What is Zero Trust? Principles, Benefits, and Use Cases

Zero Trust is a model that requires all users, devices, and applications to be continuously authenticated, whether inside the organization’s perimeter or in a location on the other side of the globe.

The cornerstone principles of Zero Trust include:

  • Verify Explicitly: Departing from traditional “trust but verify” methods, this principle focuses on always authenticating and authorizing with information available like user identity, location, devices, workload, data, etc.,
  • Least Privilege Access: Access is restricted to what’s essential at the right time and with just enough access, thus preventing lateral movement and unauthorized access to other network parts.
  • Assume Breach: Operating under the assumption that breaches will happen, Zero Trust prioritizes detection, response, and rapid recovery to minimize the impact of security breaches and the blast radius.

Let’s take a closer look at Zero Trust, its role in cybersecurity, and the principles that make it such an effective approach.

What is Zero Trust?

The idea of Zero Trust as a framework isn’t new since it’s been around for more than a decade. In 2010, Forrester Research analyst John Kindervag used the term “zero trust model” to describe his view of the cybersecurity needed by organizations in the 2020s, although research around the idea of zero trust has been around since 1994. Zero Trust was based on Kindervag’s belief that risk is an inherent factor for a computer network, regardless of its location. His motto was “never trust, always verify.” Organizations have increasingly adopted this attitude toward computer security since the COVID-19 pandemic, since it minimizes the risk of data breaches and ransomware attacks from both outside and inside the organization.

While businesses have been undergoing Digital Transformation for many years, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 significantly increased the pace of this change. Organizations could no longer count on employees to work in a single protected location like an office. A workplace could mean anywhere: A kitchen table, the local library, a plane, or a neighborhood coffee shop. While this was a liberating experience for many employees, it became a challenge for organizations as they now needed to secure, protect and defend their corporate devices and employees personal devices Computer breaches and ransomware attacks became much more common after 2020, and as a result, organizations need to adopt ransomware best practices and tighter security protocols to protect their most valuable resources.

Increased interest in Zero Trust can be seen in the statistics of its potential growth. MarketsandMarkets says the Zero Trust architecture market will be worth about $17.3 billion in 2023 and will grow to $38.5 billion by 2028 at a rate of 17.3%. Meanwhile, the Forrester Research Security Survey 2022 found that 83% of global companies have adopted or plan to adopt a Zero Trust framework.

The market growth of a framework that has been around for over a decade can be explained by a few emerging trends – increasing numbers of threat actors and evolving technologies that are challenging for security teams to maintain.

Principles of Zero Trust Security

As noted above, Zero Trust isn’t a service or product; it uses existing and new technologies to create a Zero Trust environment. Several principles form the foundation of this framework.

Verify Explictly Zero Trust departs from traditional network security strategies, which mostly adopt the “trust but verify” method. Zero Trust moves almost 180 degrees in the opposite direction. It requires continuous authentication and authorization of whether a user, device, or application is trying to access the network, a device, data, etc. For example, users may be asked to verify their identity thru Multi-Factor Authentication, MFA<when accessing their workplace network. Every time they want to use another part of the network, they must go through the verification process again. This means that no person, device, or program is automatically granted unlimited access to the computer network, since they verified their identity when they first entered.

Least Privilege Access

Under Zero Trust, users, devices, and applications are only given access to what they absolutely need at the moment they need it As part of designing a Zero Trust architecture, companies need to decide who gets access to what resources allow them to access any other part of the network. This means that if a hacker fakes credentials to get into one part of the network, they can’t access any other part since they won’t have the proper access privileges.

Assume Breach

Zero Trust is founded on the belief that breaches will happen. Instead of focusing security efforts primarily on preventing unauthorized access, companies must focus on detecting intrusions, responding to them, and quickly implementing recovery capabilities to reduce the damages caused by a breach quickly.

What are the Benefits of Zero Trust?

