Data Protection Tool

Zero Trust 101: What You Need to Know

Picture of Tracy Rock

Tracy Rock

Director of Marketing @ Invenio IT

Published

Zero Trust Security

Zero trust is widely considered one of the most important cybersecurity concepts for today’s businesses. But what exactly is it, and how do you actually implement it within your IT environment?

In this post, we break down everything you need to know about zero trust security and which solutions to consider at your organization.

What is zero trust?

Zero trust is a security principle that asserts that no user, device or application should be trusted unless it has been authorized. This significantly reduces the risk of unauthorized users or software accessing systems from inside or outside a network.

With a zero-trust security strategy, all access is restricted by default. Every digital interaction, from file access to software functions, must be authorized and continuously validated. In certain scenarios, users may request authorization from admins to gain access on an as-needed basis.

How it differs from other security strategies

The fundamental objectives of zero trust are not new. For example, requiring users to log into a system with a password could be considered an elementary form of zero trust. (Access is denied to all users unless they have authorized credentials.) The same could be said for a physical door lock: no one is trusted unless they have a key.

But today’s digital environment is far more complex. 10% of today’s businesses use more than 200 apps, according to the Wall Street Journal. Also, those apps are increasingly interconnected, allowing users (and the software itself) to perform a staggering array of functions if they have unrestricted access.

In the old days, once a user was permitted access to a network, they had near-free reign to everything. Access controls and other network restrictions of course tightened security a bit. But the zero-trust security model goes much further, restricting access to users and software on a much more granular level.

Here are some of the fundamental differences between the traditional and zero-trust security models across different spheres of security:

Fundamental Differences Between Zero Trust Security Models

Benefits of zero trust

The single greatest benefit of zero-trust security is the increased protection against unauthorized users, malware and rogue programs. The value of this benefit cannot be overstated. Implementing zero-trust solutions at a business can significantly reduce the risk of cyberattacks, breaches and other malicious activity.

Let’s explore some of the benefits in great detail:

1) Stronger security posture: A zero-trust security model strengthens an organization’s security by disallowing access to its systems by default. Users, devices and application functions must be authenticated and continuously verified to access network resources. This greatly minimizes the risk of security breaches, both externally and internally.

2) Greater visibility: Zero-trust security tools provide far greater visibility into the traffic across your network, as well as who has access to what resources and where. This makes it easier to control access and detect threats faster.

3) Granular control: Zero-trust solutions provide more granular control over access to network resources. In addition to allowing micro-segmentation of a network, zero-trust tools enable you to enforce highly specific access policies based on user roles, applications and workloads.

4) More flexibility: With a traditional security model, access controls are mostly static: either a user has access or they don’t. Zero trust is more flexible and adaptive, allowing you to implement finely-grained security policies across different devices, platforms and environments, with the ability to adjust controls on the fly.

5) Simpler management: Zero trust makes your security implementations simpler to manage and adjust over time. Even though access controls are more granular and can allow you to enforce complex security policies, these tools ultimately remove complexity from your security management. The increased visibility and control help to streamline security implementations and save time for admins.

6) Regulatory compliance: Zero trust makes it easier for organizations to comply with regulations that require heightened security standards, particularly in sectors like financial services.

7) Reduced costs for remediation and recovery: By preventing breaches, zero-trust solutions can dramatically reduce the costs associated with security incidents, threat remediation and recovery.

Why is zero trust so important?

To understand the importance of zero trust in today’s IT environments, one needs only to look at the shift to hybrid work that was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today’s workforces are increasingly decentralized. They work across numerous locations, devices and applications. They remotely access network resources, not only through traditional directories but through an ever-increasing number of integrated apps.

All of this poses critical security risks.

Traditional security practices simply don’t cut it anymore. Without granular control over access to network resources, businesses are vulnerable to an array of threats, including:

  • Ransomware
  • Other malware and viruses
  • Fileless attacks
  • Zero-day attacks
  • Malicious program exploits
  • Phishing & social engineering attacks
  • Stolen & exploited credentials
  • Internal malicious activity

The dangers of not applying zero trust

What are the risks of not adopting a zero-trust strategy? Consider these alarming statistics, which illustrate the current threat landscape that businesses face today.

Roughly 54% of companies experienced at least one cyberattack in the past year. (Source: U. of North Georgia) These attacks are no fluke. Today’s businesses require stronger security protocols that restrict access by default, making it much harder for infections to take root or spread.

