The pandemic has accelerated digital transformation and telework on a scale never seen before. Employees are working from anywhere and collaboration in the cloud has skyrocketed. But this new environment has expanded the cyber attack surface, compromising critical U.S. infrastructure and lives of our citizens. The recent slew of major cyber attacks including SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange and Colonial Pipeline, has moved cybersecurity improvements to the top of the agenda for the U.S. federal government.
In early May, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity defenses. This order requires agencies to have a plan to adopt a Zero Trust framework within 90 days. It also provides clear recommendations and timeframes for public and private organizations to implement key technology and process improvements.
It is imperative for agencies to understand the steps they can take right now to implement Zero Trust to both safeguard against modern cyber attacks and comply with new regulations. To aid in the journey, I break down the main concepts of Zero Trust and data protection and steps agencies can take today to align with the Executive Order.
The Executive Order and Zero Trust
The guiding principle of the Executive Order is that organizations need to adopt a Zero Trust framework for cybersecurity. You may ask: what exactly am I trusting and what does “zero” have to do with it? Trust in this case is all about whether a user, their device and the network they are using will introduce risks of a cyberattack. These risks could come in many forms — malware or ransomware, vulnerabilities that can be exploited, or compromised credentials or devices. Zero is about “not trusting” the user, device or network connection until you can verify the risk level and understand whether it meets your security requirements.
An easy way to think about it is that security teams can not trust any users that attempt to connect to their network, apps and data, even after they have authenticated. Instead, they must constantly verify the risk level to ensure that users can be trusted. Access is granted dynamically in real-time upon verification of the user.
Without Zero Trust, users are granted privileges to your infrastructure and data once and security teams have limited visibility into what the user or device is doing. Without reverifying the risk level, it is free to access any resources. If a cyberattacker subverts the device or user account, then the attacker can easily move laterally and likely to go undetected, resulting in a breach.
A Zero Trust framework moves away from one-time security gating decisions, toward continuous assessment of the risk level of the user and device, and dynamically adapting access privileges based on changes in the risk level.
As a result, a Zero Trust framework enables agencies to more effectively protect apps and data in the age of telework and cloud collaboration.
Four steps for agencies to get started with Zero Trust
The federal government wants to apply modern Zero Trust technology to ensure that employees, data and its infrastructure are protected. Below are four steps you can take right away.
Step 1: Ensure your agency can continuously assess risk on endpoints
With many remote workers using personal devices these days, it's important to ensure that only trusted devices can access your network.
Agency cybersecurity leaders can take steps to ensure that any device – whether it's a smartphone, tablet, Chromebook or PC — will not introduce malware or create a pathway for an attacker to gain access to your infrastructure.
Step 2: Provide dynamic and granular access
Multi-factor authentication is a good first step towards knowing whether an account is compromised, but it’s not enough. Agencies also need to be able to spot abnormal behavior that might indicate an internal or external threat. This can be achieved with a cloud access security broker (CASB) solution that has robust user entity and behavior analytics (EUBA). By understanding how employees usually behave, agencies can spot malicious activity and prevent insider threats and advanced attacks.
Step 3: Verify cloud configurations
It’s important to verify the security posture of the cloud applications used by government employees. Misconfigurations in software as a service (SaaS) applications, such as Box, or Microsoft 365, and infrastructure as a service (IaaS) like AWS, Azure or GCP environments can create opportunities that cyber attackers exploit.
Agency cybersecurity teams can utilize SaaS Security Posture Management (SSPM) and Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) tools to verify cloud security configurations and prevent them from creating opportunities for cyberattackers.
Step 4 - Secure data regardless of where it goes
It can be overwhelming to manage the security of cloud applications and the data that flows through them, especially when multiple clouds exist and a myriad of work streams are in play. Agencies need to have full control over their data regardless of how it’s handled or where it goes.
To ensure sensitive information does not leak out accidentally or is stolen by a threat actor, organizations have a single viewpoint to see what’s happening and manage granular access policies based. This can only happen if there’s an understanding of the user or device’s risk posture, what they need access to and the types of data and apps required for productivity.
Government data also should be encrypted wherever it goes — in transit and at rest — whether it is being emailed, uploaded to a cloud or downloaded to a local drive. Only the highest level of encryption is sufficient so that only authorized users with the encryption key can gain access.
Zero Trust and data security are no longer optional
The Executive Order is a good reminder of the critical need for both the public and private sector to rethink cybersecurity. To deploy Zero Trust and secure mission-critical data, agencies need an integrated security platform that covers the endpoint, the cloud and everywhere in between.
Lookout CEO Jim Dolce recently spoke at the CyberTalks Virtual Summit to address critical elements of modernizing cybersecurity in government with Zero Trust.
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