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The Biggest Threat to Zero Trust Architecture? Silos.

By Doug Kersten
Published: July 18, 2022 | Last updated: July 25, 2022
Key Takeaways

Without cross-departmental collaboration and a thorough understanding of zero trust architecture’s functionality, organizations will likely miss out on its full potential—and may face significant security risks.

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As companies strive to secure newly remote and hybrid work environments, zero trust architecture (ZTA) has surged in popularity.

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ZTA refers to the practice of authenticating, authorizing and continuously validating users and their devices before giving them access to applications and data. This approach allows employees to work safely across different locations, devices and networks, keeping company data secure beyond office walls—even with ransomware and other cyberattacks on the rise. (Also read: How Should Businesses Respond to a Ransomware Attack?)

Yet, for many organizations, successfully transitioning to ZTA is still a challenge. While ZTA is generally no more complicated to implement than other security technologies, mismanaged employee expectations can form a major roadblock. Without cross-departmental collaboration and a foundational understanding of ZTA’s functionality, employees are likely to feel frustrated by the authentication protocols and access levels ZTA instills. If leadership doesn’t prioritize employee education and engagement while transitioning to the ZTA model, organizations will likely miss out on reaping its full potential—and find they still face significant security risks.

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What is Zero Trust Architecture?

Zero Trust Architecture (ZTA) views users and their devices as intertwined entities whose trustworthiness must be evaluated together. Its guiding principle is that no user—and no user device or network—can be trusted until verified. (Also read: A Zero Trust Model is Better Than a VPN. Here's Why.)

To determine trustworthiness, ZTA uses various security controls, login information and authentication protocols to verify if users can establish secure connections to their networks and environments. Once users get the green light, pre-designated trust profiles determine their appropriate level of access to company data and systems.

Whether the user is an employee, contractor, customer or prospect, their access level is informed by their specific role and accompanying needs. For example, employees provide more verification information than contractors, but they get higher access to company information in return. Though contractors may get less access than employees, they still receive the information required to do their jobs.

How Does Zero Trust Architecture Improve Security?

ZTA reduces organizational security risk because it analyzes users holistically, looking at more data than just users’ individual networks.

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Moreover, as organizations increasingly solidify flexible working models and continue to migrate to the cloud and Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions, reliance on traditional network-focused verification is becoming more and more impractical. That's because, in the new remote environment, employees no longer work on the same network. Organizations can easily implement ZTA in these dispersed work environments and reduce security complexity with pre-established access levels—but only if they take a thoughtful, multi-phased approach that prioritizes employee engagement.

Without proper training about ZTA’s access level design, employees are unlikely to embrace the new architecture and understand its value—and this is especially true for employees whose data access is limited or changed upon implementation. (Also read: Destroying Silos With Integrated Data Analytics Platforms.)

In addition, engineers or employees in research and development may be particularly wary of adding new security measures, which can sometimes cause user friction and appear to impede innovation. But ZTA actually lessens user friction and simplifies user experience when implemented correctly because it creates a common trust model that allows for faster and more consistent access to protected assets. By relying on predetermined trust levels, ZTA streamlines business operations—from onboarding new employees and vendors to assuring customers that their data is properly accessed and controlled.

How Can Organizations Maintain Transparency When Implementing ZTA?

To fully benefit from ZTA, organizations must take a structured and multi-phased approach to implementation—allowing time for internal promotion, awareness and employee education. Here are four tips for a successful transition to the ZTA model:

1. Prioritize Employee Education

Employees may be less than excited to learn about another security hoop they have to jump through. But comprehensive employee education goes a long way in clarifying exactly what ZTA looks like in action and how it can simplify employee responsibilities.

For leadership in particular, training on the value of ZTA will help drive home the flexibility it provides and its time-saving benefits—for example, the ability to more easily support access requirements for employees, contractors, consultants, vendors and customers during merger and acquisition (M&A) activities.

2. Align With Your Vendor

Just because ZTA is surging in popularity doesn’t mean everyone agrees on its definition.

When choosing a security vendor to help you implement ZTA, ensure your foundational understanding and security goals align. Communicate your organization’s risk level, pain points and business model to ensure your chosen vendor's service offerings will help you protect your data and systems in a way that aligns with your ZTA philosophy. (Also read: 5 Questions Businesses Should Ask Their Cloud Provider.)

3. Prepare for Changing Architecture

While the workload for transitioning to ZTA is largely upfront, monitoring your zero trust processes on an ongoing basis is crucial to long-term success. As your business infrastructure evolves, you will likely need to adjust data encryption, security controls, access levels and user profiles.

Monitoring also enables continuous optimization of your security architecture and helps your internal risk teams become more agile over time—and defining ZTA policies in advance can help you embrace these changes.

4. Promote Cross-Departmental Collaboration

To comprehensively design trust profiles and appropriate access levels, you must understand employee risk and data needs across teams and departments. Promote and standardize collaboration among your employees to ensure security teams get the information they need to make ZTA successful.

This is particularly important during the transition phase, when ZTA is first being integrated into your internal systems.

How ZTA Fits into Today's Work Environment

Along with the trend toward cloud integration and SaaS-first environments, the flexibility of remote and hybrid work environments has become many companies’ new mantra. ZTA can help you manage these new expectations effectively and efficiently—but only if employees are prepared to embrace changing security standards.

By prioritizing interdepartmental collaboration and educating employees on ZTA operations, you can ensure frictionless user journeys, maximum flexibility and improved security—allowing your employees to work wherever they happen to be.

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Written by Doug Kersten | Chief Information Security Officer

Profile Picture of Doug Kersten

Doug Kersten is the Chief Information Security Officer at Appfire. Kersten brings more than two decades of security leadership experience to this role, having led IT and security programs for some of the world’s top financial institutions and law firms.

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