18 August 2022

What Is Zero Trust Architecture and Why Is it Important?

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Two significant trends are creating a perfect storm of cybersecurity vulnerability for businesses. The first is an ever-expanding cyberattack surface. That is, the number of possible entry points into your critical network infrastructure is growing.

The second is the increased sophistication, speed, and frequency of cyberattacks. Specifically, the attacks most likely to threaten your business in 2022 are ransomware, mobile-based malware, and attacks on internet infrastructure. Ransomware alone impacted nearly 40% of companies in 2021. 

The solution to buttoning up your network and keeping every possible entry point safe? Zero trust architecture. Below we define what it is, why it's important, and how you can get started implementing it in your organization.

What is zero trust architecture?

Zero trust architecture is a security strategy that assumes all users and devices are untrustworthy and need verification before gaining access to network resources. With zero trust, there's no reliance on predefined trust levels like "internal" or "external."

Instead, each request for data, access, or resources goes through an evaluation process. This process includes verifying the identity of the user or device, then verifying that they have the appropriate permissions to access the requested data or resources.

Imagine zero trust architecture as a security checkpoint at an airport or government building. Everyone who wants entry to the secure environment (the plane, building, or your network), must go through an identical security screening process, regardless of whether they're a first-time visitor, an employee, a VIP, or a vendor.

The three key principles of zero trust security 

According to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) guidelines, these are the three principles of zero trust security:

  • Never trust, always verify (e.g., continuous verification): Verify all users and devices before granting access to network resources.
  • Least privilege: Least privilege limits access to only the data and resources that a user needs to do their job. By reducing the number of places where sensitive data is stored and retrieved, you limit the potential for a breach or leak.
  • Network segmentation: Often referred to as limiting the "blast radius" of a network attack in cloud environments, network segmentation creates compartments within your network. This reduces the impact of a security event by isolating the breach.

Why is zero trust important?

Today’s business environment is an interconnected digital ecosystem where data moves freely between employees, devices, applications, and partners. 
This interconnectivity creates many opportunities for businesses, but also new cybersecurity risks. Unlike a traditional network, which has a well-defined perimeter, today's networks are dynamic and ever-changing. In this dynamic environment, it's critical to control access and protect data.

Think about it this way. Every connection, employee, user, and app represents a potential entry point for a bad actor to breach your system. And this potential is growing. There were over 12 billion active internet-connected devices globally in 2021. Even with a chip shortage slowing down IoT growth this year, we anticipate 27 billion active connections by 2025. 

Zero trust helps protect your network from unauthorized users, breaches, and cyberattacks. By continuously verifying the identity of users and devices and granting them only the permissions they need to do their job, you can minimize the risk of a security event.

With zero trust security architecture you can: 

  • Improve visibility and control: Gain visibility into who is accessing your network and what they're doing. 
  • Minimize your network's attack surface: Segmenting your network helps isolate an attack, minimizing the scale of a potential breach. It prevents attackers from moving freely within your network. It also makes them easier to detect.
  • Eliminate single points of failure: By distributing security controls across multiple devices and users, you can eliminate single points of failure, ultimately preventing your entire network from going down.

How can you get started with zero trust architecture?

Assessing your current network environment is the first step to building zero trust security architecture. The good news? You probably don't have to start from scratch. 

You will, however, need an inventory of your users, devices, data, and applications. Once you have a clear understanding of what you have and where it is, you can begin to implement the appropriate security controls. 

Here are a few steps to consider:

  • Take a whole-company approach: Zero trust is not just a technical solution, it's a cultural change. Implementing zero trust will require buy-in from every level of your organization, particularly executive leadership.
  • Know where you stand: Before building a zero trust environment, you need to understand your current security posture. Conduct a risk assessment of your network to identify gaps in your security.
  • Identify your critical data and assets: What data or assets would be most damaging if they were compromised? Once you understand the data and systems that are the most critical (and vulnerable) to running your business, you can prioritize where to focus your effort.
  • Build a plan: Now that you know where you stand and what's most important, you can start building a plan to get to zero trust. This is where teamwork comes in. Create a zero trust team responsible for mapping the steps needed to improve your security posture.
  • Pick a tool: Identity and access management (IAM) technology can speed up zero trust implementation. IAM solutions like Okta, Ping Identity, and SecureAuth provide advanced user authentication and access management features. 

The bottom line on zero trust

A single ransomware attack costs about $4.6 million — and that's before you pay the ransom, which will set you back (on average) another $170,000. New ransomware models, sophisticated cybercriminals, and an ever-expanding attack surface spell trouble for businesses trying to protect their data. 

Cybercriminals don't discriminate when it comes to targeting businesses, with SMEs targeted at almost the same rate as mid-to-enterprise-sized organizations. 

Don't wait for a breach to happen before you start thinking about security. By taking a whole-company approach and implementing continuous monitoring, you can minimize the risk of a successful cyberattack and build a more resilient security posture. 

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