Navigating the complexities of zero trust in the modern cybersecurity landscape

The pivotal role of cloud observability is now at the forefront, serving as the key to unlocking the full potential of the zero trust extended framework.

In the past, having a secure perimeter was synonymous with having a secure network. However, this is no longer true in today’s rapidly evolving digital world. As a result, the zero-trust model has emerged as a pivotal component in modern cybersecurity strategies. In the realm of modern cybersecurity, the zero-trust model has become increasingly vital. Yet its success hinges on more than just the traditional components of identity and access management.

The pivotal role of cloud observability is now at the forefront, serving as the key to unlocking the full potential of the zero trust extended framework. This new focus on observability underscores its importance in ensuring comprehensive monitoring and transparency across the network. In today’s complex digital landscape, where traditional boundaries are blurred, the integration of enhanced observability tools becomes indispensable in identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities, truly revolutionizing the approach to network security and risk management. It requires a holistic approach, as outlined in the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s Zero Trust Maturity Model.

This model outlines five critical pillars: identity, devices, networks, applications and workloads, and data. The Defense Department model has evolved to include seven pillars, with visibility now recognized as the crucial sixth pillar, emphasizing the importance of comprehensive monitoring and transparency in network security.

Crucially, “visibility” or observability acts as the connective tissue among these pillars, where technologies such as Dynatrace play a pivotal role.

Understanding the need for zero trust

The digital transformation of the workplace has fundamentally altered our approach to cybersecurity. In the past security teams focused primarily on safeguarding the traditional perimeter of on-premises networks.

Fast forward to today, and the landscape is drastically different. The proliferation of cloud computing, mobile technology and, most significantly, the bring-your-own-device culture has redefined these traditional perimeters.

Employees now access corporate resources from home, coffee shops or halfway across the globe. This integration of individual and professional tools, coupled with the increasing complexity of network infrastructures, has dramatically expanded the potential attack surface, offering more opportunities for malicious actors to exploit vulnerabilities.

Enter the zero-trust model, which is rooted in the principle of “Never trust, always verify.” Zero trust is not about making a system trusted but about eliminating trust as a factor. Each request for access to any resource must be fully authenticated, authorized and continuously validated for security configuration before access is granted. Zero trust extends this security model to every access decision, whether the request comes from within or outside the network. In today’s complex IT environments, achieving zero trust is not possible without the power of observability tools.

The transition to zero trust is more than a technological change; it’s a cultural shift. It requires organizations to reevaluate their approach to security, considering every user and device as a potential threat. As we continue to embrace digital transformation and its complexities, adopting the zero trust model is no longer an option but a necessity for organizations seeking to protect their assets in this interconnected world.

The White House Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity reflects this need. It emphasizes eliminating implicit trust in any network element, requiring continuous verification to determine access and other system responses.

The five tenets of zero trust

Adopting zero trust requires adherence to five fundamental tenets:

  1. Recognize the network as inherently vulnerable.
  2. Assume constant threat presence, both inside and outside the virtual gate.
  3. Authenticate and authorize every device, user and network flow.
  4. Never equate network locality with trust.
  5. Implement dynamic policies based on comprehensive data sources.

A recent survey by Merlin Cyber with Meritalk highlights the growing importance and challenges of implementing a zero-trust framework in federal IT environments. It found that approximately 70% of national IT leaders acknowledge that zero trust has become a higher priority as the number of applications and devices accessing agency resources increases, yet only 55% express strong confidence in their agency’s ability to implement a zero-trust framework effectively. This uncertainty is further underscored by the fact that 53% of these leaders rate themselves as only “average” in restricting access to enterprise resources on a per-connection basis. The finding reveals a significant gap between the perceived importance of zero-trust security measures and the current ability of agencies to implement them effectively.

Challenges and opportunities ahead

Despite the growing prioritization of zero trust, many federal IT leaders express only moderate confidence in their ability to implement a comprehensive zero-trust framework. Limiting access on a per-connection basis and enforcing strict user authentication remain areas for improvement. One of the key challenges contributing to leaders’ lack of confidence in security is limited observability of IT assets, which obscures potential vulnerabilities and hinders effective threat detection.

As we navigate the complexities of the modern cybersecurity landscape, it’s clear that zero trust is not just a policy, but a comprehensive strategy. Agencies can better navigate this journey through intelligent observability, including continuous monitoring of all data sources, applying AI to establish baselines, and identifying potential threats to enforce the least privileged access.

As chief technology officers and cybersecurity leaders, our role is to guide this transition, ensuring our organizations are protected and prepared for the evolving nature of cyberthreats.

Willie Hicks is public sector chief technologist at Dynatrace.

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