What exactly is zero trust in cybersecurity?

In cybersecurity, there is a buzzword I've seen some confusion about online recently. It's called zero trust, and though it sounds like vague corporate-ese at first, it actually represents a necessary approach to digital security.

Cyber threats are constantly evolving, and IT professionals need to be prepared for the worst at all times. Zero trust is a valid part of defense in depth and the principle of least privilege within a network or series of networks. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, historically, cyber professionals relied on perimeter defenses like firewalls to determine trust, assuming that everything inside the network was trustworthy. Zero trust challenges this notion by requiring strict identity verification for every user and device trying to access resources, regardless of their location.

You'll often hear the term “never trust, always verify” when talking about zero trust. Practically, this means that every user and device must authenticate their identity before accessing the resources on the network, ensuring that only authorized individuals can access sensitive data.

It also means users are granted the minimum level of access required to perform their tasks (the principle of least privilege I mentioned a second ago). This not only limits the potential damage that can be caused in case of a security breach, but it impedes insider threats from doing even more damage than would be possible otherwise.

Zero trust also makes it harder for attackers to move laterally within a network by implementing network segmentation. This divides larger networks up into smaller pieces, isolating each segment, and protecting them from threats in other segments.

Effectively implementing these steps is not a set it and forget it kind of thing either. Zero trust requires continuous monitoring of user and device behavior to detect anomalies or suspicious activities that may indicate security threats. Proper implementation takes the “never trust” part to the extreme.

In other words, zero trust means that organizations don't blindly trust their employees and internal networks. Threats can come from anywhere, including within, and implementing various controls to mitigate these risks can significantly enhance an organization's security posture and enable them to better protect all constituents involved.

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