The Path Toward a Holistic Zero Trust Architecture

Lewis Tse Pui Lung/

The Defense Department's anticipated guidelines should inspire more organizations to follow such a model, moving zero trust from a buzzword to reality. 

For far too long, zero trust has been a popular buzzword used within organizations looking to bolster security efforts, but the benefits of this model have yet to be realized. Zero trust is based on the premise that trust and access to IT resources like servers, applications and data is never granted implicitly, but must be continually evaluated. As the proliferation of cyberattacks increases exponentially, up 273% in Q1 2020 compared to Q1 2019, and traditional cybersecurity approaches continue to fail, it is more critical than ever that organizations of all sizes implement a zero trust-based cybersecurity strategy. 

Today, only about 15% of organizations follow a true zero trust strategy. The Department of Defense doesn’t want to become part of that statistic, and it’s releasing a Zero Trust Reference Architecture later this year. The goal of the architecture is to provide system design patterns and best practices to better protect critical data, users, devices, workload and networks. These anticipated guidelines should inspire more organizations to follow such a model, moving zero trust from a buzzword to reality. 

The main driver for DOD’s ZT Reference Architecture is that traditional, perimeter-based security is outdated and inadequate as cyber criminals adapt and become more sophisticated. The classic societal depiction of a hacker is a faceless villain, wearing a hoodie, in a distant land trying to hack the networks of governments, corporations and organizations. 

Organizations spend millions of dollars each year trying to lock down their networks from these types of intruders, but what many don’t realize is that an organization's greatest weakness is often those right under their nose: employees. With 53% of cyberattacks occurring as a result of human error and other internal threats occurring as a result of employees gone rogue, it’s important to realize that traditional, network-centric cyber defense approaches allow threat actors to move laterally from system to system fairly easily and potentially wreak havoc across the entire organization once they have gained network access. In contrast, a ZT-based design promotes concepts such as network micro-segmentation, which makes these types of lateral movements much harder for insiders and intruders. Having smaller, segregated networks also significantly reduces the attack surface and constrains potential damage.

As the DOD assembles this frame of reference, there are a few steps organizations can take to prepare themselves for the Zero Trust Reference Architecture, which include the following: 

Update Existing Systems

The first step to implementing a holistic zero trust approach is to determine which of the already existing network and system architectures, cyber tools and workflows are already ZT-compatible or could be easily updated. Nobody wants to start all over or continue to add even more tools to their already existing plethora of costly and complex cybersecurity solutions. In many cases, there are simple steps that can be taken, such as network micro-segmentation that would not require additional hardware or software purchases. Picture a stack of Legos: Many organizations already have the building blocks for success, but by taking those Lego blocks, re-arranging some, and evaluating where improvements can be made, a cost-effective, incremental adoption of zero trust is possible.

Evaluate Where the Gaps Lie

Once an organization has taken a look at its existing cybersecurity infrastructure, the next step is to evaluate where zero trust-related gaps lie. For example, what are the organization’s priorities with respect to user, device, network, application and data security? Does the organization have the tools in place to protect itself against advanced adversaries, ransomware attacks or insider threats? Are there weak points within the infrastructure that allow data leaks or intellectual property theft? Is the organization already using context-sensitive, multifactor authentication and software-defined perimeters, or do they need to be implemented? By taking a look at the overall security posture of the organization, the security team can get a better sense of where the organization stands as well as a clear understanding of where to focus first.

The Journey Ahead

Organizations can no longer implicitly trust those who have access to their most sensitive data and the DOD’s upcoming ZT Reference Architecture is a step in the right direction. As organizations begin to adopt the model, it is expected that companies will develop solutions that conform to this standard, which will improve the nation’s overall cybersecurity posture. That said, the road to zero trust is a long journey, not a destination. It will take larger organizations several years to truly achieve comprehensive, multilevel ZT Security. Many will start with ZT Networking and then expand to include ZT-based user, device, workload and data security. Adopting a phased, step-by-step ZT migration approach is highly recommended. 

With digital transformation efforts accelerating and attack surfaces expanding exponentially, there’s never been a better time for organizations to embrace and take zero trust seriously. The above recommendations and the U.S. government’s emerging Zero Trust Reference Architecture are intended to provide a path to begin the journey ahead. 

Torsten Staab, Ph.D., is a principal engineering fellow for Raytheon Intelligence & Space.