74% of breaches involve the human element. (Source: Verizon) This can encompass a wide range of causes and scenarios, including user error, misuse, social engineering or intentional malicious action. Even when the human element is involved, zero-trust security solutions can help to stop an attack in its tracks by blocking account access to other systems, particularly if the user, device or application isn’t authorized to take those actions.

Ransomware attacks now account for 24% of all breaches. (Source: Verizon) It’s arguably the most dangerous threat to businesses today. When allowed to spread laterally across a network, ransomware can freeze the entire business. Critical data can be destroyed permanently (especially if there is no backup system). Company systems, services and devices can be rendered inoperable.

Phishing attacks increased by 464% between 2022 and 2023. (Source: Acronis) These attacks use deception to steal credentials and access systems. Typically, once a user’s credentials are stolen, a hacker or application can lay the foundation for a secondary attack by deploying malware or other malicious code. But again, a zero-trust model can still effectively thwart these attacks by preventing those network resources from carrying out malicious activity, even if they are infected.

The cost of cybercrime is expected to reach $10.5 trillion annually by 2025. (Source: Cybercrime Magazine) Cyberattacks are increasingly disruptive and costly. In recent years, attacks on enterprise organizations like Merk and Maersk each exceeded $300 million in operational impact and recovery costs. For smaller businesses, these attacks can derail operations for months and cause permanent closure.

In 2023, cybersecurity experts identified more than 25,000 vulnerabilities that put businesses at risk of ransomware alone. (Source: Malwarebytes) These are critical security gaps that exist at nearly every business, in every sector.

Fileless attacks increased by 1,400% in 2022. (Source: Help Net Security) Traditionally, most malware relies on files to infect systems, such as when a malicious download is executed or program files have been exploited. Fileless attacks don’t operate the same way. Instead, they rely on legitimate system processes to carry out an attack without using code.

Where to apply zero trust

A challenge for many organizations, especially among smaller businesses, is figuring out how to turn the zero-trust model into actionable security deployments.

Below, we identify some specific solutions to consider, but the overall goal is to deploy the principle of zero trust across your entire threat surface:

  • Networks
  • Endpoints
  • Applications
  • Cloud environments
  • Virtual machines

In essence, the concept of “never trust, always verify” should apply to all your company systems.

Examples of zero trust in practice

Above, we illustrated how a lock and key can be considered a basic form of zero trust. But let’s look at some more specific examples of what zero trust actually looks like in practice in an IT environment.

Zero trust network access

  • ZTNA is one of today’s most common examples of zero trust as organizations move away from traditional VPN systems. ZTNA applies strict controls over remote access to an organization’s data and applications.
  • Rather than allowing full access once a remote user or device is authenticated, ZTNA grants access based on identity and context, according to clearly defined policies.
  • For example, a remote employee may be granted access to an application, but only from select authorized devices and locations. Even then, access may be limited to certain functions in the application, and it will be continuously verified. If there are any suspicious changes in user behavior (such as sudden location changes or unusual access patterns), access can be instantly and automatically revoked.
  • ZTNA thus also prevents ransomware and other malware from moving laterally across a network if a device has been compromised, significantly containing the attack.

Application allowlisting / whitelisting

  • Application allowlisting (also known as whitelisting) is another example of zero trust that is focused specifically on applications. It dictates that no application should be allowed to run except those that have been authorized.
  • This provides a few important layers of security. First, it prevents users from installing unauthorized software on company devices, including applications that may have malware. Secondly, it prevents rogue applications from launching.
  • Consider the fact that 95% of ransomware relies on executable files. Often, these executables are launched from within other, seemingly legitimate applications that have been quietly infected with malware. But with application allowlisting enabled, the executable would not be able to run in the first place, thus preventing the attack.

Endpoint security

  • Since the vast majority of cyberattacks begin on endpoint devices, such as user laptops, desktops and mobile devices, extra security should be applied to these devices to stop any stage of an attack. Applying the zero-trust model, along with advanced threat detection tools, can reduce the risk of these devices being compromised in the first place.
  • Not all endpoint security tools are explicitly zero-trust solutions, although the underlying principle is essentially the same. For example, solutions like Sophos use context-sensitive defenses to identify and stop threats based on numerous factors. Suspicious activity is assumed to be malicious and is blocked (while giving admins the ability to review the activity and approve it as needed). Endpoint defenses are also heightened, which further disrupts and contains the attack at the earliest stage.
  • Even in attacks that have never been seen before, advanced endpoint security can detect the techniques used in the attack to identify it as a threat and respond immediately.

