What Is Zero Trust Anyway?

By: Charles Brandt
February 19, 2024

There are a lot of people talking about Zero Trust these days, and along with that, many misconceptions about what it truly is. In many cases, it’s promoted as the magic bullet that will cure all of your company’s cybersecurity ills. But what is it, and how does it work? Is it truly worth all the hype?

First, it’s important to note that Zero Trust isn’t found in a single product. Beware of any vendor who will tell you otherwise. Zero Trust is a comprehensive approach to managing the security surrounding your company’s core data, accounts, and data that requires additional identity verification for any user or device operating inside the network perimeter. 

In this blog, I’ll touch on why this concept has become so important and how to start implementing it for your organization. However, before we dive too deep into the weeds, let’s start things off with a basic analogy.

What Is Zero Trust in Simple Words?

Man checking into corporate lobby

Imagine you’re visiting your friend at the corporate headquarters of a major bank. After you show your driver’s license to the front desk, they issue you a visitor’s pass and instruct you to go up to the 8th floor. But they don’t escort you there. So you take a wrong turn and find — quite by accident — that your guest pass apparently can get you into every floor and every room inside the building. 

You’re a good person, so you meet your friend where you’re supposed to. But you’re a little curious about what exactly you can access with your pass. You meet your friend, who explains that your pass gives you access to everything, including every branch and every vault. 

That would be…crazy, right? In no world is this okay. But in the world of cybersecurity, many organizations are still operating a bit like this. They focus all of their attention on authenticating a device or user at an external-facing checkpoint, and then, more or less, allow them free rein once inside. Unfortunately, this also means that once a hacker — or even a disgruntled employee — gets inside the firewall onto the main network, they can do a lot of damage. 

In many ways, Zero Trust architecture is to cybersecurity what physical security looks like in most large corporations. 

Understanding the Principles of Zero Trust Architecture

Person peeking into room

If you take that bank analogy a bit further, you probably could start taking a guess on what some principles of zero trust architecture are, and why companies are adopting it

For example, that guest pass should only allow you access to your friend’s floor and nothing more. Right? You should be escorted up there, and your activities should be monitored until you leave. Just because you’re a guest of an employee, that doesn’t mean the bank should automatically trust your intentions. And the guest pass itself should only be valid for the authorized visit, so if you lost it, and someone else tried to use it, it would automatically alert security that something was up. 

Now let’s translate those sentiments into the world of cybersecurity. 

What Is the Zero Trust Security Model?

Zero trust model

The principles of modern zero trust architecture can be summed up like this: Treat every user, device, and app as if they were a potential threat. What that looks like in practice is something like this: 

  1. Identify your sensitive data and which devices, roles, and accounts should have access
  2. Divide your network into segments, each with their own restrictions
  3. Set up additional identity checkpoints before accessing any of these resources
  4. Only provide authorized users with the data they need to do their jobs
  5. Verify and continuously monitor all user activity
  6. Detect and respond to any unusual or suspicious activity quickly

4 Benefits of Zero Trust

IT security room

Prevention isn’t always cheap, but it’s a lot cheaper than recovering from an attack. Unfortunately, prevention is still a hard sell. It’s hard to quantify the true impact of something that hasn’t happened yet.  So too often, organizations think they don’t need to upgrade their cybersecurity posture until something bad — and very expensive — happens. When you’re in my field, you see this scenario play out over and over and over. 

So, just this once, instead of focusing on what zero trust prevents, I’m going to talk about some of the benefits it brings. Feel free to use any of these points to help your pitch with executive leadership and C-suite.

1. Gain Visibility Into Your Network and Systems 

Your access controls will be able to provide complete visibility into all user activity, devices, and transactions on the network. Yes, you’ll increase the chances of catching any bad actors quickly, but you’ll also be able to use what you find to optimize your network and understand how your apps are being used and by whom. 

2. Secure Remote and Hybrid Workplaces

Traditional firewalls just don’t cut it when employees are often working from home or on the road, especially when much of your data is now hosted in cloud-based solutions. Not only are Zero Trust tools designed to minimize the risks associated with remote and hybrid work, but some tools — like cloud-access security brokers (CASBs) — can help you enforce company policies across your cloud resources.

3. Meet Compliance 

With zero trust, every access request will be evaluated and logged automatically, including the time, location, and the applications and data involved. This type of logging creates a thorough audit trail, which can help organizations demonstrate to business partners, insurers, regulators, and stakeholders that they’re meeting compliance.

4. Simplify Security for IT and Other Staff 

It’s easy to assume that additional cybersecurity protection will come at the cost of productivity, but tools that align with zero trust architecture typically make the user experience much simpler for everyone. Centralized tools make it easier for your IT team to monitor your networks, and better authentication methods, including single sign-on (SSO), allow workers to access the tools and data they need quickly through a single set of login credentials. 

How To Get Started 

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework (NIST CSF) includes guidelines that organizations can follow to implement zero trust architecture, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. However, for a lot of organizations, identifying the best set of tools and protocols can be a daunting task. I get that. I wish I could just give you “the recipe,” but every organization is different, so proper security won’t always look the same.  

If you haven’t already adopted a zero trust architecture, or if you’re wondering if your current tools are hitting the mark, we can help! We’d start by helping you assess your current security posture, and if you like, we can also follow up by designing an efficient, effective zero trust solution. 

Click the link below to learn about the comprehensive cybersecurity assessments we offer! 

Check Out Our Cybersecurity Assessments Page Learn More

Topics: Security