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How to Implement Zero Trust: A Simplified Guide

Understanding how to implement zero-trust architecture is crucial for protecting against the complexities of modern cyber threats.

10 min read

What is zero trust implementation?

Zero Trust implementation refers to the practical application of the Zero Trust security model, which is a paradigm shift in cybersecurity that moves away from traditional perimeter-based defenses.

Established to enhance the security and resilience of the nation's critical infrastructure, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA) plays a pivotal role in shaping the cybersecurity landscape. One of CISA's significant contributions to cybersecurity is the Zero Trust Maturity Model (ZTMM). The ZTMM is a comprehensive framework designed to help organizations implement zero-trust security. But this model is not just a theoretical concept; it offers actionable steps and benchmarks for organizations at various stages of their zero-trust journey.

Why is there a need for such a model? The evolving landscape of cyber threats and the constraints inherent in conventional security frameworks necessitates it.

Traditional security models often operate on the premise of "trust but verify." In the current cybersecurity landscape, however, this approach is no longer enough. With the rise of sophisticated cyber threats, insider attacks, and the increasing complexity of IT environments, there's a pressing need to shift from a perimeter-based security approach to a zero-trust architecture.

The essence of zero trust lies in its name: Trust no one, whether inside or outside the organization. ZTA is about verifying every access request, regardless of its source, and making sure that only the right individuals, using the proper devices, can access the resources they need and nothing more.

To put it simply: By adopting a zero-trust approach, organizations can significantly reduce their attack surface and ensure that their data and resources are accessed securely. Understanding how to implement zero-trust architecture is crucial for protecting against the complexities of modern cyber threats.

Pro tip

Want to read more? For a deeper dive into the history and principles of zero-trust architecture, SANS Institute provides a comprehensive overview. And Red Hat's perspective on the importance of zero trust in the current cybersecurity landscape offers valuable insights, especially regarding the challenges posed by insider threats.

The pillars of the Zero Trust Maturity Model

According to CISA, five pillars underpin the entire zero-trust framework. As outlined in the Zero Trust Maturity Model (ZTMM), these pillars are:

  • Identity: At the heart of the zero-trust approach is the principle that trust is never implicit. All access requests must be approached with the assumption that they come from an untrusted source. The identity principle dictates that resource access should be exclusive to authorized personnel. It emphasizes the need for robust identity access management, ensuring that users are who they claim to be and are granted access only to the resources they need.

  • Devices: In a zero-trust environment, it's not just about who is accessing the resources but also from where and how. The devices pillar stipulates that only trusted devices with the right security posture should be able to access organizational resources. This involves device authentication, continuous health monitoring, and verifying that devices comply with corporate security policies.

  • Networks: The networks pillar focuses on securing communication channels and implementing network segmentation. In a zero-trust model, the traditional notion of a secure perimeter is obsolete. Instead, micro-perimeters are created around individual or groups of resources so that even if an attacker gains access to the network, their movement is restricted and lateral movement is minimized.

  • Applications and workloads: As organizations increasingly adopt cloud services and decentralized IT environments, securing applications and workloads becomes more and more important. This pillar emphasizes protecting applications from threats, making certain they operate in a secure environment and are accessed securely.

  • Data: Arguably the most critical asset for any organization, the data pillar focuses on keeping sensitive data classified, encrypted, and accessible only to authorized entities. To protect data, deploy advanced encryption protocols and meticulously manage access, allowing only verified users with necessary roles. Additionally, uphold data integrity by conducting consistent audits and monitoring vigilantly to detect unauthorized modifications.

Figure 1: Zero Trust Maturity Model pillars (Source: CISA)

The ZTMM also highlights three cross-cutting capabilities, which span all pillars: visibility and analytics, automation and orchestration, and governance. These capabilities are essential for ensuring interoperability of functions across pillars and for achieving a comprehensive zero-trust approach:

  • Visibility and analytics: This capability emphasizes the need for organizations to develop and maintain a clear view of their IT environment. It involves collecting and analyzing data to detect anomalies, monitor user behaviors, and gain insights into potential security threats.

  • Automation and orchestration: As IT environments grow in complexity, manual processes become inefficient and error prone. Automation and orchestration ensure that security policies are consistently enforced and responses to security events are swift and effective.

  • Governance: This capability focuses on establishing clear security policies and procedures to ensure compliance. Governance involves defining roles and responsibilities, setting security standards, and making sure your organization's security posture aligns with your risk appetite.

In essence, the Zero Trust Maturity Model’s pillars and capabilities provide a comprehensive framework that organizations can leverage to implement a zero-trust approach effectively. Each plays a crucial role in ensuring a holistic and robust zero-trust environment, and together, they form the backbone of the zero-trust architecture.