Application control

  • While Allowlisting prevents unauthorized applications from running, it does not necessarily stop threats that reside within your approved programs. That’s where application control can apply an additional zero-trust safeguard.
  • Application control limits the actions that your authorized applications can perform, reducing the risk of exploits. For example, a common attack technique weaponizes legitimate tools like PowerShell in Windows machines. An application control solution, such as ThreatLocker Ringfencing, allows you to dictate what your applications can and cannot do once they’re running. Any activity that is not authorized is blocked automatically.
  • This limits your software’s ability to interact with other applications, access your data or connect to the internet – all of which are common techniques for fileless and zero-day attacks.

Recommended zero-trust solutions

The effectiveness of the zero-trust principle is only as good as the technology that enforces it. This is why it’s important to deploy reliable tools that can block authorized activity anywhere in your infrastructure, from network access to application behavior.

If you’re applying zero trust at your organization, here are some technologies to consider:

ThreatLocker Allowlisting

ThreatLocker Allowlisting is the gold standard for applying the concept of zero-trust to protect your systems from rogue software. It blocks all applications from running by default, except for the programs you explicitly authorize. If any other application tries to run, anywhere on your endpoints or servers, it’s blocked. This significantly minimizes cyber threats and keeps unauthorized applications from being installed by users. (If legitimate software needs to be installed, users can request access that admins can approve within seconds.)

ThreatLocker Ringfencing

ThreatLocker Ringfencing provides zero-trust application control to prevent your legitimate software from performing unauthorized processes. While Allowlisting controls what applications can open, Ringfencing controls what those applications can do. At a time when applications are increasingly integrated, transmitting your critical data back and forth, this security is essential. Organizations maintain full control over the functions that their software is allowed to perform, significantly reducing the chance of successful exploits. As one example, both Microsoft Word and PowerShell may be authorized to run, but Ringfencing can block Microsoft Word from accessing PowerShell – a well-known attack technique.

Sophos Endpoint Protection

Sophos Endpoint Protection is a solid option for securing endpoints across your organization. It is not inherently a zero-trust solution, but it is the industry’s most sophisticated solution for neutralizing suspicious activity before it escalates into a full attack. Sophos uses a prevention-first approach, backed by machine learning, behavioral analysis and advanced anti-exploitation technologies, to block ransomware, fileless attacks, zero-day exploits and other malicious activity.

Field Effect Covalence

Field Effect Covalence is a managed detection and response platform (MDR). This too is not technically a zero-trust solution, but it applies the principle throughout its defenses. Field Effect uses automated cybersecurity technology, backed by human intelligence, to protect your entire threat surface, including endpoints, cloud workloads, networks and IoT devices. It monitors all network traffic and system processes to detect and isolate threats automatically.

Conclusion

Today’s cyber threats use a variety of techniques to infiltrate corporate networks. Without the right safeguards, these threats can cause massive operational disruptions and financial losses. Applying the principle of zero trust enables organizations to dramatically increase security and minimize their attack surface. By disallowing all access by default, organizations can maintain a firmer grip over the users, applications and processes that use network resources, significantly reducing the risk of a breach.

Frequently Asked Questions about Zero Trust

1. What is the concept of zero trust?

The concept of zero trust dictates that no users, devices and applications should be trusted to access network resources unless they are authorized to do so. In an IT environment, this means that access to files, programs and systems should be restricted by default, except those that have been specifically approved and continuously verified.

2. What’s the difference between perimeter security and zero trust?

Perimeter security and zero trust differ in their approach to network access. Perimeter-based security is a more static approach that allows remote access at the perimeter of a local area network, typically via VPN credentials. Zero trust uses more granular safeguards to deny access to network resources for all users, devices and communications except those that have been explicitly authorized.

3. What is the main goal of zero trust?

The primary goal of zero trust is preventing unauthorized access to corporate networks, applications and systems. By restricting access by default, zero trust significantly strengthens security and blocks both internal and external threats.

Prevent a devastating breach. Find the right zero-trust solution for your business.

Connect with our cybersecurity experts at Invenio IT to learn more about protecting your organization with zero-trust security solutions. Call (646) 395-1170, email success@invenioIT.com or schedule a meeting with one of our data protection specialists.

Get the Ultimate Cybersecurity Handbook for Employees
Invenio it logo

Join 23,000+ readers in the Data Protection Forum

Related Articles