Evaluating the zero trust hype


Sven Vermeulen Tue 05 October 2021

Security vendors are touting the benefits of "zero trust" as the new way to approach security and security-conscious architecturing. But while there are principles within the zero trust mindset that came up in the last dozen years, most of the content in zero trust discussions is tied to age-old security propositions.

What is zero trust

In the zero trust hype, two sources are driving (or aggregating) most of the content that exists for zero trust: NIST's Zero Trust Architecture publication (report 800-207) and Google's BeyondCorp Zero Trust Enterprise Security resources.

The NIST publication is a "dry" consolidation of what zero trust entails, and focuses on the architecture and design principles for a zero trust environment. It defines a zero trust architecture as an architecture that "assumes there is no implicit trust granted to assets or users accounts based solely on their physical or network location".

The principles that it applies are the following:

  • All data sources and computing services are considered resources
  • All communication is secured regardless of network location
  • Access to individual enterprise resources is granted on a per-session basis
  • Access to resources is determined by dynamic policy [...] and may include other behavioral and environmental attributes
  • The enterprise monitors and measures the integrity and security posture of all owned and associated assets
  • All resource authentication and authorization are dynamic and strictly enforced before access is allowed
  • The enterprise collects as much information as possible about the current state of assets, network infrastructure, and communications, and uses it to improve its security posture

Within the publication, a common view is used to explain zero trust and the components that take an active role within the architecture. This view is happily shared by vendors to show where in the zero trust architecture their component(s) are positioned.

NIST core view on zero trust

The publication further evaluates a few possible architectural approaches (or patterns if you will) for zero trust, with specific focus on the network side. It ends with a chapter on migrating to a zero trust architecture.

The Google resources through its BeyondCorp publication are more loosely written and have a stronger focus on the cultural and principle aspects of zero trust. One could see these publications more as an introduction to the value that zero trust provides to a company and its users, with the focus on exposing services everywhere, providing dynamic access controls through proxy services, and eliminating classical patterns like using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to bind everything together.

The main motivation beyond the zero trust principles in Google's publication is to eliminate the perimeter-style protection where all controls are on the perimeter, after which users have nearly free rein across the internally exposed infrastructure.

The principles it applies are as follows:

  • Access to services must not be determined by the network from which you connect
  • Access to services is granted based on contextual factors from the user and their device
  • Access to services must be authenticated, authorized, and encrypted

While these two main resources embody the bulk of what zero trust is, it does not determine it completely. Many vendors and consultancy firms have their view of zero trust, which largely coincides with the above, but often has specific attention points or even foundations that are not part of the previously mentioned resources.

The term "zero trust" implies a "trust nothing and nobody" approach to architecture and design, which you can fill in and apply everywhere. Of course, you eventually will need to apply some level of trust somewhere, and how this is done can depend on so many factors that it is unlikely that we will ever settle down in the zero trust hype on what is and isn't proper.

Focus areas in zero trust

While evaluating zero trust, I read through many other resources out there. Besides the paywalled analyst resources from Gartner and Forrester, it also included resources from vendors to learn how they see zero trust evolve.

In most of these resources, there are commonalities that everybody seems to agree on:

  • Approach authentication and authorization at all layers in the stack: device, operating system, network, communication path (next-hop), communication session, application, etc.
  • Enforce high maturity in asset management and inventory management. Asset management is more than just devices (it also entails applications, cloud services, etc.) and you should not only focus on those you own, but also those that are associated with your architecture (such as Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) assets)
  • Ensure data classification and data management are applied and continuously evaluated and updated.
  • Contain workloads within sufficiently small logical bounds. This could be through micro-segmentation (but that is not the sole method out there).
  • Expose services globally (as in, globally reachable), but that does not imply that all services are accessible by each and every one.
  • Use dynamic access policies and policy enforcement. Dynamic includes context-based accesses (access decisions are taken by more than just the authentication side of things) as well as authorizations that can change as new insights are passed on (such as threat intelligence).
  • Perform continuous monitoring, including behavioral assessments.
  • Encrypt everything (or more soundly put, cryptographically protect resources at all layers of the stack).

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has recently also released the first draft of its Zero Trust Maturity Model that companies can use to evaluate their posture against the zero trust principles. It is strongly based upon the NIST explanation of zero trust, with attention to five pillars (identity, device, network/environment, application workload, and data) and three foundations (visibility and analytics, automation and orchestration, and governance). Again, we observe some interpretation of what zero trust could entail, in this particular case how the US government would like to approach this towards its agencies.

Why zero trust isn't exactly new

Attentive readers will already understand that most of the principles or focus areas in zero trust are not new. Let's take a few of the core components and principles and see how novel these are.

One of the core components in the zero trust architecture is a policy enforcement methodology, one that detaches enforcement from declaration. Separating the mechanism from a policy isn't new. Decentralized trust management, published in 1996, attempted to implement the necessary abstractions for it. The Extensible Access Control Markup Language, published by OASIS in 2003, is an open standard for integrating the different policy components.

The ability to perform authentication at all levels of a stack is also not new. We can execute device authentication using the Trusted Platform Module for instance, whose first publication was in 2009. The use of certificates for authenticating websites is common since SSL v3 came about in 1996. Authenticating end users through passwords is as old as IT itself, and multi-factor authentication has had plenty of research since 2005. It is very popular nowadays since the introduction of the Time-based One-time Password (T-OTP) as published in 2011.

Even the use of user profiling for security analytics isn't novel. In 2004, the paper on User profiling for computer security was the start of what became a very active market in cybersecurity nowadays: User Entity and Behavior Analytics (UEBA).

The dismissal of the perimeter-only security architecture seems to be the most specific 'new' principle, although the foundations for security have long been to not just consider security from a network point of view: starting with the layered architecture and requirement tracking by Peter G. Neumann's Practical Architectures for Survivable Systems and Networks published in 2000, we have seen the market take up more and more traction on securing the different layers and assessing security not just based on the perimeter.

Personal observations

Zero trust is energizing the cybersecurity ecosystem, allowing both active research and commercial evolutions/improvements. With the further digitization of our environment, the significant increase in exposed services (think IoT), and users that are always online, companies should indeed ensure that their services (both external-facing and internal ones) are secure. The increase in attention through the "zero trust" hype is positive, but should not be considered completely new. Instead, it is an aggregation of already existing best practices and designs.

The lack of a common architecture (despite NISTs efforts) is to be expected, as each company, organization or government has a different architecture and vision. This, of course, means that decision-makers will need to understand that "zero trust" is not a pattern to apply blindly. Vendors will attempt to influence businesses, but without a good understanding of the current environment and understanding the direction a company wants to go, these will just be tools. And as the saying goes, "A fool with a tool is still a fool".

Many companies will already have started on their journey to "zero trust" without having it named as such. Layered security, security in depth, and other statements already contribute to the zero trust approach. If you want to approach zero trust, it is wise to consider where you are at already, and what main principles you want to address next. You can call it "zero trust" or your "zero trust strategy" to get attention, but beware of external influences that might want to inject complexity because you called it "zero trust". The benefit is not in attaining a zero trust compliant architecture, but in ensuring the company has a good security posture, including the flexibility to adjust as the environment evolves.

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