What is Zero Trust, and How Do You Implement It?

Mike Talbert

With cyber threats evolving and breaches becoming more frequent, traditional security measures can fall short. The current environment demands a shift in how we protect our data and systems.

Enter Zero Trust.

Zero Trust operates on a fundamental principle: “never trust, always verify.” This model challenges conventional security frameworks by enforcing strict identity verification, minimizing access risks, and enhancing your organization's ability to thwart modern cyber threats.  

In this article, we’ll discuss how Zero Trust works, and how the implementation of Zero Trust can fortify your defenses to ensure your organization stays protected.

What is Zero Trust?

Imagine an office building that requires everyone to wear badges and pass through a security gate at work, regardless of whether they're the CEO or a new intern. Zero Trust works similarly in cybersecurity: it assumes no one, not even users within the organization, is trusted by default, so they must be verified whenever they want to access something within the organization.

In this office building scenario, employees would need to verify their identity and permission each time they access a restricted area within the building, not just at the main entrance. In other words, instead of a free pass once inside the security gates, everyone must prove they're allowed access at each step, rather than assuming the main security gates filtered out every potential risk.

There’s an important distinction to make here: Zero Trust doesn’t mean you distrust your employees, it just means your security model verifies all access requests, regardless of origin, to protect the organization’s data and systems.

For instance, if someone finds an unsecured back door and gains access to the building, a Zero Trust approach ensures they can't go further without proper authentication at each secure entry.

Instead of a free pass inside the security gates, everyone must prove they're allowed access at each step.

Why should your organization adopt a Zero Trust strategy?

Just as using advanced security systems can lower insurance costs for a building by reducing the risk of theft and damage, implementing Zero Trust can reduce the financial risks associated with data breaches, especially when a threat actor in your network can do damage much faster with modern tools.

By enforcing strict access controls at every point, Zero Trust minimizes the potential impact of an attack, effectively containing threats and reducing overall security-related costs. This meticulous approach ensures that security resources are used efficiently, avoiding the waste associated with over-trusting and under-protecting your digital assets.

What are the key pillars of Zero Trust?

The cornerstone of Zero Trust is Identity and access management (IAM) – a stringent authentication and authorization processes. In our office building analogy, it's like the security guard who verifies each person’s ID before allowing them into the building, ensuring that only those with confirmed identities and the necessary permissions can access sensitive areas.

On top of this, Zero Trust is built on these core ideas:

  • Assuming a breach will happen: Operating as if breaches are inevitable, using strategies like microsegmentation to control damage and prevent lateral movements.
  • Verifying explicitly: Authenticating and authorizing every access request using data like user identity, location, device health, and anomalies.
  • Least privilege access: Limiting access strictly to what's necessary for users' roles, minimizing lateral movement opportunities for attackers.
  • Microsegmentation: Dividing the network into smaller, secure zones, each with specific access rules to enhance security and limit breach impact.

Zero Trust implementation — how can my organization adopt it?

To implement Zero Trust, at your organization, you can start with these steps:

1. Assess and commit

Evaluate your current assets, network setup, and security stance. List all IT and data assets, assigning access rights based on roles. Take note of any risky spots — like parts of your system where a security breach could do serious damage. Make a company-wide commitment to embrace Zero Trust principles.

2. Identify sensitive assets

Pinpoint your most sensitive data and assets. Divide your network into segments, focusing on areas requiring extra protection. Understand how traffic flows to these critical network zones.

Look at how everything in your organization interacts—from who uses what app, to how data flows through your infrastructure. Look at all the connections between users, applications, infrastructure, identity verification, devices/workloads, access controls, and transaction protocols.

Assess how these components interact, so you can determine the security needs at each intersection to ensure comprehensive coverage.

3. Adopt continuous verification

Never assume trust, whether it's from inside or outside sources. Authenticate every access attempt and verify each identity. Adjust access privileges based on context and perceived risk.

Establish a system for continuously validating access requests. This involves not just a one-time verification but an ongoing assessment that considers the context and risk of each request. Adjust access privileges dynamically based on real-time assessments, similar to a security system that rechecks credentials periodically throughout the day.

If you haven’t already, adopt multi-factor authentication (MFA), preferably not via SMS. Requiring multiple verification factors enhances security against compromised credentials.

4. Automate context collection and response

Deploy tools and services for real-time analytics and visibility. Keep a watchful eye for threats and automate responses to threats swiftly to save time and improve effectiveness.

5. Secure endpoints and encrypt data

Safeguard all data, including emails and documents, with robust encryption measures. Establish reliable data loss prevention (DLP) and breach avoidance strategies to fortify your defenses. 

Secure all endpoints—laptops, mobiles, or servers—to prevent them from becoming entry points for threats, similar to ensuring every device is verified before use.

Challenges to be aware of when implementing Zero Trust

Complex infrastructure

Organizations typically operate with a mix of servers, proxies, databases, internal applications, and cloud-based services. There is a lot of additional exposure to threat actors, and it has gotten even more complicated with the rise of remote work, where employees are logging on from all kinds of different networks. Coordinating security across these varied components, especially in environments that blend cloud and on-premise solutions, can be daunting. Adding to the complexity is the need to integrate both old and new technologies smoothly.

Cost and effort

Shifting to a Zero Trust framework is not just a technical change but a big investment of time, money, and workforce. It requires detailed planning for network segmentation, rigorous user verification, and robust access controls. Securing the necessary budget and finding skilled personnel to execute these changes often poses significant challenges.

Flexible software solutions

Selecting the right software tools is critical for a successful Zero Trust implementation. Tools for micro-segmentation, identity-aware proxies, and software-defined perimeters are essential. These tools must not only be effective but also flexible enough to integrate seamlessly with existing systems, ensuring a smooth transition to a Zero Trust architecture.

Putting this into practice, one step at a time

Zero Trust is a continuous security effort that requires teamwork between your IT and security staff. It’s about creating a security plan that fits your organization's goals and risk level, and regularly improving it.

Whether you’re looking to set up Zero Trust or you’ve already started and need an extra pair of hands getting your security posture where you want it to be, Katalyst is here to help you at any point in your journey.

We’ll assess, guide, and implement strong Zero Trust systems that are flexible and designed to grow with you, with ongoing monitoring to help you stay secure against new threats. Schedule a call today to learn more.

Mike Talbert

Solutions Engineer