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What is zero trust security?

Zero trust security is a type of cybersecurity strategy. This approach is sometimes used by companies and other large organizations and is intended to protect networks and data from unauthorized intrusion. A zero trust model involves users continually authenticating and verifying themselves. But how does this system work? And should you be using it?

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins

What is zero trust security?

Why use zero trust security?

Organizations may choose a zero trust strategy because of the high level of security it offers. It might not be the most user-friendly or efficient system, but it does an excellent job of discouraging and preventing hackers and intruders.

The need for strong new security measures is clear. Data breaches and ransomware attacks are on the rise, with businesses losing huge amounts of money every year as a result. Energy grids, healthcare providers, and other essential infrastructure have all been targeted with cyberattacks in recent years.

Zero trust architecture offers a robust alternative to traditional secure access management systems, though it has its drawbacks.

How zero trust works

As the name suggests, zero trust is a security strategy in which a user is assumed to be a threat until proven otherwise, and in which user access is heavily dependent on repeated authentication.

The zero trust security model works on the principle that no previous action a user has taken within an online ecosystem should privilege them with access to any other area. Just because you signed in with a password to access your work device doesn’t mean you can automatically access any other part of your company’s network.

Traditionally, organizations like businesses and government agencies relied heavily on endpoint security. An endpoint is any device on the perimeter of a network which, if compromised, could give someone access to other areas of that network. An example of endpoint security is the password or the anti-malware software on an employee’s laptop.

Zero trust architecture isn’t built around the idea of protecting the network perimeter, however. Instead, user identity must be repeatedly authenticated, spreading the security focus across the entire network.

Zero trust minimum requirements

What are the minimum requirements needed for a zero trust security model?

Identity authentication

Users who send access requests to any part of the protected network must confirm their identity. Instead of logging in once and then being able to operate freely for an indeterminate amount of time, the user is required to authenticate themselves each time they try to interact with another part of the network, even if they’ve recently accessed it. This process could involve passwords, biometrics, and multi-factor authentication.

Data protection

Sensitive data should only be accessible through narrow, carefully controlled channels, set behind multiple layers of security. In a zero trust network, a user must confirm their identity multiple times on the journey to gain access to any part of a private network.

Secure devices and endpoints

A zero trust policy doesn’t replace endpoint security — it adds to it. As well as building additional defensive layers throughout the rest of the network, endpoint devices like computers, smartphones, servers, and routers must all be properly secured. This can be done with anti-malware software, multi-factor authentication, password managers, and VPN encryption.

Analytics and access control centers

To maintain and improve the performance of a zero trust security system, a centralized control and management portal should be used to monitor the network, gather analytics, and resolve false positives.

Automation

A zero trust system needs a degree of automation to function effectively. If every authentication process on a company’s network needed the involvement of a human moderator, the system would quickly become too slow and ineffective to be used at scale. For that reason, in addition to having an access control portal, basic functions of the system (like authentication) should be automated.

Use cases and examples

The zero trust strategy has a number of clear use cases and can mitigate the following risk factors.

Endpoint threats

If a network has numerous endpoints which are themselves not highly secure (for example, if a company has a high number of remote workers) zero trust can limit the damage caused by an endpoint breach. When a hacker takes control of one endpoint — an employee’s smartphone, for example — they still need to authenticate themselves, possibly using biometrics or other devices, to access sensitive data.

Phishing emails

Because zero trust network access is never granted automatically, phishing emails pose less of a threat to an organization. If one employee accidentally clicks on a malware-delivery link in a phishing email, their device or account might be infected. However, as with compromised endpoints, the malware can’t spread far beyond its initial infection point, as access to one node on the network does not automatically grant access to any other node.

Insider threats

Insider threats involve an agent within an organization using their access privileges to cause the organization harm, perhaps by initiating a data breach. But with a zero trust policy, no insider ever has unrestricted access to an organization’s files or networks. They can send access requests, but these can be tracked and monitored closely through a centralized control portal, making it hard for them to operate undetected.

An alternative solution

While zero trust architecture can make organizations harder to breach, this solution will not be practical for everyone. A large global enterprise with hundreds of employees may find that productivity and efficiency suffer in a system where every step of every process demands additional security protocols.

An alternative solution could be a VPN. VPNs are private networks that allow users to send and receive data through a secure encrypted tunnel. As a result,endpoint devices are safer and remote users are less likely to accidentally expose sensitive information.

With services like NordLayer, you can ensure that all members of your organization are protected with encryption, and can quickly access and share the data they need without compromising on security.

While NordLayer is particularly useful for companies and large organizations, individual internet users should also consider using a VPN. Apps like NordVPN offer high quality encryption, lightning fast speeds, and a range of other features to help you stay safe. These tools aren’t just for encryption; there are many other interesting VPN uses, from protecting your privacy to shielding your IP address.

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Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm Higgins Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm is a content writer specializing in cybersecurity and tech news. With a background in journalism and a passion for digital privacy, he hopes his work will empower people to control their own data.