Can federal agencies meet the 2024 zero trust deadline?

In the realm of federal cybersecurity, change is both inevitable and necessary. The urgency of President Biden's 2021 Executive Order to implement a zero trust ...

In the realm of federal cybersecurity, change is both inevitable and necessary. The urgency of President Biden’s 2021 Executive Order to implement a zero trust architecture by September 2024 has set the stage for a pivotal transformation. Yet, as the deadline draws near, it’s apparent that while the directive’s intent is clear, the path to its realization is fraught with complexity and challenges.

The zero trust paradigm is a response to escalating threats faced by our nation’s digital infrastructure. However, translating this strategic vision into tangible operational realities is proving to be a formidable challenge. While agency directors and IT leaders alike are championing the cause, the reality is that those responsible for building and maintaining these systems are wrestling with difficult, multifaceted issues and progress is moving slower than anticipated.

That raises an important question: Is the September 2024 deadline still feasible?

In theory, the time frame appears adequate. Yet, it’s crucial to acknowledge the intricate dynamics that arise when integrating a zero trust framework into pre-existing federal IT systems. Federal agencies often operate on a massive scale and their networks have evolved over time, resulting in layers of legacy architecture and technical debt. As these agencies seek to transition to a zero trust architecture, they are confronted with the monumental task of reconfiguring their digital foundations while simultaneously ensuring seamless operations.

Data governance is another central challenge that demands attention. Federal agencies handle an extraordinary volume of sensitive information and establishing a comprehensive data governance framework is paramount. The zero trust model necessitates granular visibility into data flows, user behaviors and system interactions. Achieving this level of visibility requires not only the implementation of sophisticated tools but also a cultural shift in how data is managed and accessed.

The journey to zero trust is further impeded by operational hurdles that are characteristic of large-scale enterprises. The federal landscape encompasses a diverse array of systems, applications and endpoints, all of which need to be evaluated and aligned with the zero trust framework. Legacy systems may lack native support for the security measures mandated by zero trust, requiring complex workarounds or even complete overhauls.

Despite these challenges, it is still possible to meet the 2024 deadline. Here are some best practices that agencies can use to help their teams accelerate the path to zero trust:

  • Secure leadership’s commitment. While senior agency leadership is usually aware of zero trust’s importance, they may not always understand the breadth and depth of IT capabilities required to implement it. That’s why agency leaders must take ownership of assessing and prioritizing the investments required to address IT and security gaps.
  • Get identity management right. While zero trust depends on executing prescribed security practices on multiple dimensions, agency leaders must ensure IT departments have the necessary resources to focus on user identity and access management. Identity is applied to networking, devices, data access, workloads and automation. As a result, getting identity right is foundational to the rest of the zero trust pillars.
  • Modernize data governance. A strong data governance strategy is at the heart of zero trust. Now is the time to invest in data classification, encryption and access controls, while ensuring that data handling policies are well-communicated and consistently enforced.
  • Embrace incremental progress. Achieving zero trust won’t happen overnight. Federal agencies should adopt an incremental approach, focusing on securing critical assets and expanding the scope. This allows for measured implementation, minimizes disruptions, and ensures that security improvements are continuous.
  • Prioritize training and education throughout the entire agency. Zero trust isn’t just a journey for security teams. It’s a journey for an entire federal agency and its implementation affects everyone. That’s why leaders must recognize the importance of allocating resources for training and education throughout the entire agency.

The journey to zero trust is undoubtedly complex, but with the right strategies in place it’s one that federal agencies can navigate successfully. While the September 2024 deadline remains a challenge, it can serve as a catalyst for lasting cybersecurity resilience. By acknowledging the unique intricacies of federal agencies and their respective systems, understanding the challenges they face, and implementing thoughtful solutions, agencies can meet the 2024 zero trust deadline and pave the way toward a more secure digital future.

Kevin Finch is senior technical director of cybersecurity at Iron Bow Technologies. 

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