otherwise, ensuring a proactive and cautious approach to security. The continuous authentication, authorization, and validation mechanisms add layers of protection, reducing the likelihood of unauthorized access and data breaches.

Implementing Zero-Trust Architecture

Implementing zero-trust architecture can be a long and complicated process. Businesses most often have complex, hybrid environments, which can complicate policies. Building infrastructure also requires various tools and software, requiring a costly investment.

Legacy systems can even further complicate migrating to zero-trust architecture. Some may even require rebuilding from the ground up.

While there is much to consider when implementing zero-trust architecture, the process can be boiled down into six basic steps: identify subjects and users, identify owned assets, identify critical processes and risks, formulate policies, and identify solutions. Finally, the last step is to deploy the plan and closely monitor it on a trial basis.

Businesses must first identify users and their access permissions, taking note of those with special privileges. It is essential that these changes still enable users to perform their required responsibilities.

Next, identify the business’s assets and devices, such as hardware, laptops, phones, and applications, so the architecture can adequately observe and evaluate access. Once all assets are catalogued, establish a process for handling resource access requests, beginning with low-risk processes before migrating to more critical ones.

Identify candidates for zero-trust architecture by considering the asset’s importance, who and what will be affected, and the current resources used in the workflow. Prioritize which candidates should be migrated to zero-trust first, then implement zero-trust architecture and monitoring, keeping a close eye so procedures can be adjusted accordingly.

When implementing zero-trust architecture, it is best practice to rigorously enforce authentication and authorization, maintain data integrity, gather data for security insights and keep all communication secure.

The Importance of Zero-Trust Security

Businesses that employ zero-trust security policies provides stronger protections for their data, making it easier to identify potential threats and smoother reaction times. With intelligent and informed monitoring and least-access policies, security is more proactive than previously popular models.

With improved and active security, businesses protect their data and reputations. A zero-trust approach helps businesses avoid costly data breaches, improve network performance, and maintain secure control over their data.

Need help with your IT systems or processes? TAG Solutions has a skilled team of managed service providers in the Albany, New York area. We are happy to help talk through your systems and offer suggestions. Contact us today!