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Zero Trust in the Era of Edge

Accelerating security challenges and the increasing footprint of edge and IoT devices call for zero-trust principles to drive cyber resiliency.

December 16, 2022

4 Min Read
Hand on keyboard with digital lock.
Source: iStock

As businesses ramp up their adoption of edge and Internet of Things (IoT) infrastructure, security risks that already challenge IT organizations stand to become trickier than ever. The distributed nature of edge devices, the scale of IoT, and the limited compute capacity of devices at the edge heap on added difficulties to the increasingly shaky traditional security practices of yesteryear. In the era of edge, it simply won't be feasible anymore to cling to the castle-and-moat security tactics that practitioners have held on to for probably a decade too long as it was.

Zero-trust principles are going to be key to meeting the security challenges of today and tomorrow — and fundamental to that will be architecting secure server hardware that stands at the bedrock of edge architecture.

The Challenges Calling for Zero Trust

Edge and IoT notwithstanding, security threats keep growing. Recent statistics show that global attack rates are up by 28% in the last year. Credential theft, account takeovers, lateral attacks, and DDoS attacks plague organizations of all sizes. And the costs of cybercrime keep ticking upward. Recent figures by the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) found that cybercrime costs in the US topped $6.9 billion, up dramatically from $1.4 billion in 2017.

Throwing transformative technology architectures into this mix will only exacerbate matters if security isn't baked into the design. Without proper planning, securing assets and processes at the edge becomes more difficult to manage due to the rapidly proliferating pool of enterprise devices.

Market stats show that there are already more than 12.2 billion active IoT and edge endpoints worldwide, with expectations that by 2025 the figure will balloon to 27 billion. Organizations carry more risk because these devices are different than traditional on-premises IT devices. Devices at the edge — particularly IoT devices — frequently:

  • Process critical data away from data centers, with data including more private information

  • Are not supported or secured as strongly by many device manufacturers

  • Don't control passwords and authentication as strongly as traditional endpoints

  • Have limited compute capacity to implement security controls or updates

  • Are geographically distributed in nonsecured physical locations with no barbed wire, cameras, or barriers protecting them

All of this adds up to an enlarged attack surface that is extremely difficult to manage due to the sheer scale of devices out there. Policies and protocols are harder to implement and manage across the edge. Even something as "simple" as doing software updates can be a huge task. For example, often IoT firmware updates require manual or even physical intervention. If there are thousands or even tens of thousands of those devices run by an organization, this quickly becomes a quagmire for an IT team. Organizations need better methods for pushing out these updates, doing remote reboots, and performing malware remediation, not to mention monitoring and tracking the security status of all of these devices.

More Than Authentication: The Promise of Zero Trust

Zero trust is a set of guiding principles and an architectural approach to security that's well-suited to start addressing some of the edge security challenges outlined above. The heart of the zero-trust approach is in conditional access. The idea is that the right assets, accounts, and users are only granted access to the assets they need — when they're authorized, and when the situation is safely in line with the org's risk appetite. The architecture is designed to continually evaluate and validate all of the devices and behaviors in the IT environment before granting permissions and also periodically during use. It's great for the fluidity of the edge because it's not tied to the physical location of a device, network location, or asset ownership.

It's a sweeping approach, and one that can help reduce the risk surface at the edge when it is done right. Unfortunately, many organizations have taken a myopic view of zero trust, equating it solely as an authentication and authorization play. But there are a whole lot of other crucial elements to the architecture that enterprises need to get in place.

Arguably the most critical element of zero trust is the verification of assets before access is granted. While secure authentication and authorization is crucial, organizations also need mechanisms to ensure the security of the device that's connecting to sensitive assets and networks — including servers handling edge traffic. This includes verifying the status of the firmware in place, monitoring the integrity of the hardware, looking for evidence of compromised hardware, and more.

Enabling Zero Trust With the Right Hardware

While there is no such thing as zero-trust devices, organizations can set themselves up for zero-trust success by seeking out edge hardware that's more cyber resilient and enables easier verification of assets to stand up to the rigors of a strong zero-trust approach to security.

This means paying close attention to the way vendors architect their hardware. Ask questions to ensure they're paying more than just marketing lip service to the zero trust ideal. Do they follow a framework like the US Department of Defense's seven-pillar zero-trust standards? Looking for important controls for device trust, user trust, data trust, and software trust baked into the products that organizations choose to make up their edge architecture will in turn help them build zero trust into their own architecture.

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