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U.S. Strengthens Zero-Trust Security

The U.S. government is facing mounting pressure to improve its cybersecurity defences. Recent cyberattacks have shined a harsh spotlight on the need for agencies to better protect their data. At the same time, both the public and private sectors have been re-evaluating traditional security approaches that focus on the network perimeter to keep intruders out. There is wide recognition that these tactics alone are no longer sufficient to guard against cybercriminals and insider threats.

In the light of this, the U.S. government has resorted to zero-trust security, a model that assumes all traffic on a network could be a threat and requires every user to be authenticated and authorised before being granted access to any sensitive application or data.

While zero-trust security doesn’t protect networks from every possible attack, it reduces risk, speeds up threat detection and closes gaps in visibility. It is tailor-made for a world where cloud computing and an ever-increasing number of mobile devices are increasing the network attack surface and demanding finer-grain security controls.

The U.S. President has signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that included $1 billion for the Technology Modernisation Fund (TMF). It will give agencies a unique opportunity to make strategic investments to strengthen the federal government’s cybersecurity posture and help agencies develop state-of-the-art tools and infrastructure for a changing world.

Cybersecurity projects, including zero-trust efforts, take top priority for resources and funding available through the TMF. Federal agencies would be required to take a zero-trust approach to software vendors under a new executive order aimed at strengthening cybersecurity. Despite all this momentum, zero-trust security has been confusing and worrying some federal IT staff.

Implementing zero-trust seems less daunting when broken down into three smaller steps that federal IT organisations can take to get started:

  1. Be honest about the security in place now: If an agency is still relying on basic techniques like ID/password, this security is no longer good enough. Additional tactics such as two-factor authentication will help verify that users are who they say they are and what data and applications they should be allowed to access.
  2. Get a handle on where data resides: Zero-trust security requires a deep understanding of the data landscape and strict controls over who can access every piece of information. It is not possible without a precise inventory of what information is out there and where it lives.
  3. Look for opportunities to automate manual processes: A zero-trust architecture should include automation and orchestration technology that intelligently identifies and analyzes all this data and helps security teams rapidly address any threats.

Various federal agencies have published guidance in recent months on how to implement the zero-trust model. As reported by OpenGov Asia, The Defense Information Systems Agency is laying the foundation for next-generation cybersecurity with the release of the initial Department of Defence Zero Trust Reference Architecture (Dod ZT). Zero Trust is a cybersecurity strategy and framework that embeds security throughout the architecture to prevent malicious actors from accessing the most critical assets.

The document states the foundational tenet of the Zero Trust Model is that no actor, system, network, or service operating outside or within the security perimeter is trusted. Instead, they must verify anything and everything attempting to establish access.

The reference architecture describes seven zero-trust pillars – user, device, network/environment, application and workload, data, visibility and analytics and automation and orchestration – and outlines the zero-trust capabilities aligned with each.

The capabilities for the device pillar, include identifying, authenticating, authorising, inventorying, isolating, securing, remediating and controlling all devices. The architecture also outlines the technical, legal regulatory and procedural standards that apply to each pillar.

The intent and focus of zero-trust frameworks are to design architectures and systems to assume breach, thus limiting the blast radius and exposure of malicious activity. Moving from network-centric to data-centric cybersecurity model, zero-trust is a paradigm shift that leverages three guiding principles: never trust, always verify; assume breach; and verify explicitly.

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