The challenges of zero-trust implementation

Adopting zero-trust architecture (ZTA) is a transformative journey for any organization, especially for large enterprises like the federal government. While the benefits of ZTA are numerous, the path to its full implementation is filled with challenges. Let's delve into some of the primary hurdles that organizations face:

Legacy systems and zero trust

  • Implicit trust vs. adaptive trust: Traditional legacy systems often operate on the principle of "implicit trust," where access and authorization are granted based on fixed attributes. This approach is in stark contrast to the core principle of ZTA, which emphasizes adaptive evaluation of trust. Transitioning from a system that inherently trusts to one that continuously evaluates trust is a significant shift.

  • Investment in modernization: Existing infrastructures built on implicit trust principles necessitate substantial investments to realign with zero-trust principles. This requires investments beyond money: dedicated time, specialized skills, and a firm commitment from the organization.

Stakeholder engagement

  • Broad-based buy-in: Successful zero-trust adoption requires the active engagement and cooperation of various stakeholders, including management, IT staff, data and system owners, and end users. In short, it’s crucial to make sure everyone is on board—and stays on board.

  • Transitioning from siloed IT services: Historically, many organizations have operated with siloed IT services. Adopting ZTA requires a shift towards a more coordinated and collaborative approach, with organization-wide acceptance of shared architecture and governance policies.

Technological landscape

  • Evolving technology: The rapid evolution of technology means that new solutions and strategies are continually emerging. Organizations must stay updated and be flexible in their approach to ensure their zero-trust objectives remain relevant and practical.

  • Cloud technologies: The rise of cloud technologies presents both opportunities and challenges. While cloud platforms can offer more agile and scalable solutions, they also introduce new complexities in terms of security and compliance.

  • The challenges in adopting zero trust are real, but they are not insurmountable. With the right strategy, stakeholder buy-in, and a focus on continuous learning and adaptation, you can navigate these challenges and establish a robust zero-trust environment.

The 5 stages of zero trust implementation

The Zero Trust Maturity journey is about continuously enhancing and integrating tools, processes, and policies. This journey takes organizations from static, perimeter-based defenses to dynamic, context-aware, and adaptive security measures that can respond in real time to emerging threats.

Figure 2: The Zero Trust Maturity journey (Source: CISA)

Here's a more technical breakdown of the stages of implementation:

Traditional

  • Manual configurations: This stage often relies on manual firewall rules, static access control lists, and basic VPNs for remote access.

  • Static security policies: Policies are defined using fixed attributes like IP addresses, port numbers, and protocols. At this stage, there's minimal use of dynamic or context-aware policies.

  • Siloed policy enforcement: Different systems, like intrusion prevention systems (IPSs) and web application firewalls (WAFs), operate in isolation without integration or shared intelligence.

Initial

  • Beginning of automation: In the initial stage, organizations might start using tools like Ansible or Terraform for infrastructure as code (IaC) management to enable more consistent and repeatable deployments.

  • Initial cross-pillar solutions: Integration of identity access management (IAM) with network access solutions begins, allowing for role-based access controls.

  • Aggregated visibility: SIEM systems compile logs and offer an integrated perspective on security-related incidents.

Advanced

  • Automated controls: In this stage, organizations use tools like security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR) solutions to automate responses to security incidents.

  • Centralized visibility: Deployment of advanced threat intelligence platforms that integrate with various security tools to provide real-time threat detection and analysis occurs at this step.

  • Integrated policy enforcement: This stage is characterized by the use of software-defined perimeters (SDPs) and zero-trust network access (ZTNA) solutions that integrate with IAM systems to provide dynamic, context-aware access controls.

Optimal

  • Fully automated processes: At the optimal stage, organizations integrate AI and machine learning into security tools to provide predictive analytics, anomaly detection, and automated threat hunting.

  • Dynamic policies: Attribute-based access controls (ABAC) utilize dynamic policies that factor in various attributes, such as user and resource characteristics, as well as the environment, to determine access permissions.

  • Comprehensive situational awareness: This stage is defined by the deployment of user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) to continuously monitor and profile user and system behaviors, identifying deviations that might indicate a security threat.

Cross-cutting technical enhancements

As organizations’ security postures evolve, they often adopt cross-cutting technical enhancements to bolster their defenses. These advanced measures include:

  • Micro-segmentation: In advanced stages, organizations deploy micro-segmentation, breaking the network into smaller zones. Each zone has its own policies, ensuring that even if an attacker gains access to one segment, they can't move laterally across the network.

  • Endpoint detection and response (EDR): EDR solutions monitor endpoint activities continuously. They can detect malicious activities, provide detailed forensic analysis, and help in rapid incident response, making them a key tool in advanced stages.