Zero Trust is the most appropriate  security strategy for modern IT environments. As data modernization grows by leaps and bounds, Zero Trust offers organizations more security than older methods, which often require just one level of authentication. Some of the benefits of Zero Trust include:

  • Reduced Attack Surface: When you implement strict access control, you provide a defense against ransomware and reduce the attack surface for your organization. This means you limit potential entry points for attackers, thus limiting the number of breaches or ransomware attacks you face.
  • Prevention of Lateral Movement: Micro-segmentation in computer networks restrict an attacker’s ability to move laterally to other network parts. This means that even if an attacker or virus gains access to one segment of the computer network, it can’t move to another, therefore making it easier to quarantine the problem.
  • Improved Data Security: Zero Trust relies on the principle of least privilege. This means that only authorized users can access specific data, and only that data. The least privilege principle helps limit the risk of unauthorized access.
  • Improved Security for Remote Work: The remote or hybrid workplace is a reality in 2024. Zero Trust doesn’t rely on location. Therefore, anyone attempting to access the network (whether inside or outside the office), must undergo similar verification. This makes it more difficult for an attacker or malicious program to exploit any of the vulnerabilities associated with remote access.
  • Compliance and Regulatory Benefits: By enforcing strict access controls and continuously monitoring a user’s activities, Zero Trust helps maintain regulatory compliance. This is particularly useful in healthcare, finance, and governmental organizations.
  • Reputation Enhancement: When an organization adopts a Zero Trust framework, it enhances its reputation with partners, stakeholders, and customers. Zero Trust also shows your increased commitment to protecting sensitive data.

Challenges and Considerations of Zero Trust

As with any new strategy, implementing Zero Trust can present organizational challenges. These challenges may include:

  • Infrastructure Compatibility: It can be difficult for an organization with a legacy infrastructure to seamlessly implement Zero Trust principles. Aligning existing systems with Zero Trust requirements can strain resources and increase complexities for your IT team.
  • Complexity of Implementation: When an organization adopts a Zero Trust framework, it often results in a significant overhaul of previous security policies and technologies. This can result in planning challenges when moving to Zero Trust, implementing its principles, and continuously managing them.
  • Balancing Security Needs with User Convenience: An organization must balance stringent security measures and user convenience. Users will tire of repeatedly reauthenticating themselves if this balance isn’t struck. If your security measures are too strict, frustrated users are more likely to seek out security workarounds that create new problems.
  • Continuous Monitoring and Analytics: Zero Trust depends on the continuous monitoring of user and device behavior, which means it will generate lots of data. The organization must then analyze and respond to any security incident it detects, which requires new threat intelligence capabilities.
  • Costs: The adoption of Zero Trust often results in increased upfront costs. These costs can include investment in new technologies, hiring skilled personnel, and conducting trainings.

Implementing a Zero Trust Security Framework

Implementing and leveraging a Zero Trust framework involves several essential steps that align to Zero Trust’s core pillars, including:

Verify Explictly

  • Perform a Comprehensive Asset Inventory: Identify and catalog all the devices, applications, and data your organization uses or collects. You must do this for assets both on-premises and in the cloud, and you can use automated tools to discover and take inventory of these assets. Don’t forget to regularly update your inventory to account for changes in your network.
  • Start Using Multi-factor Authentication (MFA): Requiring users to provide multiple forms of authentication before they can access your network is crucial. This practice reduces the chances of unauthorized access, even if an attacker has compromised one part of a user’s credentials. Be sure to find an MFA solution that can support various ways to authenticate users.
  • Authenticate and Authorize Based on All Available Data Points: Use a comprehensive set of data points to both authenticate and authorize users. This means considering a wide range of contextual information, such as user behavior, device health, location, and time of access. By assessing multiple data points, organizations can make more informed decisions about granting or denying access, enhancing the security posture and adaptability of the Zero Trust model.

Least Privilege

  • Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC): Manage and control access to resources based on the roles of individual users within an organization. In a Zero Trust framework, RBAC ensures that users are granted access permissions based on their specific roles and responsibilities and aligns with the principle of least privilege by giving users the minimum level of access needed to perform their tasks.
  • Just in Time (JIT) and JEA (Just Enough Access): Provide users with access only when necessary and in the minimum amount required to complete their tasks. JIT and JEA help reduce the attack surface by dynamically adjusting access privileges based on immediate needs. Users get access just in time for their tasks and just enough to fulfill those tasks, limiting exposure to potential security threats.

