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What is a Zero Trust Strategy?

What is a Zero Trust Strategy?

With every new innovation in programming or software development comes a slew of new risks. Cybersecurity has long been front and center for governments and major corporations, but as more and more everyday citizens fall victim to a variety of scams from phishing to DDoS attacks, cybersecurity has now become the primary consideration when planning and developing any new web or mobile application.

So why are websites and applications so vulnerable, even when developers know that hackers will try to test the limits of the digital infrastructure almost inevitably? Often, it’s a question of evaluating risk the wrong way — developers and site managers know that a flaw may emerge during development, but choose to calculate the risk of the flaw being exploited as too low to require expensive development hours of testing and re-coding to cover up the hole. 

However, for business and app owners, just one cybersecurity flaw could mean the end of users trusting your site or program. It only takes one well-publicized leak of personal or payment information to scare customers off for the long haul. This is where zero trust strategy comes in — a new method of planning and development that seeks to close all loopholes through a simple principle reminiscent of the old X-Files slogan — “Trust No One”.

But what is a zero trust strategy? What are the guidelines and components that make up this critical approach to ensuring cybersecurity? This guide breaks down all of the basics around using a zero trust strategy before you start building your next project or application.

The Basics: What is Zero Trust?

Zero Trust is a security concept focused on the principle that any organization should not automatically trust anything inside or outside its perimeter. Instead, organizations must verify anything and everything trying to connect to their platforms or systems before granting user or remote access. This is in contrast to the traditional method of cybersecurity protection, which focused on building defenses facing outward while assuming everything housed inside a particular system was trustworthy and wouldn’t pose a threat.

This strategy has become rapidly outdated over the past decade, as some of the most well-known data breaches involved hackers doing work from within a system after bypassing some simplistic firewalls meant to keep them out. Often, internal access to a system also offers hackers greater ability to truly do damage or steal sensitive information that can lead to blackmail-type situations. In fact, many education institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen victim to this, as the move to remote education (and thus, greater digital presence from a number of less tech savvy users) has opened up significant risks to organizations.

Additionally, many cybersecurity experts say that today’s enterprise IT departments must shift to a new way of thinking because the explosion of cloud computing and data storage has decentralized where companies house their data. Today, companies usually don’t have corporate data centers serving a contained network of systems as they did in previous years, but instead usually employ some applications in-house and some in the cloud. With this structure, users of all levels inside the network are accessing applications from a variety of devices from multiple locations and even potentially from around the globe. This is even more true during the current remote work environment brought on by the coronavirus.

All this is to say that companies badly needed a new approach to protecting data both internally and externally — and that’s where zero trust strategy comes in. Instead of assuming that centralized data storage was physically and digitally protected from external hacking, the ever-increasing opportunities for hackers to gain internal access has caused companies to embrace a level of paranoia about protecting their data that would have seemed excessive just a few years ago.

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What Technology Is Used For A Zero Trust Strategy?

From the languages you use to build your network and allow servers to communicate with front-end platforms, to the methods of access that allow employees to “wire in” to your network, zero trust strategy demands that companies always assume any access point or protocol can be manipulated.

A true zero trust strategy approach utilizes technologies like multifactor authentication, IAM, orchestration, analytics, encryption, scoring and file system permissions. Beyond this, adherers to zero trust strategy also design and enforce governance policies such as giving users the least amount of access they need to accomplish a specific task, thereby preventing an unauthorized user (even a trusted internal employee) from accessing levels of sensitive data that aren’t necessary to their daily work. This way, even if a hacker was to gain access to a lower-level employee’s account, the damage they would be able to do internally would be minimal.

It is important to remember, though, that zero trust strategy is less about specific security protocols and practices and more a mindset or philosophy around how an organization siloes off information. No matter how stringent employees and network users may be vetted, a single slip of use of a password on a public network (say, in an airport or hotel lobby) might allow that employee’s access credentials to be compromised.

Instead, zero trust should be thought of as a governing philosophy for who is given access to what, as well as an approach for reviewing the data within a given system and assigning access levels accordingly. Less a programming project and more a corporate-style philosophy, zero trust strategy also allows organizations to rely less on the responsibility of individual employees by pre-empting potential mistakes they might make in sharing passwords or accessing a network from an insecure location.

How Do Organizations Implement A Zero Trust Strategy?

Often, major companies will employ a series of steps to help design and implement a zero trust strategy for their specific network or systems:

Before a network or database is even built, development teams must be informed of the need to identify any potential access point that internal or external users can gain entry to and design protocols directly into the code base to limit access accordingly.

It is important to remember that implementing a truly effective zero trust strategy requires patience, investment of time and resources, and a willingness to take preventative steps that may never actually be needed. Zero trust works similar to insurance coverage — you are investing in order to mitigate the risks of major issues that may never happen. However, if the cost of a security penetration is your business’ private data or a violation of customer trust, the upfront investment is more than worth it.

Companies with more resources will often hire cybersecurity experts to either design or “stress test” the network as it’s being built. This allows for development changes to be made dynamically, instead of having to rush to rebuild the site if a loophole or zero day (an unknown vulnerability) is found once the network is live.

Zero trust strategy is also an ongoing approach, one that never ends and requires evaluation of any new addition to the network (whether to the digital infrastructure or in the form of new user permissions). As hackers continue to develop more sophisticated methods to gain access, network protection must evolve to stay one step ahead.

As an example of the above point, development teams need to ensure changes are configured properly and IP data is appropriately updated to ensure there’s no interruption in the access required for employee work or corporate transactions. Otherwise, your company’s day-to-day business could be inhibited.

Another step for companies is to hire programmers with hacking experience to try and break into the system, in order to demonstrate security vulnerabilities that may have been overlooked during the planning phase.

Finally, companies and app/site owners thinking about implementing zero trust strategy should remember that it is impossible to truly cancel out all risk. Hackers constantly shift tactics in response to initiatives like zero trust strategy, and companies should not be complacent even after taking a patient and comprehensive approach to protecting their digital infrastructure.