By |Published On: June 27th, 2023|12 min read|Categories: Data Exfiltration|

What You Need to Know About Zero Trust Identity and Access Management

Keeping your data safe from being lost or stolen must be a top priority for any business. But while solutions such as anti data exfiltration (ADX) tools are essential in ensuring your information doesn’t end up in the wrong hands, this should only be one part of a comprehensive data protection strategy.

While ADX tools are a highly effective last line of defense that prevents bad actors from stealing information, data protection is made much easier if hackers or insider threats can’t access your most valuable assets in the first place. Therefore, another key part of a defense in depth strategy should be identity and access management.

This ensures only authorized individuals who are who they say they are can view, edit and move your most precious resources. In order to make this as secure as possible and minimize the risk of a data breach, the best practice is to take a ‘zero trust‘ approach. This means constantly verifying who users are and only providing the minimum level of privileged access needed for a task.

So what do businesses need to know in order to make a zero trust approach to access management an effective solution?

Zero Trust Identity and Access Management

A zero trust framework is a key part of an effective access management solution. This ensures that not only do organizations have full visibility at all times into who is accessing their data, but all users have the appropriate permissions and privileges to do so – and if not, access can automatically be denied and alerts raised with security teams.

What is Identity and Access Management?

In essence, identity and access management, or IAM, refers to the framework of processes and guidelines that ensure only authorized personnel and devices are able to access the organization’s data. This also includes steps to make certain users are also accessing data at appropriate times and for legitimate business reasons.

Essential elements that make up an effective IAM solution include:

  • Tools to identify users within a system
  • Clearly defined roles for individuals within the organization
  • The ability to add, remove and update users based on their role
  • The ability to assign appropriate levels of access to individuals or groups based on their needs

In this context, access is defined as a user’s ability to carry out a specific work-related task, such as creating, viewing or editing files within the system. Roles should be defined by a user’s job, level of authority and the responsibilities they have within the business.

How did Access Management Get Challenging?

In principle, IAM tools offer a straightforward way of protecting sensitive data. By defining and creating digital identities for each user, this should provide full visibility for administrators and automatically block attempts by hackers or other threats to access data.

However, in practice, this is no easy task, and as the nature of how we work evolves, it becomes even more challenging. Changes to the way individuals work and access data, such as the growing trend of remote work, and more stringent compliance and regulatory requirements all make it harder for firms to ensure the correct level of access rights.

For example, accurately verifying a user’s identity becomes harder when they may legitimately be seeking remote access to a system from multiple locations on various devices. This becomes an even bigger issue if organizations allow user access for third-parties such as contractors or supply chain partners.

The consequences of failure are also severe. As well as increasing the risk of data theft or ransomware – which comes with its own wide range of financial and reputational costs – poor access management can quickly attract the attention of data protection regulators who have the power to levy extensive fines.

What is an Insider Threat?

Effective access management is also one of the best ways to protect against many insider threats, which can be particularly hard to address with traditional perimeter defenses. These risks originate inside the business – i.e., your own employees – who may have a number of reasons for stealing data. This can include financial motivations, personal grievances or even blackmail. It can also include issues that are the result of negligence.

As they may already have access to critical systems, they can be very hard to spot. However, a zero trust identity management policy can go a long way to making it harder for them to exfiltrate data. This can alert administrators and security pros if a user is attempting to access data that is outside their normal responsibilities, or at an unusual time or location, for example.

Insider threats are among the biggest problems firms face today. According to the Ponemon Institute, these issues rose by 44 percent between 2020 and 2022, with costs per incident up more than a third to $15.38 million.

What is Zero Trust Network Access?

In order to ensure IAM tools are working effectively, the best solution is to adopt a zero trust security model. This requires an organization to be constantly verifying users and devices throughout their activities, not merely at the start of a session.

Why is There a Need for Zero Trust in Identity Management?

Zero trust stands in opposition to the more traditional ‘trust but verify’ approach. In this model, once a user had used authentication tools to confirm their identity, they were assigned a level of ‘implicit trust’, which allowed them to perform many tasks without the need to verify when accessing data within the network.

However, this could be easily taken advantage of by malicious actors. With this network security model, insider threats and hackers using techniques such as credential theft can bypass any initial checks and thereafter have free rein to move laterally within a system and access data.

What are the Main Principles Behind Zero Trust?

The core tenets of a zero trust model can be distilled down to ‘never trust, always verify’. However, in practice, there is a bit more to it than that. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, for example, sets out ten key principles for businesses developing a zero trust architecture. These are:

  1. Know your architecture (including users, devices, and services)
  2. Create a single strong user identity>
  3. Create a strong device identity
  4. Authenticate everywhere
  5. Know the health of your devices and services
  6. Focus your monitoring on devices and services
  7. Set policies according to value of the service or data
  8. Control access to your services and data
  9. Don’t trust the network, including the local network
  10. Choose services designed for zero trust

What are Some Zero Trust Use Cases?

A zero trust approach to identity governance can – and should – be used across all aspects of a business. By providing a uniform approach to data security, regardless of user, device or location, you minimize the risk of hackers or insiders regardless of what applications you have or the type of user who will need to interact with data.

However, there are a few particular occasions when using this approach will be particularly useful. If your organization features any of the following scenarios, you should make implementing a zero trust model a priority.

How Can You Implement Least Privilege in Your Organization?

While a zero trust implementation should be the goal for any company that needs to secure access to its networks, there are a range of potential issues that must be considered first. This includes the technical challenges of replacing legacy systems, any potential impact on productivity or the risk of legitimate users being blocked from accessing essential data. Therefore, firms must evaluate their situation carefully when deploying such tools.

What are Some Challenges of Zero Trust?

One of the big challenges when implementing any new security measure is ensuring it is implemented in a consistent, uniform manner across the organization, and zero trust access management is no different. This can be challenging as these tools often require significant changes to a system’s architecture and, as a result, many firms may opt to focus only on key areas.

However, this can create security gaps that determined hackers or those with inside knowledge can take advantage of. At the same time, finding a single ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for zero trust across an organization is also highly difficult. It should therefore be viewed as a holistic approach to security rather than a single solution.

What’s more, firms must consider the ongoing maintenance and administration costs of these solutions – in terms of both financial investments and the time resources they require. These tools may need additional employees or managed service providers to operate, on top of the need to constantly update permissions and roles in response to changing employee roles and responsibilities.

Ensuring Security Without Disruption to the User Experience

A key issue that must be addressed when implementing zero-trust is ensuring it does not impact on user performance. One of the main reasons many firms stick with less secure implied trust solutions is simply that it is convenient, as once a user has authenticated their identity, they can go about their work uninterrupted – which is of course also what allows hackers or malicious insiders to take advantage of these systems.

Therefore, it’s important to start small with zero trust implementations. A gradual rollout not only helps employees adapt to the new, more secure environment, but can allow security teams to spot where any issues may lie – such as individuals who are moving between teams or roles and need to be reauthenticated – and take appropriate steps.

Ensuring essential security measures do not compromise the user experience needs to be a key priority when implementing every step of a defense in depth strategy. If this is not taken into consideration, users will simply look for loopholes or other workarounds to avoid inconveniences. Therefore, ensuring usability is something that must not be overlooked.

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