How to Build a Zero Trust Policy

Zero trust is the future of data security. As the popularity of remote work, bring your own device (BYOD), and cloud-based systems and applications grow, traditional perimeter security measures are no longer adequate. Zero trust helps organizations protect their digital assets in a perimeterless environment.

In this guide, we’ll explain the three foundational principles of zero trust, share a six-step guide for creating a zero trust policy, and discuss common challenges teams encounter during implementation.

Guiding Principles of a Zero Trust Policy

A zero trust architecture assumes that all devices, users, and applications are potential threats, regardless of their location, and requires users to be verified and authenticated before resource access is granted.

Zero trust is built on a three-tiered foundation. Each layer addresses a central theme that explains how the framework helps organizations maintain strict data access control in an increasingly decentralized environment. These fundamentals lay the groundwork for creating a comprehensive zero trust policy that will effectively protect your organization’s critical data from compromise.

1. Never Trust, Always Verify

Zero trust eliminates implicit trust — no user has standing privilege. Before access to a resource is granted, each user must be authenticated and authorized using multiple data points, which may include identity, location, device, and other information.

2. Assume Breach

A zero trust stance starts with the assumption that critical systems are open to compromise, forcing security teams to think about how to limit the damage an intruder or malicious insider might cause. By assuming initial defenses are faulty, teams can focus on limiting the size of the blast radius using strategies such as segmenting access and real-time network monitoring.

3. Apply Least Privileged Access (LPA)

Least privilege access (LPA) involves right-sizing user privileges. By providing human and synthetic users with access to only the resources required to complete a task, credentials are less valuable to a hacker in the event they are compromised. Additionally, resource access can be granted for only the minimum amount of time required to complete a task — if additional time is required, users must be re-authenticated.

Developing and Implementing Zero Trust

What zero trust actually looks like in practice will vary from company to company. A zero trust policy helps define how the general principles shared above will be applied to meet an organization’s own specific data security requirements. Here’s how to develop and implement a zero trust policy that meets your needs.

Identify a Starting Point for Implementation

For most organizations, moving all at once from a traditional perimeter-focused approach to zero trust isn’t practical. Instead, most teams find that implementing zero trust incrementally over time ensures that security measures are well-integrated and comprehensive.

The first step is determining where to begin. There are three main gateways into zero trust: user and device identity, applications and data, and networks. Although most organizations will end up incorporating elements of all three, it makes sense to pick a starting point most closely aligned with your business’s security priorities and IT infrastructure.

For organizations that have yet to move to the cloud, implementing network-focused technologies that support zero trust can make sense. These may include introducing automation to network controls so user authorization can be revoked before the session ends, and using identity-based segmentation, a security practice that divides a network into isolated segments, making it easier to visualize, monitor, and control traffic.

User and Device Identity
Focusing on user and device identity can be a good fit for organizations with a flexible in-office policy where many employees are accessing technologies, such as cloud data platforms and apps, remotely. This route leverages technologies such as an identity and access management (IAM) system, streamlining user authentication processes across multiple cloud platforms and services, as well as internal systems. User validation methods including biometric and multifactor authentication can provide additional security.

Applications and Data
As the collection and use of sensitive data become more widespread, many companies are prioritizing data security, making this a popular entry point into zero trust. Data security-focused safeguards such as cross-organizational data classification can help businesses quickly and systematically understand their entire data ecosystem, as well as the data security needs and relevant compliance standards of all data types. Data loss prevention (DLP) is another security technology that detects potential data breaches and ex-filtration and prevents them by monitoring and blocking sensitive data while in use, in motion, and at rest.

A Comprehensive Approach
Implementing an attribute-based access control (ABAC) model provides strong data security controls. It takes into account the attributes and characteristics of users, resources, and the environment to make real-time access control decisions. Using an ABAC solution, access control policies are defined based on a variety of attributes including user role, job title, department, location, time of day, and other contextual information. This robust, but flexible access control model allows organizations to implement easily customizable, fine-grained access control policies ideal for zero trust.

