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Beyond Blind Trust: The Imperative of Zero Trust for Federal Agencies

Ed Zaleski
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  • Zero trust cybersecurity principles require continuous monitoring and evaluation to ensure effectiveness.
  • Implementing zero trust necessitates a significant overhaul of existing security architectures.
  • cATO and RMF have undergone significant evolution, so should security testing.
  • Bureaucratic resistance and complacency pose challenges to zero trust adoption within government agencies.
  • Identity and access management (IAM) is a linchpin in zero trust security, vulnerable to credential-based attacks.
  • Synack offers capabilities aligned with zero trust principles, enabling federal agencies to enhance their cybersecurity posture.

Zero trust marks a shift in cybersecurity for the U.S. government, emphasizing a proactive and identity-centric approach that resonates with the current threat landscape and modernization efforts across federal agencies. As the clock counts down to the end of fiscal year and the requirement for Moving the U.S. Government Toward Zero Trust Cybersecurity Principles (Memorandum M-22-09) approaches, agencies are turning to industry to meet the compliance challenge. 

However, just acquiring a zero trust solution is not enough; organizations must continuously monitor and evaluate to confirm that the deployed solution aligns with their security needs and the speed of mission and delivers the expected protection level. Scrutiny of zero trust implementations is essential, demanding a proactive stance to uphold the integrity and efficacy of these security measures amid a dynamic threat landscape.

Challenges with Zero Trust for Federal Agencies

Implementing zero trust principles requires a significant overhaul of existing security architectures, approaches to securing the software supply chain encompassing network segmentation and access controls and monitoring mechanisms. However, navigating these complexities and ensuring seamless interoperability pose substantial obstacles to zero trust’s effective implementation across government agencies.

There’s also a risk of falling into the trap of checkbox compliance, where acquiring a zero trust solution is seen as a one-time investment to “move to green” on a scorecard. Addressing this challenge requires agencies to foster a mindset of continuous improvement and vigilance.

Identity and Access Management in Zero Trust

All zero trust pillars are crucial for its effectiveness, as breaches can occur across multiple areas. However, within this framework, the identity and access management (IAM) pillar emerges as a linchpin, fortifying defenses against unauthorized access and data breaches. Despite its pivotal role in securing a digital perimeter, IAM remains vulnerable to a wide range of threats that can compromise its integrity and effectiveness. 

Weak or compromised credentials represent a glaring Achilles’ heel within the IAM framework. Attackers often exploit this vulnerability by leveraging stolen or easily guessed passwords to infiltrate systems and masquerade as legitimate users. While U.S. Department of Defense common access cards (CAC) offer a high level of security through cryptographic authentication, their effectiveness hinges on the integrity of the underlying credentials and user vigilance in safeguarding them. Instances of lost or stolen CACs or compromised PINs associated with these cards can undermine the security posture of government agencies, underscoring the importance of stringent credential management practices.

Although breaches in the IAM pillar are common, multiple zero trust pillars, such as network security, device security, data security and visibility and analytics, are just as vital to proper implementation of zero trust. Organizations should prioritize strengthening all aspects of their zero trust architecture to effectively mitigate breach risks.

How to Optimize Your Zero Trust Strategy

Achieving optimal performance in a zero trust implementation demands a systematic and holistic approach and encompasses a range of essential requirements, such as defining clear objectives and providing a roadmap for aligning security measures with organizational goals and risk tolerance levels. By establishing specific goals and key performance indicators (KPIs), stakeholders can measure the effectiveness of their zero trust implementation and track progress over time.

Continuous monitoring is equally crucial for maintaining the integrity and efficacy of a zero trust architecture. Real-time monitoring of network traffic, user activity and access patterns enables organizations to swiftly detect and respond to emerging threats and anomalies. This proactive approach enables timely intervention to mitigate potential security breaches and reinforces the principle of least privilege by dynamically adjusting access controls as needed. 

User behavior analytics (UBA) play a pivotal role in enhancing the efficacy of zero trust by providing insights into user actions and identifying deviations from normal behavior. By leveraging machine learning algorithms and statistical analysis, UBA solutions detect suspicious activities and insider threats that may evade traditional security measures. Integrating UBA into the zero trust framework enables organizations to strengthen their defense posture and preemptively address potential security risks.

How Synack Can Help with Zero Trust

The Synack Platform offers capabilities closely aligned with the objectives of the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) Program, enabling federal agencies to bolster their cybersecurity posture and adhere to zero trust principles. 

Real-time Visibility Into IT Infrastructure and Assets

Synack’s comprehensive approach to continuous monitoring complements the CDM Program’s emphasis on real-time visibility into IT infrastructure and assets. Through the FedRAMP Moderate Authorized security platform, Synack provides federal agencies with continuous and on-demand vulnerability assessments and penetration testing, enabling them to identify and remediate security vulnerabilities proactively. 

Threat Intelligence Integration and the Proactive Identification of Security Threats

Advanced threat intelligence capabilities, empowering federal agencies to stay ahead of emerging threats and vulnerabilities, are also available on the platform. By leveraging a global community of vetted security researchers, some with the clearance, the Synack Red Team delivers actionable insights into potential security risks to prioritize remediation efforts and strengthen defense posture. This aligns with the CDM Program’s focus on threat intelligence integration and the proactive identification of security threats.

Automation and Orchestration

By automating routine tasks such as vulnerability scanning and patch management, Synack enables agencies to improve operational efficiency and reduce response times to security incidents. This addresses the CDM Program’s requirements for automation and orchestration, ensuring that federal agencies can effectively manage and secure their IT infrastructure in alignment with zero trust principles.

As the U.S. government moves towards zero trust cybersecurity principles, agencies and vendors must take to heart that the journey does not end with the acquisition of technology solutions. Continuous monitoring, evaluation and refinement are essential to validate the effectiveness of deployed solutions and adapt to evolving threat landscapes. 

The commitment to zero trust principles should be seen as an ongoing endeavor, continuously refined with data from active and human-led testing and supported by strategic partnerships with industry leaders like Synack, to give federal agencies leverage with cutting-edge capabilities and the protection of critical assets and data in a complex threat environment.

Read more about Synack’s work with the public sector

Ed Zaleski is Synack’s Director of Federal Sales for the Department of Defense.