Access is everything within a network or system. Who has access to what and how they use that access is essential to business operations, but it can also create a vast attack surface that hackers are ready to take advantage of.
With credential theft on the rise, and new techniques like MFA-fatigue attacks (also called prompt bombs), controlling access is more important than ever for organizations of all sizes and industries.
Enter Zero Trust.
You’ve probably heard the phrase before. It’s a buzzword that’s been plastered across headlines and exhibition booths and used to mean everything from “implement multi-factor authentication (MFA)” to “limit some access” to “trust no one.”
With so much buzz, it’s hard to know exactly what Zero Trust is or if your organization is actually implementing its basic principles. But, in both theory and practice, the tenants of Zero Trust can further your security journey, improve your security posture, and keep your sensitive data safe from threat actors.
What Is Zero Trust?
A strategy that eliminates implicit user trust, Zero Trust is a strategy where every user is held to the same scrutiny when trying to access a system, program, or asset. In place of an external-only security architecture (where the perimeter of a network, not internal access points, is defended) Zero Trust employs controls at various access points within a system. This approach removes what is often referred to as “privileged access,” a kind of access where users have elevated permissions.
The “privileged access” part is important because during a cyber attack, threat actors will often try to gain privileged access to take over networks or systems. By eliminating that access, an organization can stop a threat actor in their tracks.
Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a term that is often used in place of Zero Trust. ZTNA is more the actual implementation of the Zero Trust strategy. One is hypothetical while the other is literal.
Zero Trust was coined by Forrester back in 2010, making it a relatively new concept in the already young industry of cybersecurity. As workplaces became dispersed over the years, the term became a catch-all for internal network security, utilized by a variety of technology vendors. Today, it’s easy to think the phrase has lost all meaning, but the strategy itself is still crucial for protecting access and assets.
It’s important to know what Zero Trust is not, which includes the following two terms:
- Least privileged access. Least privileged access occurs on a case-by-case basis, where a single user is given no more access than needed, for no longer than needed, to complete a task. It’s a specific instance, whereas Zero Trust eliminates the inherent access across an organization. Zero Trust is less about individual access and more about the verification and controls in place around that access.
- MFA. MFA is an important tool in the Zero Trust toolbox. It verifies a user’s identity outside of a username and password and is an effective defense against credential theft or credential-based attacks such as brute-force attacks.
Benefits of Building a Zero Trust Framework
Imagine a threat actor has found a vulnerability exploit and accessed your organization’s network. While they may have found an initial point of access, there’s still a series of metaphorical locked doors, motion sensors, and Mission Impossible-style lasers between them and your most sensitive data.
The threat actor tries a locked door and sees they need to enter credentials. They try and try, and through luck find a password that works. But wait, MFA is in place. They try an MFA-fatigue attack and again, luck strikes. But once the door is opened, they see that the user didn’t have privileged access to any assets, and any access they did have needs further verification. The attack surface has now dissolved, and the threat actor can’t make any moves. That’s Zero Trust in action.
The benefits of designing your organization’s access through a Zero Trust lens include:
- A reduced attack surface
- Improved cloud security
- Better access control across the environment
- Prevention of credential-based attacks
- Improved compliance
While Zero Trust and identity and access management are just two pieces of the cybersecurity puzzle, they are important components that can make a major difference in today’s digital, spread-out business environments, especially considering that 20% of identity observations led to ticketed incidents for Arctic Wolf in 2022.
How To Implement Zero Trust
Like any part of cybersecurity, you can’t flip a switch and suddenly be a Zero Trust organization. It’s a journey with many steps, but here are a few starting points.
The minimum requirements fall into three categories:
Identity. All users must be met with the same access controls.
Data. All data and data access must be evaluated and protected according to risk.
Devices. All devices must be secured (with endpoint management) as well as monitored.
Broadly, here are some steps any organization can take to put themselves on the path toward Zero Trust. It’s important to note that solutions — like Okta for MFA, or a managed detection and response solution that pulls in telemetry from identity sources — are a major aid in both achieving and managing a Zero Trust framework.
The general guidelines include:
- Identify and assess important access points that would require extra controls. Those can be as broad as the entire network or as granular as individual files. It’s important in this step to apply controls to every asset that is deemed critical, removing all privileged access.
- Identify the users that would utilize those access points and assets. These are the users that threat actors will target with credential-based attacks to gain more access during a breach.
- Determine what technologies or solutions to use to create the access control, such as multi-factor authentication or other identity solutions.
- Establish set polices and implement controls for set users and access points. These policies need to extend across the organization, with every user having to go through the same controls.
- Monitor controls and adjust or expand as needed. Remember, security is a journey, not a destination.
Learn more about Zero Trust with our podcast, Challenge Accepted.
Explore how Arctic Wolf makes Zero Trust possible with our Zscaler partnership.