Assess Your Available Attack Surface and Existing Security Tools

Once you’ve identified your starting point, the next step is to determine where you’re most vulnerable. Attack surfaces could include sensitive data, critical applications, and physical assets such as point-of-sale (POS) systems or internet-of-things (IoT) devices. Evaluate how well your existing security tools support zero trust principles and identify existing security gaps that require the acquisition of new tools and technologies to address.

Identify and Implement New Security Tools

With technology needs defined, it’s time to identify the tools required to support your zero trust objective. Implementing a comprehensive solution such as a data security platform can help your organization achieve its zero trust goals faster. A robust security platform will allow you to automate attribute-based access controls (ABAC), sensitive data discovery, data monitoring, and more.

Author a Zero Trust Policy

The zero trust policy is the document that defines the organization’s zero trust strategy. It includes information on the organization’s current zero trust standing, unresolved security vulnerabilities, and the tools required to address them. This framework contains a detailed timeline for zero trust implementation, providing a description of each phase including key security objectives, the tools and processes required to meet them, and the KPIs that will be used to measure success.

Evaluate the Organizational and Security Impact of the New Implementations

Once the data security solutions have been implemented, evaluate their impact. Have they helped the organization achieve its zero trust goals? Has their introduction necessitated changes in security operations that require new processes or ways of working? What can be improved? What are the next steps?

Iterate and Repeat

A zero trust policy is not a static document. As an organization’s security needs change and the threats it faces evolve, it’s important to revisit this policy regularly to assess the performance of current technologies and the availability of new ones. Inevitable changes in the security landscape will introduce new vulnerabilities in the attack surface that will need to be identified and addressed.

Challenges to Creating a Comprehensive Zero Trust Policy

Developing a comprehensive zero trust policy is essential for organizations to protect their IT infrastructure from cyber threats. But achieving a robust zero trust policy can prove challenging, especially for organizations running a multi-cloud environment or those leveraging numerous cloud-based applications. Let’s explore the challenges involved in implementing a zero trust policy and how to overcome them.

Complex, Hybrid, and Decentralized Environments

Today, many organizations leverage a highly distributed infrastructure that can make implementing zero trust a complex process. With the prospect of securing hundreds of different databases, servers, proxies, internal applications, and third-party SaaS and PaaS solutions, it’s incredibly challenging to enforce consistent access control.

To address this difficulty, teams frequently turn to attribute-based access control (ABAC). This approach is best suited for enabling zero trust architectures because it makes dynamic access decisions at query time based on qualities about the user, object, environment, and intended action. In contrast, RBAC (role-based access control) singularly ties access decisions to a user’s role, which runs the risk of permitting data access too broadly, in addition to being much harder to manage. To put it into perspective, RBAC requires 745 policy changes to complete access control tasks that can be done with just eight policy changes using ABAC – a difference of 93x.

Integrating Multiple Solutions into a Cohesive System

Building the infrastructure needed to support a zero trust model often requires the use of multiple solutions including micro-segmentation tools, multi-factor authentication (MFA), a data security platform that provides attribute-based access control (ABAC), and others. Orchestrating these tools together into a coherent system that supports zero trust across numerous devices, cloud platforms, applications, and systems can prove challenging. For this reason, a comprehensive security platform is beneficial since it eliminates much of the complexity.

Resource Constraints

For organizations just beginning to introduce zero trust into their operations, the financial and human resources needed to upgrade or replace legacy infrastructure with modern systems and solutions that support zero trust objectives can be costly. Implementing zero trust incrementally can help spread the costs out and provide time to train employees on new procedures and workflows.

Safeguard Your Digital Assets with a Zero Trust Policy

A zero trust policy ensures your organization is well-equipped to adapt to today’s fast-changing digital landscape, allowing your team to use high-performing cloud apps and services while protecting your most important digital assets. As the needs of organizations and the threats facing them evolve, zero trust provides a robust, scalable framework for enforcing least privilege access, continuous monitoring, and strict identity verification. With careful planning and implementation, you can implement a comprehensive zero trust policy that strengthens your security posture and mitigates threats.

Check out our solution brief to learn how Immuta enables zero trust architectures.