Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) is a security model that trains compliance teams and IT staff to never automatically trust any requests on their networks, even if they originate internally. The “never trust, always verify” mantra governs all access controls.

Related to this concept, Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) specifically secures and monitors administrative connections to internal applications and resources based on identity and context. Though it sounds challenging, ZTA simply takes a least-privilege approach to cybersecurity access.

Some key benefits of zero-trust principles include improved data protection, increased network visibility, streamlined IT operations, and a more adaptable security framework. By implementing context-aware access controls, microsegmentation, encryption by default, and Multifactor Authentication (MFA), organizations can strengthen their security postures against modern threats.

Don’t panic; ZTA is not as challenging to work with as it sounds. It’s simply a different way of approaching cybersecurity. So, let’s take a look at how it works. 

Where did the Zero Trust model for cybersecurity originate? 

Cybersecurity expert John Kindervag, an executive at Palo Alto Networks, developed the Zero Trust model while a principal analyst at Forrester Research. Essentially, the Zero Trust security model requires all users to identify themselves repeatedly, in real-time, through continuous authentication procedures, as long as they are logged on to your network.

This means users must submit repeated access requests — even though they are already logged in — and use multi-factor authentication processes even after going through regular access controls (such as passwords). 

Zero Trust security is akin to driving down the road, and at every intersection, someone asks to see your driver’s license to ensure you really should be driving that car on that street.

What is the difference between ZTA and ZTNA?

Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) and Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) both align with zero trust principles for cybersecurity, with a “never trust, always verify” approach.

ZTA refers to an enterprise security model that utilizes granular access controls, Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA), microsegmentation, and advanced threat analytics to limit lateral movement across networks. It aims to strengthen an organization’s security posture by removing implicit trust and assuming breach likelihood.

In contrast, ZTNA focuses on securing access to applications and network resources. Rather than solely relying on VPNs that grant extensive access once authenticated, ZTNA only allows vetted user identities to connect to authorized external apps or internal workloads. Access gets continuously validated based on the devices’ identity, context, and security posture.

While ZTA takes a broader ecosystem view with assumptions to align cultural and process changes, ZTNA offers providers a more prescriptive cloud-based capability to enable zero trust access use cases for the modern workforce. Robust implementation of ZTA principles and ZTNA controls limits insider threats and unauthorized access even amidst growing Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) and remote work trends.

What are the principles of Zero Trust Architecture?

Traditional cybersecurity models are designed to hold down the fort, so to speak: they secure the network perimeter to protect sensitive data against cyber-attacks perpetrated by hackers trying to launch malware, viruses, or ransomware attacks from the outside. This approach blocks unauthorized users by applying sophisticated identity and access management techniques. 

That approach, however, won’t provide much help once an unauthorized user gets past the firewalls and the authentication procedures, such as by using a stolen password. Once hackers are in, they can bring along malware and other bugs, leading to data breaches — and because traditional network architecture doesn’t restrict movement inside a network, an undiscovered hacker can do extensive damage.

The Zero Trust strategy is more difficult to breach because it launches repeated authentication requests before granting user access. Zero Trust Architecture makes it much more difficult for an unauthorized user to make lateral moves inside the network or to find a way to level up from a least privileged access account. ZTA uses network segmentation and micro-segmentation to impose strict workflow limits and to ensure that no user is granted any network access beyond what they need to do the job. 

Not only does ZTA protect a network from damage done by a hacker who got inside, but it also helps companies structure their workflow so that the attack surface becomes smaller. 

This is an important point because as more and more businesses operate increasingly interconnectedly, their attack surfaces are expanding. When a company transfers data between employees on-premises and remote workers on VPN connections at home (or to third-party contractors and cloud services), the risk of a data breach increases. 

The Zero Trust Security Model forces a company to look at specific workflows and ask: Did we ask everyone to identify themselves before we let them in the door? If we didn’t, how can we change our security model to become more closely aligned with a Zero Trust Network?

