7 Steps to Attain a Zero Trust Security Posture

A Zero Trust security posture begins with strong identity and access management.

Chris Curcio, Vice President, Optimal IdM

July 10, 2019

6 Min Read

With nearly 15 billion identity records available on the Dark Web, an attacker can buy a set of credentials and log into a private system virtually unnoticed. In fact, Verizon says the abuse of credentials led to more than 43,000 successful breaches last year. Organizations can no longer trust users, devices and transactions without a high level of identity assurance. Consequently, many companies are adopting a Zero Trust security model, beginning with strong identity and access management (IAM) procedures. The way to achieve this is with Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA), also known as a software-defined perimeter (SDP) that creates an identity- and context-based logical-access boundary around an application or set of applications. The applications are hidden from discovery, and access is restricted to a specific set of named entities via a trust broker. The broker verifies the identity, context and policy adherence of the specified participants before allowing access to a protected resource. This removes the application assets from public visibility and significantly reduces the surface area for attack.

The challenge of ZTNA is how to balance between absolute assurance (thereby promoting maximum security) and end-user productivity and usability. It’s possible to establish a ZTNA model built on IAM solutions that balance the security needs of the enterprise with a frictionless user experience. Here’s how to get there.

Start with identity proofing
Identity proofing initially identifies a person to a trusted source of truth. For example, a new hire is required to present a government-issued identity card to the HR department to validate their identity when onboarding. For something like a healthcare service provider setting up a new patient, the person might be prompted to validate their identity based on a series of personal questions. For example, to establish that John Doe is really who he says he is, the healthcare provider’s IAM system connects to a credit bureau -- an external source of truth -- through an application programming interface (API). The new patient is asked to identify the correct model of car he bought in 2007, the name of a street from his childhood neighborhood, and so on. Only the real John Doe is likely to answer all questions correctly, and this is enough to prove his identity for the healthcare provider’s purposes.

Identity proofing is so important that NIST has guidelines focusing on the enrollment and verification of an identity for use in digital authentication. See the NIST special publication, Digital Identity Guidelines: Enrollment and Identity Proofing.

Maintain the identity lifecycle
The identity lifecycle is the process of creating, maintaining and retiring a digital identity. For instance, when an employee leaves a company, their digital identity must be deactivated immediately to prevent abuse of the credentials in internal systems. Many companies fall short on promptly removing unneeded credentials, leaving themselves open to the risk of a breach.

Automating the lifecycle processes reduces the risk of mistakes from manual input, frees up labor from repetitive tasks, and ensures consistent operations while enforcing standardization. Moreover, automation reduces complexity and maintenance costs and increases the scale of administration, policy enforcement and regulatory compliance.

Mind the gaps of strong authentication
Although modern authentication standards are generally accepted as a secure mechanism for initial access, there are other security gaps to consider, such as IP header security, API security, data encryption in transit and at rest, and managing authentication within a session. Even the strongest password is still vulnerable to man-in-the-middle (MiM) attacks, phishing attacks, etc. These potential gaps in user authentication must be thoroughly investigated and eliminated if they exist.

Use multifactor authentication
Password and personal identification numbers (PINs), while still the standard for authentication, are inherently insecure because they are easily guessed or derived by brute force. Multifactor Authentication (MFA) requires a second means of authentication, such as a token, an out-of-band code sent by phone or text message, or a biometric input. MFA should be leveraged for every privileged account and by universal access policies, and used at intervals during long online sessions to discourage a MiM abuse of credentials. NIST’s special publication 800-63-3 recommends MFA for all assurance levels.

Apply adaptive authentication and authorization
A drawback of MFA is that users are repeatedly prompted for additional authentication factors, disrupting their work and creating a poor user experience. However, new tools like typing biometrics increase security by allowing continuous, or real-time adaptive authentication throughout the user’s entire login session, keeping the user logged in. Adaptive authentication balances the need between security and user experience, because it’s transparent to the user, but provides the necessary security assurances. Adaptive authentication leverages a pre-determined but customizable policy that considers multiple vectors of risk by assigning a “score” to each condition of the access request. It dynamically adds the scores together, compares them to a baseline standard, and then makes the decision to allow access, deny access or prompt the user for an additional proof factor of authentication. Adaptive authentication and authorization help scale manual administration, policy enforcement and regulatory compliance. And the organization can delegate administration and enforce role-based access in a single place.

Conduct proper auditing and discovery
A successful breached login goes unnoticed, on average, for more than 200 days. Thus, IAM solutions need complementary security tools that operate in real-time to analyze metadata from user and entity behaviors. Many organizations use a security incident and event management (SIEM) system and/or a user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) solution to collect, view and analyze activity to look for anomalies.

Support ongoing expertise
As a cybersecurity defense mechanism, IAM requires current expertise that continuously evolves to counter the ever-changing threat landscape. Enterprises need personnel with the knowledge and skills to deploy and maintain all the technologies and processes outlined above to achieve and sustain a Zero Trust security posture for identity and access management.

Summing it up
A Zero Trust security posture begins with strong identity and access management. It’s too easy to spoof an identity and gain illicit access to private resources. Strong and layered IAM procedures provide assurance that only legitimate users have access.

Find out more on this topic by accessing the linked white paper below: Zero Trust: Organizations can begin to trust users, devices and transactions starting with a high level of IAM services and support

—Chris Curcio is Vice President of Partnerships and Channel Sales for Optimal IdM. He has more than 20 years of IT and security experience and has previously worked at identity management companies Open Network and Oblix. Prior to joining Optimal IdM, Chris spent 12 years at Oracle in a variety of sales leadership roles across security and middleware technologies.

This content is sponsored by Optimal IdM.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Curcio

Vice President, Optimal IdM

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