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Zero Trust Capabilities

Chapter Description

In this sample chapter from Zero Trust Architecture, uncover the foundations of Zero Trust strategy with insights into its five pillars: policy overlay, identity-centric approach, vulnerability management, access control, and visibility. Learn to identify critical capabilities, establish a solid foundation, and define risk tolerance. The authors offer a comprehensive guide for implementing Zero Trust in your organization.

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Vulnerability Management Pillar

The Vulnerability Management pillar refers to the Zero Trust capability to identify, manage, and mitigate risk within an organization. Effective implementation of vulnerability management requires well-defined Policy & Governance practices that are integrated into the solutions used to manage vulnerabilities. A Vulnerability Management organization needs to be established within the organization using best practices, such as the ones found in the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) or those provided as part of the NIST Cybersecurity Framework. Many regulations, laws, and organizational policies rely on effective Vulnerability Management processes to classify known risks, to prioritize these risks for mitigation, to enable leadership to own these known risks, and for response to regulating bodies.

Endpoint Protection

An endpoint protection system not only provides the capability to detect threats such as malware but also provides the ability to determine file reputation, identify and flag known vulnerabilities, prevent the execution of exploits, and integrate behavioral analysis to understand both standard user and machine behavior to flag anomalies. It may also provide some level of machine learning, which can attempt to prevent zero-day malware or other endpoint attacks by monitoring for attributes that are common for malware, relying less on published intelligence data.

Endpoint protection should be able to monitor the system to detect malware and track the origination and propagation of threats throughout the network. Each individual endpoint protection agent has a small view of the environment in which it is connected. However, when data is aggregated between devices and combined with network-level monitoring, it is possible to provide a more complete picture of how a piece of malware enters, propagates, and impacts a network.

Endpoint protection should be able to provide a clear picture as a piece of malware enters and begins to spread through the network. Systems that can run endpoint protection will begin to detect and restrict the actions of the threat, while at the same time beginning to generate alarms. Systems will begin taking retrospective actions to understand where a malicious file originated. This in turn provides the ability to aggregate this data across all the protected endpoints and network monitoring systems, making it possible to illustrate the entry point and impacted systems until its detection.

In other considerations around the endpoint, the protection must extend beyond the endpoint itself. An example of this would be that it is rare to find any enterprise network that does not have Internet of Things (IoT) or operational technology (OT) endpoints. These endpoints may be part of a building management system, such as thermostats or lighting control features, or programmable logic controllers running conveyer systems in a warehouse. The commonality between IoT and OT is that both will be unable to utilize endpoint protection applications, and therefore administrators must rely more heavily on all the other controls available to provide protection. It may be difficult at first to understand how an endpoint protection application on a desktop could help protect a thermostat, but this capability comes down to the forensics being available in these systems.

Malware Prevention and Inspection

Malware is one of the most prevalent threats facing organizations. Due to this widespread usage of malware and its targeting of businesses for monetary gain, organizations cannot solely rely on malware prevention to occur at the endpoint. This is especially true when considering the number of IoT and OT endpoints that cannot run endpoint protection systems. Therefore, it is imperative that malware prevention be layered throughout the ecosystem, deployed on dedicated appliances, or in combination with other security tools. As discussed with endpoint protection, these network-level malware prevention and inspection capabilities must be able to integrate and work in concert with other systems to provide the greatest possible benefit. If the ecosystem can detect malware, it can then communicate this with connected endpoints to alert them of both the presence and type of malware to allow each endpoint to act against the threat. In addition, inspection systems can alert administrators to the threat and begin response efforts if the systems are unable to address the threats automatically.

An additional strength provided by malware prevention and inspection systems is the ability to have a central control point for scanning and blocking of malware. By placing a malware prevention and inspection system prior to a manufacturing network with OT endpoints, for instance, it allows for greater risk mitigation for those business-critical endpoints that are incapable of running their own malware prevention tool sets. As data moves in and out of these segments, malware can be quickly identified, and other connected systems and administrators can begin to take action to remove the threat to keep the organization running. Defense-in-depth means that malware prevention and inspection must occur as often as possible and be well integrated to the overall security ecosystem of an organization to achieve Zero Trust.

Vulnerability Management

Vulnerability management systems fulfill the role of identifying when exploits are possible on a system due to misconfigurations, software bugs, or hardware vulnerabilities. As technology advances in capability, software must become more complex to provide the features that can take advantage of these additional capabilities. At the same time, this software is being developed too quickly to maintain quality, leading to mistakes or oversights, known as bugs or vulnerabilities. From a security viewpoint, there are many instances where these bugs do not pose a problem, but as complexity and the pace of development increase, the quantity of bugs will increase as well, and it is inevitable that some of these bugs will be exploitable. Proactive discovery of these exploits and the ability to remediate before they can be leveraged by an attacker is of paramount importance to protecting an organization. The larger the organization, the greater the importance of a vulnerability management system to allow administrators to quickly ascertain the health of software deployed and identify these exploits as soon as they are made known.

The number of applications that are installed in an organization may not be always known. It is common for the count of applications to be well into the thousands, requiring operations staff to try to identify when each of these applications may be vulnerable to an exploit. Visibility, automation, and AI are required to support and scale vulnerability management teams due to the sheer number of objects within an organization. Vulnerability management systems provide the ability to scan the network and endpoints consistently and reliably against a database of known threats that is continually updated. These systems provide the automation and scale necessary to look across thousands of endpoints and their applications to understand what software is present, the vulnerabilities within that software, and to monitor the remediation efforts as patches or other upgrades are undertaken.

