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What is zero trust security and how can it help protect your business?


Zero trust security basics

Modern businesses rely on a lot of technology systems and services to function. A complex tech stack helps companies keep up with the needs of consumers in the digital age, but this also creates more open doors that cyber criminals can take advantage of.

Traditional approaches to cyber security have placed emphasis on firmly securing the company’s network perimeter while assuming that all devices and users already inside the network are trusted and fully cleared for access. However, with significant increases in cyber attacks over the last few years, this approach doesn’t cut it anymore.

You may have heard of the zero trust model, a security strategy that helps small to medium-sized businesses stay ahead of cyber criminals. This type of security architecture can not only make it more difficult for attackers to break into a company’s network, but it can also prevent them from gaining full access to accounts and apps even if they do get in.

Here are the basics on zero trust security and how it can help your company thrive. 

What is zero trust security?

Zero trust is a modern security architecture for IT system implementation and design that maximizes protections based on the assumption that a breach is inevitable. 

Zero trust goes beyond the traditional “trust but verify” approach to security and instead uses a “never trust, always verify” model, meaning that no devices, apps, or users are ever trusted by default — even if they’re connected to a known network or have already been verified before. 

Instead of assuming anything or anyone inside a company’s firewall is safe, a zero trust approach fully authenticates and verifies every single network access request as if it comes from an open or unknown source. Additionally, all access is minimalized. A “just-enough-access” policy is applied across the board to all users — even those with higher positions at a company. Furthermore, data gathering and analysis are used to detect and respond to any anomalies as they happen. 

In a zero trust model, every single component of a company’s tech stack is given its own security perimeter. This is different from the traditional blanket security infrastructure that grants access to the full network with one login. The reason for this segmented and authenticated approach is that even if one account or app is infiltrated, a cyber criminal will not be able to access the rest of a company’s network, thus minimizing the effects of a breach.

This proactive and adaptive approach to network security can better keep up with the ever-evolving cyber environment compared to traditional IT security models, especially in an age where hybrid and remote work are common and lead to users in various locations accessing a company’s network. 

The history of zero trust

The term “zero trust” was first used in 1994 by Stephen Paul Marsh, a University of Sterling doctoral student in philosophy. In his thesis, he defined trust as a finite, mathematical quantity that goes beyond human factors or judgment and ethics.

Over 15 years later, the “zero trust” concept was first applied to computer and network security by cyber security expert John Kindervag of Forrester Research. He used the term to describe strict cyber security protocols and access control at corporations, establishing the “never trust, always verify” motto.

Google was the first company to implement a zero trust model of security in 2009. Since then, the increasing adoption of mobile and cloud services by businesses has led to an increase in the prevalence of zero trust security models, and President Biden even made an executive order in May 2021 stipulating the federal government’s adoption of zero trust architecture as part of an overall approach to cyber security best practices.

Zero trust vs. traditional IT network security

In short, traditional IT security approaches place a lot of value on where a user or device is coming from, which assumes trust that the location or IP address is legitimate without verification. On the other hand, zero trust security never assumes any level of trust. It requires significant authentication before granting access to any system, and only grants the minimum access required for a person to complete their job.

In earlier conceptions of cyber security best practices, the “castle-and-moat” model was the standard for IT security. This model prevented anyone outside the network from accessing data but granted full access to anyone inside the network. Once a user or device crossed the metaphorical moat (or network perimeter) to enter the castle (or network), they could freely access all apps and data within the company’s network.

This more straightforward approach to IT security may seem appealing because it grants faster and wider access, thus cutting down on work for employees, but it creates significant cyber vulnerabilities. If an attacker infiltrates a company’s network perimeter in a castle-and-moat system, then they gain unfettered access to all the company’s data and accounts. While zero trust requires unique logins and authentications each time an employee wants to access a specific app or account, this slow-down is well worth the added protection it lends to the business.

Key principles of zero trust security

There are five core principles of zero trust security that corporations should follow to keep data as secure as possible:

  1. Assume the worst: This is the foundation of all zero trust security systems. You can never start from a place of trust; instead, when it comes to devices and users attempting to access your network, assume guilty until proven innocent. 
  2. Accept that internal and external network threats are constant: Whereas traditional cyber security models assumed that an IT network was secure until a threat was detected, modern zero trust models assume that the network is never secure. 
  3. Don’t follow traditional IP address security rules: The location of a device or user is not enough evidence to provide trust, because this can be spoofed. 
  4. Implement MFA for every user, account, and device: Every single user should have to go through multiple levels of authentication for every single login, no matter how frequently they access the network or how high up they are at the company. 

Establish company cyber security policies: Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and so should cyber security. Businesses’ cyber security policies should be dynamic and should take as many data sources as possible into account. Monitoring and threat detection are critical, as is having a response plan that all employees are trained on.

How to implement zero trust security at your company

When it comes to implementing a zero trust security architecture for your business, there are a few ways to do so. Depending on the resources you have available, you can opt for in-house security management, partner with security services, or take a hybrid approach. 

A fully iterated zero trust architecture includes: sophisticated authentication, advanced threat detection, consistent and replicable security procedures, diverse data sources, and widespread data collection. Basically, you want to set up a system that can evolve as it detects potential threats to your network.

In conclusion, there’s no one-size-fits all approach to zero trust security, and the most important thing is to cover all your bases however works best for your company.