  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA becomes standard in the advanced and optimal stages, ensuring that users provide multiple pieces of evidence before gaining access. This typically involves verification through a known credential (like a password), a possessed object (such as a smart card or token), or an inherent characteristic (for instance, biometric data).

Guidelines for implementing zero trust

Step 1: Create a specialized zero-trust team

An ideal team has members with expertise in network security, cloud architectures, endpoint security, and identity access management. Familiarity with tools such as SIEM, EDR, and ZTNA solutions is crucial.

For instance, a global financial institution should form a "Zero-Trust Task Force'' comprising network architects, cloud security specialists, and IAM experts. This team would be responsible for deploying a global ZTNA solution and integrating it with their existing IAM system.

Step 2: Choose the right zero-trust implementation on-ramp

Assess your current infrastructure to decide which on-ramp is right for you: The four main types are the network, user, device identity, applications, and data on-ramps. If your organization has a robust IAM solution, the user on-ramp might be the most straightforward. If there's a strong network security posture, the network on-ramp could be ideal.

For example, a cloud native startup with robust network practices should choose the network on-ramp. They should focus on the micro-segmentation of their current network setup and create dynamic access controls for cloud resources.

Step 3: Strengthen user, device, and application security

Deploy advanced MFA solutions, integrate EDR solutions for continuous device monitoring, and use container orchestration tools like Kubernetes with built-in security configurations for application deployment. 

For instance, an established e-commerce company could start with integrating biometric MFA for all admin accesses, deploy a leading EDR solution for real-time device monitoring, and transition to a containerized application environment using Kubernetes with strict security policies.

Step 4: Enhance network security and infrastructure

Implement micro-segmentation using solutions like VMware NSX or Cisco ACI. Deploy software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) solutions for more flexible and secure network connectivity. Use network detection and response (NDR) tools for real-time network threat detection.

For example, as part of a highly regulated industry, healthcare companies could focus on safeguarding patient data by implementing micro-segmentation across their data centers, ensuring that even if one segment were compromised, the breach wouldn't spread. They could also deploy an NDR solution for continuous network monitoring.

Step 5: Continuously monitor and refine your zero-trust strategy

We recommend three methods of continuous monitoring in this step of implementation. First, integrate AI-driven threat intelligence platforms for predictive threat analysis. Second, regularly conduct red teaming and penetration testing to identify vulnerabilities. And third, use infrastructure as code (IaC) tools like Terraform or CloudFormation to ensure consistent and secure infrastructure deployments. 

Let's assume that a tech startup has already implemented zero trust for its cloud infrastructure. After the implementation, they could integrate an AI-driven SIEM solution for advanced threat detection. They could also adopt Terraform for all infrastructure deployments to make sure that every deployment adheres to their strict security standards.

Incorporating these technical measures and tools into the zero-trust implementation process creates a robust and comprehensive security posture. Keep in mind that the threat landscape is always evolving. Stay informed and adopt the latest technologies and best practices to maintain a resilient zero-trust environment.

Wiz's approach to zero trust

Wiz plays a key role in enabling organizations to achieve Zero Trust in their cloud environments by addressing several critical aspects of this security model:

1. Comprehensive Visibility and Inventory:

  • Cloud Infrastructure and Entitlement Management (CIEM): Wiz provides complete visibility into all cloud resources, including workloads, identities, permissions, and configurations. This allows organizations to understand their cloud attack surface and identify potential security gaps.

  • Inventory of all identities and permissions: Wiz identifies and analyzes all identities (users, service accounts, etc.) and their associated permissions across the cloud environment. This helps organizations ensure least privilege and detect excessive or unused privileges, which are common attack vectors.

2. Continuous Risk Assessment and Prioritization:

  • Vulnerability scanning and prioritization: Wiz scans cloud resources for vulnerabilities and prioritizes them based on their severity and exploitability. This helps organizations focus on fixing the most critical vulnerabilities first.

  • Misconfiguration detection and remediation: Wiz identifies and flags misconfigurations across cloud resources, allowing for prompt remediation and reduced attack surface.

  • Data security and compliance assessment: Wiz helps organizations discover and classify sensitive data in the cloud, assess compliance with data privacy regulations, and prevent unauthorized data access and exfiltration.

3. Identity and Access Management (IAM) Security:

  • Least privilege policy generation and enforcement: Wiz analyzes cloud entitlements and automatically generates least privilege policies, ensuring users only have access to the resources they need to perform their jobs.

  • High-privilege identity monitoring and control: Wiz identifies and monitors high-privilege identities, alerting organizations to suspicious activities and potential insider threats.

  • Continuous identity verification and authorization: Wiz integrates with existing IAM systems to provide continuous verification and authorization for every access request, preventing unauthorized access attempts.

Ready to take the first step by understanding your current security posture? Request a cloud compliance demo with Wiz

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