A vulnerability management system should also provide the ability for administrators to quickly understand and prioritize the vulnerabilities present. It is not enough to just rate the threat from a vulnerability based on its impact but should also factor in how often attackers are leveraging the exploit, the level of complexity to exploit, and the number and criticality of the systems that are vulnerable. Zero Trust strategies rely on context for decision-making, and vulnerability management is no different. If the particulars of an organization cannot be factored into the exploit analysis, administrators run the risk of spending precious time remediating exploits that would realistically have minimal to no risk to the organization and delay actions against those threats for which they are truly vulnerable. Some of these lower-risk items may be already appropriately mitigated and should be tracked, along with other mitigated risks, as part of a residual risk database. Residual risk is a method to track any remaining risk after evaluation of security controls and mitigations are completed because it is not possible to completely remove all risk in most scenarios.

Authenticated Vulnerability Scanning

Authenticated vulnerability scanning, where a vulnerability scanner is provided valid credentials to authenticate its access to the target system, is a major component of a well-rounded vulnerability analysis program supporting a Zero Trust strategy. On its face, vulnerability scanning seems logical: scan the network and look for known vulnerabilities that could be exploited so that the organization has visibility into what should be fixed. Authenticated vulnerability scans, though, are a bit less obvious to some, with frequently posed questions like Why should I bypass security I already have in place? Or does it really matter if there is a vulnerability where I have security mitigations like multifactor authentication in front of my application? It’s important though to separate the concept of authenticated vulnerability scanning from penetration testing. For the latter, allowing access through authentication controls would defeat the purpose, but the goal of authenticated vulnerability scanning is to gain better visibility into an organization’s current level of risk. Authenticated vulnerability scanning is just another layer of a defense-in-depth strategy that allows a closer look at the vulnerabilities in an application that may otherwise be protected only by a username and password. Most security professionals would agree that relying only upon a username and password would be unwise, which highlights why authenticated vulnerability scanning must be a part of any Zero Trust strategy.

These authenticated scans remove the blind spot and provide insight into the true level of risk of an application or system. Once an attacker has made it onto a system, even if the account compromised has minimal privileges, other exploits may easily allow for additional actions to be taken utilizing the initial target as a jump point. Common exploits include privilege escalation or the ability to gain further visibility to other assets for pivot opportunities to spread deeper into the network, or to more critical systems. By implementing authenticated scans, these vulnerabilities can be more easily identified, and fixes or mitigations can be assessed to ensure that the risk to the organization is both understood and minimized or eliminated, if possible.

Systems such as multifactor authentication or passwordless authentications that rely upon hardware security keys can make the implementation of authenticated scans more difficult. It is important to thoroughly evaluate the scanning tools to be used to ensure that they are successfully navigating these hurdles and performing full authenticated scans against the potential targets. Some scanners may report a successful scan, dependent on configuration, even if part of the authentication fails or the entire scanning session does not maintain authentication. It is therefore imperative that the scanning platform is accurately assessed and that threat feeds are updated and regularly reviewed to ensure that configurations meet the vendor best practices and are providing the visibility expected by the organization. In certain cases, it may be appropriate to leverage multiple scanning platforms or related tool sets, such as endpoint protection systems, dependent on network and application architecture.

Unauthenticated vulnerability scanning essentially provides a “public” view of potential vulnerabilities that may exist on the scanned system. This view represents what a malicious attacker would have access to without user credentials. These scans typically discover fewer vulnerabilities because they don’t have access to user-level services.

Database Change

Acting as critical repositories of data regularly accessed by both employees and customers, databases are some of the most important knowledge repositories of an organization and may be commonly referred to as the “crown jewels” of the organization. The content of these databases can vary greatly, such as internal employee data for HR teams, product designs, customer data generated from an ERP system, company financials collected for accounting and executive teams, and system audit logs utilized by IT teams.

The scope and breadth of these databases means that many tend to be both very large in size and numerous in count for most organizations. Both their criticality to the smooth functioning of an organization, as well as their size and scope, can make them enticing targets for an attacker and are critical for organizations to ensure the integrity and confidentiality of the data stored. Data integrity and confidentiality are critical for ensuring that business decisions are made from sound data sources. By controlling risk and unauthorized access surrounding databases, the organization is protected from fines being applied by regulating bodies. Database change monitoring is therefore a critical component of Zero Trust to ensure that data is reliable and available when needed.

A Zero Trust strategy must incorporate robust monitoring of database systems to monitor for unexpected changes to any database, whether it be malicious or inadvertent to identify threats both due to a targeted attack as well as misconfigurations or other user errors that might introduce problems into the database or its operation. These monitoring systems must be able to quickly detect the changes in behavior and help to take action to ensure that any impact to the organization is minimized as much as possible. Monitoring database changes can also help to act as a check and balance for other security controls, such as monitoring for the source IP address of an administrator accessing the database and alert if that connection attempt does not take place from a jump box authorized for such a connection.

The selected database change monitoring tool must be able to correlate across multiple databases regardless of their type or location, providing alerts based on the actual usage patterns of the organization to their data rather than the individual database itself. It must also provide an appropriate reporting mechanism that can direct alerts into the organization’s chosen ticketing system when human intervention is necessary to further analyze or respond to a detected event. Some systems may also provide other features such as data insights regarding volume and context of data within each database, which can assist with audit scoping. Other features may also include the ability to classify the data stored based on regulatory labels, policies, and vulnerability notifications for the database software itself. Database change solutions may integrate with privileged identity systems to control access end to end with controls applied to specific database fields.

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