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Transitioning From VPNs to Zero-Trust Access Requires Shoring Up Third-Party Risk Management

ZTNA brings only marginal benefits unless you ensure that the third parties you authorize are not already compromised.

4 Min Read
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The transition to a zero-trust architecture is rife with challenges that can put a 10,000-piece, monochromatic jigsaw puzzle to shame. Not only must the IT team recognize and validate every corporate employee, their computing devices, and their applications, but they also must do so for key nonemployees, third-party vendors, and partners who access corporate assets.

It is a difficult enough task when one knows who their primary third-party supply chain partners are; it becomes almost impossible to manage secondary, tertiary, and other partners as well. And therein lies the challenge of defining who is an authorized and authenticated user and who is not.

While many of today's zero-trust network access (ZTNA) products claim to offer ongoing authentication and authorization of every known and registered user, device, and application trying to access a network all the time, often what companies actually experience is slightly different, says Jason Georgi, field CTO at Palo Alto Networks. Instead of constant authentication, they get initial authentication for each access.

Today, he says, ZTNA products excel at the microsegmentation of networks and providing very limited access to corporate assets on the network, but he expects next-generation ZTNA products to provide greater security for the data being processed.

A white paper by John Grady, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, and commissioned by Palo Alto Networks asserts that there are several areas where current ZTNA products are falling short. Among the improvements Grady called for are prevention of violations of least privilege, the ability to cancel an application's access if it starts behaving in an unanticipated or unacceptable manner after granted access, and the ability to do security inspections of data not currently being inspected.

Reducing Third-Party Risk

Companies working to improve their risk profile by employing ZTNA are gaining only marginal benefits if they do not ensure that the third parties they authorize are not already compromised. To accomplish this, companies moving to zero trust also need to improve their third-party risk management (TPRM).

Organizations that employ ZTNA require that remote users be entered into a Microsoft Active Directory or other authentication system. While that works well for remote employees, it falls short when the remote access user is a business partner or vendor. Because of this, these partners often need to access the corporate environment over a virtual private network (VPN). But VPNs have inherent security limitations and do not scale well. As a result, someone who uses a VPN to access corporate assets behind the corporate firewall already has more access than they require; malicious users could leverage this to attack the network from the inside.

"If you think about all the bad things that have occurred, it's always through that backdoor of a vendor connection because you have a wide-open pipe on a VPN," says Dave Cronin, vice president of cybersecurity strategy for Capgemini Americas.

But VPNs, despite having less comprehensive security than zero-trust offerings, are not going away, he cautions. A zero-trust architecture requires that every user be preauthorized within a trusted environment, such as by being listed in Microsoft Active Directory or some similar application. That will not happen when organizations have hundreds or thousands of supply chain partners who are not individually identified, authenticated, and registered.

"In a lot of cases, organizations are layering additional sets of controls around specifically the third-party access component because, in some cases, the third parties are using unmanaged devices, meaning they're using their own corporate devices or even personal devices to access a company's enterprise applications," says Andrew Rafla, a partner and principal, as well as the zero trust leader at Deloitte. "There's a greater need to shift toward more modern ZTNA or [Secure Access Service Edge] SASE-type solutions, specifically for third-party access."

Rafla adds that the zero-trust edge (ZTE), sometimes referred to as SASE, can be seen as a compensating control to help mitigate the potential threats brought on by third parties and other managed constituents. Such compensating controls — including edge security, TPRM, multifactor authentication, and perhaps a dozen more controls together — can help companies demonstrate that they should qualify for cyber insurance, which has become more difficult to obtain recently.

"The more agile you are able to be as an organization to enable remote workforces, the easier, generally speaking, it is for you to do the right thing for derisking third-party access to your application systems environments," says Josh Yavor, CISO at Tessian. "The reason for that is because by pushing security down to the devices and then to the application layer, it means that while the networks are absolutely still relevant and critical, we're logically building our defensive risk bubbles around the applications themselves, and then the devices and identities that are in use when accessing them.

"By separating what used to be entirely network-dependent thinking to those layers, it means that we have more granular options for enabling access securely from our third parties."

That said, while hybrid VPN and ZTNA networks are likely here to stay for the foreseeable future, VPN security needs to be enhanced by adding more authentication controls and the ability to shut down the connection should the user access inappropriate data or applications. This could include improving port and protocol controls to contain the risk.

About the Author(s)

Stephen Lawton, Contributing Writer

Stephen Lawton is a veteran journalist and cybersecurity subject matter expert who has been covering cybersecurity and business continuity for more than 30 years. He was named a Global Top 25 Data Expert for 2023 and a Global Top 20 Cybersecurity Expert for 2022. Stephen spent more than a decade with SC Magazine/SC Media/CyberRisk Alliance, where he served as editorial director of the content lab. Earlier he was chief editor for several national and regional award-winning publications, including MicroTimes and Digital News & Review. Stephen is the founder and senior consultant of the media and technology firm AFAB Consulting LLC. You can reach him at [email protected].

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