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Why the Evolution of Zero Trust Must Begin with Data Protection

Aug 11 2021

The need for “Zero Trust” today is no longer the same as what we talked about years ago when the term was first coined. Back then, businesses only had a handful of remote workers signing in to the corporate network. The common wisdom of the day dictated that you couldn’t implicitly trust the authentication of those remote users any longer because they weren’t on the company LAN and the common solution was installing two-factor authentication.

Things have changed since then. The actual definition of zero trust today is much broader than the idea of going from “zero” to “full trust.” It’s more than just not trusting authentication because the user isn’t on your network any longer. You also can’t trust the devices they’re running. You can’t trust the applications they’re using. And you can’t trust the network they’re traversing. 

There are many more potential trust risks today too. There are also many more real threats—the FBI saw a 400% increase in cyberattacks seeking to exploit new opportunities in the first few months of the pandemic. But at the same time, there is also a much higher demand for official business being done outside the organization. In 2021, the percentage of remote employees is expected to double, and nearly three-fourths (74%) of companies plan to permanently shift workers to work from home after the pandemic ends. 

Despite the implicit “zero,” zero trust can’t be an all-or-nothing proposition. If the business cannot authenticate the user, then that user cannot be given access to company resources. If the majority of the workforce is working from home, using their own devices, applications, and home networks—literal enforcement of zero trust would effectively translate to “zero work gets done.” This is why any useful evolution of zero trust principles must include data protection.

Brave new world, brand new problems for protecting data

Organizations are moving ever-increasing amounts of data out into the cloud. The use of software-as-a-service (SaaS) has dramatically impacted the volume and nature of network traffic. Previously, the majority of internet traffic was accessing static information sites, but now more than half of internet traffic related to SaaS and cloud apps contains business-critical data. This shift in network traffic has resulted in a network reversal—diverting traffic away from on-premises security appliances in the data center, and directly to the cloud.

Unless you have forced hairpinning of all the network traffic from managed devices through your data center, users will go directly to the cloud-based applications—leaving organizations completely blind to the transaction (without a monitoring proxy). 

Lack of visibility is a very real problem. While cloud-based applications serve pressing business needs, security teams can’t manage the risk of something they can’t clearly see. Further complicating the problem, most users access applications on more than one device (personal laptop, tablets, phones, etc.). 

The attack surface has broadened because of the rising volume of data that now resides outside of data centers (in the cloud) and a vast number of users that are working remotely. This not only increases opportunities for cyberattacks, but it also complicates data security and regulatory risks. Understanding data flows, as required under many of the privacy regulations, requires constant discovery of cloud services and the ability to “geofence” data so it doesn’t cross international borders. A strong data protection program is required to be able to inspect the traffic, determine if it is regulated data, and then enforce restrictions to stay compliant with the laws.

So, how do you ensure proper data protection in this kind of world with zero trust? 

Putting data at the center of your architecture using SASE

A modern security model should center around data, rather than legacy approaches designed around protecting an on-premises site. Putting data at the center of your security model means moving controls out of the data center and instead placing them around data and users. And that’s really the essence of building a secure access service edge (SASE) architecture.

When properly designed, the SASE architecture provides a framework to completely rethink your network security strategy and cloud data protection. SASE converges network and security functions into a single entity. Both network and security shift to the cloud as services, away from the data center, and closest to the point of data access. The “perimeter”—if we can even call it that—then becomes a dynamically policy-based edge that can be provisioned when and where you need it.

The big change here is that it’s not just protecting assets in the cloud using security-as-a-service. It’s really a narrowing down of the platform as well—simplifying the stack. SASE means you’re bringing together security-as-a-service and network-as-a-service and running them across carrier-grade network systems.

The foundation of SASE starts with a Next Gen SWG

A software-based Next Generation Secure Web Gateway (NG SWG) is really the heart of a SASE architecture, around which you can build on different network and security services. Next Gen SWGs bring together data leakage prevention (DLP), web security, and a cloud access security broker (CASB) into one platform. Once integrated, NG SWGs can monitor and protect the data flowing to and from all critical business systems.

It’s here where we can start to approach data protection for a zero trust world. You have devices, users, and networks that you don’t have trust in. But you need to connect them to your private applications, as well as your SaaS, web, and IaaS workloads. A SASE architecture that enables visibility and analytics, as well as automation and orchestration capabilities, can allow users to work from anywhere while still getting access to everything they need—without putting the organization at undue risk.

This article was originally published at Toolbox Security.

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James Christiansen
James Christiansen is Netskope’s vice president of cloud security transformation and leader of the Global Chief Strategy Office. He is focused on enhancing Netskope’s global clients understand the challenges and solutions of cloud deployments by helping drive thought leadership in cloud security transformation.