The Benefits of Zero Trust Architecture

Implementing a Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) model offers organizations several key security and operational advantages:

  • Strengthened data protection and reduced risk from breaches due to layered controls around access, encryption, microsegmentation, and least privilege principles
  • Increased visibility into threats with context-aware analytics around user activity, devices, and access patterns
  • Improved end-user experience via secure access to applications from any location on corporate or BYOD devices
  • Streamlined IT operations with simplified access built on identity rather than sole reliance on VPNs
  • Consistent security policies from the cloud to the edge enabled by integration with existing controls
  • Adaptable framework allowing incremental adoption to complement other cybersecurity initiatives

3 Common Zero Trust Architecture Approaches

Organizations have several options for adopting zero-trust architecture models. A few primary approaches include:

Zero Trust with Identity-Centric Access Controls

This approach bases access decisions on the specific user or service identity requesting resources. Granular policies get defined per identity attributes and role, with appropriate least-privilege access assigned without permitting unnecessary exposure.

Zero Trust with Microsegmentation

Microsegmentation strategies isolate resources into secure zones and limit lateral movement between network segments. Gateway controls like next-generation firewalls, routers, switches, or software agents inspect and filter traffic while enforcing access rules.

Zero Trust with Software-Defined Perimeters

This overlay-based model leverages application-layer or network-based Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP) technologies to broker resource access. Rather than implicit connectivity, granular access gets granted based on identity, context, and need through flexible, virtualized appliances.

Blending identity-centric, microsegmentation, and software-defined tenets allows a layered zero-trust approach addressing human users, service accounts, devices, and workloads across modern hybrid environments.

The Zero Trust approach and remote worker security

It may help to think of a Zero Trust network as being built not around static things, such as computers and servers on a network in an office, but rather around users and interrelated networks, connected through the Internet of Things (IoT), the public cloud, and employees who work from home on their own devices. ZTA focuses on protecting your workflow rather than the endpoints or your corporate network.

A crucial element of a ZTA network that doesn’t exist in an ordinary “guard the perimeter” network is that the Zero Trust security model checks the health of the device trying to connect to the network before it’s granted secure access. Is the VPN secure? Are connections encrypted? Can this device become an unwanted access point for least-privilege users? 

How to diagram and implement a Zero Trust solution

While still a new approach to cybersecurity, federal government agencies embraced the Zero Trust security model quickly — especially after the attack against the Office of Personnel Management in 2015, where the personal data of more than 20 million current or former government employees had been stolen from a compromised background investigation database. Many federal and law enforcement agencies quickly followed OPM and updated their security policies to Zero Trust architecture to improve their data security.

Fortune 500 and global companies have also begun implementing the zero-trust security model. Perhaps most notable among them is Microsoft, which views ZTA as the cybersecurity model of the future. Microsoft began implementing Zero Trust access control in 2015 and views ZTA as fundamental to its long-term security plans. (One of Microsoft’s goals is to abolish all passwords and replace them with biometric authentication such as fingerprints.) 

Implementing Zero Trust methodology

The Microsoft Zero Trust security model is broken down into layers, as shown in the diagram here and outlined below:

  • First, verify the user’s identity, establish least-privilege user rights, and replace passwords with biometric-based access.
  • Second, verify the device’s health when connecting to your network.
  • Third, define the individual user’s access using a least-privilege methodology before granting access.  

Moving to a zero-trust security model will make for a very different user experience. It brings workflow changes and requires other authentication processes across the entire network, so this isn’t a change that can be made overnight. But if you do go the Zero Trust route, your cybersecurity is bound to improve dramatically. 

Cloud environments are increasingly under attack by hackers, and your company’s data security needs to know which cloud security models and architectures your cloud partners use. A consistent Zero Trust security strategy across all platforms will significantly improve your data protection and cybersecurity efforts. 

Is Zero Trust in your future?

As your business forges through the remote workforce challenges of our highly interdependent world, many RiskOptics tools can help keep your business safe and improve cybersecurity.

ZenGRC’s compliance management, risk, and workflow management software is an intuitive and easy-to-understand platform that keeps track of your workflow and lets you find areas of high risk before those risks manifest as real threats.

Worry-free compliance management is the Zen way. For more information on how ZenGRC can enable your CMS, contact us for a demo.