Zero trust network access (ZTNA) is becoming increasingly relevant as the concept of the network perimeter, and the traditional “castle-and-moat” mentality of cybersecurity becomes obsolete. The advent of mobile devices, Wi-Fi networks, remote work and work-from-home models, internet-of-things (IoT) devices, cloud computing, SaaS apps, and the increasing diversification of the modern workforce have all contributed to the erosion of the network perimeter and have added exponential scope and complexity to the attack surface.

Traditional security models were based on the idea of a perimeter, where the local network and all of the users and devices connected to it were considered safe by default, while the network perimeter acted as a barrier to keep unwanted users and unauthorized or potentially malicious traffic out. However, digital transformation – especially applications and resources moving to the cloud – and the rise of mobile devices have made it difficult to define a clear boundary between the “inside” and “outside” of a network. This has led to a shift to a philosophy of “people are the perimeter.”

Everything Is Remote

The full-blown adoption of cloud computing and end-user mobility has effectively made all applications and resources “remote.” There is still a mindset that you don’t need to be as vigilant or worry about users or devices if you’re at the office, but that is no longer true. Ironically, users who are technically inside what was once the perimeter are still effectively remote because the applications and data they are connecting to exist in the cloud outside of the organization. All of this makes it even more challenging to define a perimeter. As a result, the traditional security model is no longer able to protect against today’s ever-evolving threat landscape.

It is actually a liberating concept. The sooner organizations and IT security teams can dispel the notion that they can relax their security for users or devices at the office, the faster they will have better visibility, easier to manage, and more consistent policies. The sooner they get the old thinking out of their head, the sooner they can simplify their world and improve their security.

Key Security Risks in Remote Work Environments

  • Increased Attack Surface: With more devices and applications operating outside the traditional office perimeter, there are more opportunities for cyber-attacks.
  • Cloud Data Exposure: The extensive use of cloud services means sensitive data often resides outside the organization’s direct control, increasing the risk of data breaches.
  • Phishing and Social Engineering Attacks: Remote workers, often without direct IT support, are more susceptible to phishing and other social engineering tactics.
  • Insecure Home Networks: Employees working from home may use less secure networks, making them vulnerable to intrusions and eavesdropping.
  • Lack of Endpoint Security: Personal devices used for work (BYOD) might not have the same level of security as office devices, posing a risk of malware infections and data leakage.
  • VPN Vulnerabilities: Reliance on VPNs can create bottlenecks and potential points of failure, including vulnerabilities that can be exploited by cybercriminals.
  • Compliance Challenges: Ensuring compliance with data protection regulations becomes more complex in a dispersed work environment.
  • Insider Threats: The difficulty in monitoring remote user activity increases the risk of insider threats, either intentional or accidental.

Understanding these risks is crucial for organizations to adapt and strengthen their security posture in a landscape where the traditional office perimeter no longer defines the limits of their network.

Zero Trust Network Access and the Network Perimeter

ZTNA addresses these challenges by shifting the focus from the network perimeter to the devices that the workforce uses. Instead of relying on the network perimeter to keep unwanted users and traffic out, ZTNA uses multiple layers of security to protect devices and resources. This includes identifying and authenticating users and devices, securing communication channels, and enforcing security policies.

One of the key advantages of ZTNA is that it recognizes that not all devices are corporate-issued. This is an important consideration, as many companies are now allowing bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies, or have third parties who have devices that the company can’t touch. ZTNA addresses these situations by providing policy enforcement and security for all devices, regardless of whether they are corporate-issued or not.

When done right, ZTNA doesn’t rely on forcing all traffic through a firewall choke point in someone else’s cloud to inspect all traffic. Setting aside the potential performance impact and possible single point of failure for network traffic, this is important because very few companies have the talent and resources to really do anything with the data that is generated. Instead, ZTNA allows companies to handle traffic appropriately, depending on whether it is a corporate application in the private cloud, data center, public cloud, or SaaS website. This approach provides security while avoiding the performance and management penalties of forcing all traffic through a single point.

Benefits of Zero Trust Network Access and the Network Perimeter

  • Enhanced Security Posture: Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify,” ensuring that each access request is thoroughly authenticated and authorized, significantly reducing the risk of unauthorized access and data breaches.
  • Adaptive Access Control: ZTNA dynamically adjusts access permissions based on continuous assessment of user credentials, device security status, and contextual factors, offering a more flexible and secure approach compared to static perimeter-based defenses.
  • Reduced Attack Surface: By eliminating implicit trust and constantly validating every stage of digital interaction, ZTNA minimizes the attack surface, protecting against both external threats and potential insider attacks.
  • Support for Remote Work and Mobility: ZTNA accommodates the needs of a modern workforce by securing remote access to corporate resources, ensuring employees can work efficiently and securely from any location, without the constraints of traditional network perimeter defenses.

Embrace Device-Centric Security

The perimeter is dead. Or, more specifically, each device is its own perimeter from a cybersecurity perspective. ZTNA addresses the challenges posed by the extinction of the perimeter security philosophy by shifting the focus from the network perimeter to the devices that the workforce uses. It recognizes that not all devices are corporate-issued and handles traffic appropriately to provide security. While ZTNA is an important step forward in the evolution of cybersecurity, it is just one element of effective cybersecurity. For example, using internet threat protection to protect users from being phished, straying onto malicious web sites, or being exposed to ransomware is another important consideration. Companies should embrace device-centric thinking to stay ahead of this ever-evolving threat landscape.

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Tony Bradley

Editor-in-Chief at TechSpective


Originally published at TechSpective.

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Tony Bradley