5 steps for building an adaptable, dynamic zero trust architecture within federal agencies

At its core, a zero-trust architecture (ZTA) follows one guiding principle: Trust no one. Unlike conventional models, where anything inside the network perimete...

In an ever-evolving cybersecurity landscape, federal agencies are recognizing the need for security strategies that are adaptable, resilient and align with stringent regulatory requirements. Central to this transformation is the concept of zero trust, a paradigm that redefines traditional trust assumptions and advocates for a dynamic and adaptive approach.

At its core, a zero-trust architecture (ZTA) follows one guiding principle: Trust no one. Unlike conventional models, where anything inside the network perimeter is trusted, ZTA considers all users and systems as potential threats. This means verifying every access attempt, regardless of whether the attempt originates inside or outside the network.

Experts equate this approach to deploying security checkpoints at each entry point, much like Transportation Security Administration screenings at airport gates. But ZTA is far more adaptive, employing advanced technologies like artificial intelligence to continually scrutinize user behavior and customize user access.

Though daunting, such comprehensiveness is essential in our hyperconnected world. This year’s vulnerabilities in the MOVEit-managed file transfer software, which businesses and governments use for secure data transfer, demonstrated how even reputable entities can become attack vectors. By eliminating blind trust, ZTA can impede lateral movement and data exfiltration.

Despite such advantages, adoption remains uneven across federal agencies. Zero trust is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The mission of each agency, its particular cybersecurity challenges, and its current infrastructure all have an impact on its ZTA journey.

ZTA can work with new technologies like secure access service edge (SASE), software-defined wide area networking (SDN), model-based systems engineering (MBSE), and digital twin technology. For example, some parts of the Defense Department are further along on their ZTA journey and have embraced this. Importantly, they employ sophisticated modeling tools to accelerate and de-risk implementations.

The 2024 deadline to meet certain zero-trust goals set by the Office of Management and Budget might seem unachievable for some agencies. But agency trailblazers have proven it’s possible. Their success highlights five best practices that every agency should adopt:

  1. Integrate holistically. Agencies should look to build a comprehensive cybersecurity ecosystem that incorporates SASE and SD-WAN. Moreover, a zero-trust model should be made up of interchangeable components that can be easily upgraded or swapped out. This way, government IT and security teams are always prepared for a dynamically changing cyber environment.
  2. Embrace cutting-edge tools. The use of MBSE and digital twins is a game-changer. MBSE is like the ultimate GPS system for the zero trust journey that doesn’t just navigate but also simulates different routes, traffic conditions and potential hazards. On the other hand, digital twin technology is like having a virtual copy of a car and the journey, allowing real-time assessment and adjustments. Both technologies serve as invaluable planning and real-time adjustment tools that every agency should consider adopting, particularly for complex, large-scale migrations. These tools allow ZTA to adapt swiftly to emerging threats or changing operational needs.
  3. Embrace risk management. While agencies embrace risk differently, technology and security teams can reduce risk significantly by exploring innovative approaches. Adopting modern engineering methods adds an extra layer of security and predictability.
  4. Provide ongoing learning. Agencies should adapt and evolve by not just following best practices but also setting them. This can be compared to taking notes during a road trip to share with other travelers, providing them with insights on shortcuts, the best rest stops and what to avoid. At the same time, continuous monitoring of a ZTA environment is vital, providing agencies with real-time insights into network behavior and potential threats.
  5. Stay committed. The road to zero trust is long and winding, but agencies’ sustained commitment to the journey is essential for success. Furthermore, agencies must equip IT and zero trust security teams with the tools and training they need to maintain and evolve the zero trust framework.

By combining these best practices with their own unique requirements and challenges, agencies can accelerate their journey toward a more secure and agile future. Other key points to keep in mind to make zero trust adaptable and dynamic include:

  • Adaptability is essential. Security measures must evolve to address ever-changing threats, much like how a business pivots to meet market demands.
  • Strategic partnerships elevate security. Collaboration with industry experts and technology providers can significantly boost the robustness of cybersecurity measures.
  • Layered defenses provide comprehensive protection. Using multiple, integrated security measures is far more effective than relying on one line of defense.
  • An evaluative approach minimizes risk. Emerging technologies and strategies should be rigorously tested before full-scale implementation to ensure they align with security objectives.
  • Future-proofing is crucial. Security protocols must be designed with the flexibility to adapt to future challenges and threats, not just those of today.

What lies ahead for zero trust in federal agencies?

While ZTA itself is a well-defined standard, its implementation can be diversified due to rapidly evolving technologies. Future-looking elements such as digital twin technology and AI-driven closed-loop automation have the potential to make ZTA deployments more dynamic and efficient. However, for these innovative technologies to be widely adopted, ZTA implementations must be easier and more cost-effective.

To this end, standardization in ZTA deployments emerges as a key strategic component. Open-source contributions can offer a framework for universal best practices, thereby streamlining implementations and driving down costs. The open-source ethos fosters a collaborative approach, enabling the creation of universally recognized benchmarks and facilitating interoperability across varied ZTA solutions.

This dual focus — on innovation and streamlined implementation through standardization — will be pivotal in fulfilling the promises of ZTA both now and in the future.

Roger Payne is senior director of IT Solutions for the Technology Solutions and Products group at Akima.

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