Zero trust is a strategy, not a technology

Zero-trust security should be seen as a strategy to protect high-value assets and is not tied to a specific technology or product, says the model’s creator John Kindervag

When John Kindervag came up with the zero-trust security model at Forrester Research, he was proposing it as a strategy to help organisations guard against cyber attacks and data breaches, such as the one that hit the Office of Personnel Management in the US where sensitive data about people with top secret security clearances was stolen.

Kindervag, who now works for Illumio as chief evangelist, said the concept resonated with senior business leaders and government officials, but it was meant to be implemented using commercial off-the-shelf technology that existed at any point in time.

“The strategy and tactics are decoupled from each other purposefully, but we don’t want the strategy to change,” he said. “We want a strategy that stops data breaches, makes other cyber attacks unsuccessful, and yet be implemented better and better as technology gets better over time.”

Fundamentally, zero-trust security treats all users and data equally wherever they are, eliminating the traditional network perimeter and assuming that no user or device can be trusted until proven otherwise. Contrary to what some technology suppliers might claim in their marketing messages, it is not tied to a specific technology or product.

“There’s always some confusion because people sometimes don’t get the right information given to them,” Kindervag said. “A lot of people have spun zero trust to mean whatever they are selling now, but that’s not the case for us.

“Illumio provides a key segmentation technology that’s used inside of zero-trust environments, but it’s not the be all and end all, and it won’t make you ‘zero trusty’ as I like to say,” he added.

Zero trust is a journey

The fast-growing technology and cyber security landscape means that zero trust is not an end state, but a journey. Organisations sometimes struggle with that, Kindervag said, because they want zero trust to be a project that they can be done with.

Organisations also make the mistake of trying to implement zero trust for everything they have, even though there are assets that don’t have enough value and sensitivity that warrant as much protection.

“You should try to see what things you have that have high value, and then protect those using the zero-trust concept so that they’re more protected than other systems, especially when you’re early on in the journey,” he explained.

Citing the example of the massive data breach that hit Target in 2013, Kindervag said the US retail giant only needed to focus on protecting its credit cardholder database and customer records, not necessarily everything it had, if it had adopted zero trust.

“So, by getting people to focus on what is most important, they can be successful at protecting those things, and they can put other things into their zero-trust environment later on,” he added.

When starting out in zero trust, Kindervag advised organisations to start with a “learning protect surface” – the inverse of an attack surface – to significantly reduce the size of their attack surface.

“In the case of Target, that would have been your credit card data and that’s simple to find out because you can just use a mathematical formula called Luhn to look at packets, identify the data and protect it with a low-fidelity DLP [data loss prevention] solution,” he added.

Kindervag said network segmentation technology can help to create a micro-perimeter around a protect surface, putting controls – such as granular allow-only rules that limit what can be done within the protect surface – next to the assets being protected.

“Network segmentation is foundational to zero trust,” he added. “If the network is flat, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing – it’s just too big an environment to handle with MFA [multifactor authentication] or a perimeter firewall. There will just be too many dark corners for the attackers to hide in.”

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