What Is NIST Zero Trust Architecture & How to Achieve It

Modern enterprise networks and infrastructures are complex. Working with several different networks, cloud services, and remote workers means a growing infrastructure that needs to be protected to ensure integrity of internal operations.

In the past, businesses could rely on simple perimeter defenses, but the demand for more robust cybersecurity solutions continues to increase with the increasing complexity of enterprise networks.

For an organization to function, it needs a secure way for employees and machine services to access the sensitive resources they need to do their jobs. There needs to be a mechanism for avoiding data breaches, and zero trust principles are the solution IT departments and administrators are looking for.

Read on to learn the basics of zero trust architecture and how your company can successfully achieve it.

NIST Zero Trust Architecture

What Is Zero Trust Architecture?

The threat of a service breach is far too costly to ignore. Consequences can include fines and legal sanctions for noncompliance, loss of trust amongst business partners and customers and the compromise of your network and employees.

Various devices, cloud services, applications, and human users have a need to be given access to sensitive materials in the company on an ongoing basis, so how do you ensure the access you grant an authorized party is justified and minimizes exposure? The zero trust principles require that:

  • All communication is secured: It doesn’t matter if a user is from your own network. Treat that entity like any other non-owned part of your infrastructure. Communication security applies to everyone.
  • All resources are eligible for protection: It doesn’t matter what the data or service entails, where it’s located, or whether it’s cloud-based or on-premises. Everything deserves protection under zero trust.
  • Authorized access should be temporary: Users only need access to enterprise resources for as little time as necessary to do their jobs. This concept is also known as the principle of least privilege.
  • Constant monitoring is necessary: Zero trust is not a “one and done” consideration. IT and security must continue to respond to potential threats, update the security posture regularly, and implement features like identity and access management.

Zero trust runs on the assumption that no one is trusted until proven otherwise. Under this principle, a network will still be secured even if a malicious entity was inside it. 

Zero trust practices require constant analysis of the threat landscape and various countermeasures that are always on and require everyone to go through before obtaining access.

Companies that practice zero trust segment their networks and provide granular user access control to anybody and everybody. In other words, you are minimizing the total amount of access you grant to anybody, and any entity with privileged access must authenticate and authorize itself with no exceptions.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provides a detailed definition of zero trust in NIST SP 800 207.

The Components of Zero Trust Framework Compliance

Regardless of whether you work with cloud-based services, on-premises resources, or both, your security architecture will contain these basic components to achieve zero trust.

  • The Policy Engine (PE): Grants privileged access to authorized users whenever a request is made.
  • The Policy Administrator (PA): Opens and closes communication lines between entities in the business and the sensitive resources they have access to.
  • The Policy Enforcement Point (PEP): Establishes and terminates the connection between an authorized user and the resource.

NIST 800-207 compliance additionally mandates the following requirements for a business network to be considered a zero trust architecture.

  • The network must have basic connectivity and properly own and manage its own assets.
  • Both inbound and outbound traffic must be monitored. Inbound traffic must come from only authenticated sources.
  • Whenever a resource becomes available to an entity, the PEP and PA must be involved to allow the access.
  • Remote users should be barred from accessing core assets and any resources in general when certain policies are not met.

There are far more details that NIST SP 800 207 zero trust architecture covers, but the above are the basics.

You might need to incorporate zero trust with an organization that has several satellite facilities, a multi-cloud environment, collaborations with other enterprises, or consumer-facing services.

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How To Incorporate Zero Trust Into Your Business

It may seem daunting at first setting up Zero Trust practices, but administrators will be happy to know that it largely works by building upon your existing architecture. Maintaining Zero Trust isn’t too complicated if you follow a few basic steps.

  • Identify the “attack surface”: Take note of all your most valuable data and services that you need to defend. The exact “attack surface” differs between organizations.
  • Monitor traffic as it moves through your business: Who are the users and what resources are they accessing? Could these activities impact the attack surface in any way?
  • Build up controls: Start by marking off your attack surface with a microperimeter and establish a firewall that ensures only legitimate traffic has access to your attack surface. This firewall is known as a segmentation gateway.
  • Continue to monitor your security posture at all times: The attack surface will likely change along with your business, and you’re likely to find traffic you haven’t accounted for yet.

Zero trust can apply no matter how your network is laid out. Devices, users, and applications can be located anywhere and access your resources at any time. No matter what, zero trust ensures safe access in all these cases.

Common Threats To Look Out For

The threat of cybersecurity risks will always be a factor. It’s only the performance of a business’s zero trust architecture that defines how safe it is. Some common risks are:

  • Stolen credentials: While a network entity might be authorized, how do you tell that the entity itself hasn’t been compromised through credential theft or a phishing attack? It’s recommended that you implement multi-factor authentication and educate employees on common phishing strategies to avoid this type of incident.
  • Unapproved changes: This includes both the PE and PA components of zero trust. Network administrators should always log and audit any changes made to cybersecurity configurations for this reason.
  • Data theft: Especially the information you collect as part of security monitoring or analysis. This data can be used maliciously, so store it in a safe place.
  • Separate data formats: Cybersecurity teams work with a large variety of data formats, some of which are proprietary. Applying different standards of zero trust security in this case often involves a supply chain risk assessment.

These challenges are only just a few that you should expect. Once you have the best practices down, building a secure architecture will become an achievable goal with a high return on investment.

Simplify Your Approach to Cyber Risk & Compliance With Centraleyes

Achieving a NIST zero trust architecture doesn’t require an enterprise-level budget today. Small and mid-size enterprises often have trouble handling their cybersecurity needs, and even large enterprises still look for more efficient ways to protect themselves in the threat-laden digital environment.

That’s where automation-driven solutions for cybersecurity and compliance come into the picture. 

Centraleyes is trusted by global brands like Orange Cyberdefense, Netskope, and Cross River. Our platform is the go-to platform for risk, compliance and privacy frameworks—and can specifically help you implement and manage a zero trust framework alongside 50 other risk and compliance frameworks, so all your risk management needs in one place. 

Are you interested in streamlining your approach to cyber risk and compliance? Schedule a demo today and start reaping the benefits of a zero trust digital workplace.

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