Assume Breach

  • Create a system to continuously monitor real-time user and device behavior and use Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) tools to identify unusual activity. Then, formulate an incident response plan that will help mitigate security incidents and quickly restore compromised data or systems. New threats occur all the time, so it’s critical to update and review your monitoring rules to adapt to these new threats.
  • Education and Training for Employees: Cybersecurity strategies often overlook this element, so make sure you educate your employees about Zero Trust. The more your employees know about its principles and why Zero Trust matters to the organization, the easier it will be for them to maintain a secure environment. Conduct regular exercises to train them on identifying phishing attempts and social engineering.
  • End-to-End Encryption: This security measure ensures data remains confidential and secure throughout its entire transmission path, from the source to the destination. End-to-end encryption is crucial for protecting sensitive information as it travels across networks and prevents unauthorized access and eavesdropping, aligning with the principle of continuous data protection within a Zero Trust architecture.

The Difference Between Zero Trust and Traditional Security Models

Traditional security strategies rely on the “trust but verify” method. Once a user is authenticated with a password and perhaps MFA, this user or device is behind the firewall. This means they can access any part of the network, including places they aren’t allowed. When employees worked in a centralized office location, it was easy for an organization to create a perimeter that meant that access to sensitive data was limited to individuals or devices behind the firewall. However, as cloud computing has become ubiquitous and remote work is no longer just an occasional situation, the “trust but verify” method has made it easier for viruses, hackers, and ransomware specialists to exploit its vulnerabilities. An attacker could be inside a network for hours, days, or even weeks before being detected.

Adopting a Zero Trust strategy can turn this situation around dramatically. Whether a user is inside an organization’s office standing right next to the machine they want to access or a thousand miles away, that user must authenticate themselves with the appropriate credentials. Least privilege means restricting access to only what that user requires. Plus, if they want to use other network segments, they must reauthenticate themselves. The user’s movements are continuously monitored, and if any inappropriate behaviors are detected, they’re immediately quarantined, and recovery operations are put into practice.

Zero Trust Use Cases

Some of the most common uses for a Zero Trust security model include:

  • Replacing or Assisting a VPN: VPNs aren’t ideal for protecting your organization against modern risks and attacks. Augmenting it with Zero Trust provides that extra layer of protection you need.
  • Providing Greater Security for Remote Work: It can be sometimes difficult for an employee who is offsite to easily gain access to the network through a VPN. Adopting a Zero Trust security model enables workers to gain secure network access quickly and securely, regardless of their location.
  • Improved Access Control for the Cloud or Multi-Cloud: Since Zero Trust verifies all requests regardless of their source or destination, it reduces the chances of unauthorized cloud-based access.
  • Rapidly Onboarding Contractors: Zero Trust allows your organization to grant least-privilege access to outside parties that typically rely on computers not overseen by your IT team.

As statistics and surveys show, organizations of all sizes are adopting a Zero Trust security framework for the increased security and benefits it provides. Some of these organizations include:

Dropbox

One of the leading cloud-based file-sharing and collaboration platforms, Dropbox adopted Zero Trust to improve its platform security. By enforcing strict access controls and continuous monitoring, the adoption of Zero Trust has resulted in increased protection for user data and let Dropbox address regulatory compliance requirements more effectively.

Google

A leading proponent of Zero Trust principles, Google’s adoption of this strategy has improved remote access for users and employees through MFA and identity verification and has significantly enhanced its security posture by reducing attack surfaces.

Forrester Research

Forrester undertook a complete cybersecurity posture transformation, including overhauling access privileges and continuously monitoring and educating its workforce about Zero Trust. This resulted in improved threat detection, allowing the company to respond to potential attacks more effectively. Forrester’s continuous employee education and training has also improved the overall security awareness of its staff, making them less vulnerable to phishing attacks or social engineering.

Coca-Cola European Partners

The European division of Coca-Cola has also adopted Zero Trust to better protect its digital infrastructure. Their implementation included identity verification, encryption, and continuous monitoring. This improved the security of its supply chain by ensuring that only appropriate users have access to sensitive data and reduced the risk of insider threats and unauthorized access.

Conclusion

In today’s evolving digital landscape, organizations must protect their most valuable resources from ransomware attacks, unauthorized access, and insider threats. As work becomes more remote or hybrid-oriented, ensuring these resources are protected is even more critical. The Zero Trust data framework provides all these protections more robustly than older models that worked on “trust but verify but trust” models.

Veeam can help your organization implement Zero Trust principles by providing you with one of its most essential elements: Data backup, recovery, and resilience. As an industry leader in the space, Veeam will work with your organization to better protect your most critical resources. 

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