What is zero trust security?

Zero trust is a security architecture that trusts no one by default. In a zero trust model, anyone trying to access a company network must be continuously verified via mechanisms like multi-factor authentication (MFA) and adaptive authentication. It’s used to enable digital transformation while tightly controlling user access and protecting against data breaches.

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What is the meaning of zero trust security?

The core logic of a zero trust security is essentially “never trust, always verify.” In a world of complex cybersecurity threats and hybrid workforces equipped with numerous applications and devices, zero trust aims to provide comprehensive protection by never assuming an access request comes from a trustworthy source—even if it originates from within the corporate firewall. Everything is treated as if it comes from an unsecured open network and trust itself is viewed as a liability within the zero trust framework.

Zero trust may also be called perimeterless security. This term shows how it is the polar opposite of traditional security models, which follow the principle of “trust, but verify” and regard already-authenticated users and endpoints within the company network perimeter, or those connected via virtual private network (VPN), as safe. But such implicit trust increases the risk of data loss caused by insider threats, since it allows for extensive, unchecked lateral movement across the network.

A zero trust security architecture instead is built upon:

  • Explicit verification and continuous validation: Network users must be authenticated, authorized, and validated on an ongoing basis to ensure they always have the proper permissions. Numerous data points such as user identity, geolocation, and device posture may be leveraged for this purpose. One-time validation of a user identity is no longer enough.
  • Least-privileged access: Zero trust reduces a company’s attack surface by enforcing the principle of least privilege, so that identities only get the lowest level of access to the network by default. In tandem with other cybersecurity practices such as network microsegmentation and adaptive access, least-privileged access sharply limits lateral movement within a zero trust model.

Why is a zero trust strategy important?

As the way people work changes, having a zero trust security strategy in place is critical. It’s the most reliable cybersecurity framework for defending against advanced attacks across complex IT ecosystems, with dynamic workloads that frequently move between locations and devices. A zero trust architecture is especially important as multi-cloud and hybrid cloud environments become more common and expand the range of applications that companies use.

With the number of endpoints in the typical organization on the rise and employees using BYOD devices to access cloud applications and company data, traditional cybersecurity methodologies can’t reliably prevent access from bad actors. A malicious insider who has already connected to the company network via a VPN would be trusted from then on, even if their behavior were unusual—if they were to download enormous amounts of data, for example, or access files from an unauthorized location.

In contrast, the zero trust model is always evaluating each identity on the network for risk, with a close eye on real-time activities. At the core of this approach is the concept of least-privilege access, which means each user is given only as much access as they need to perform the task at hand. Zero trust frameworks never assume that an identity is trustworthy, and accordingly require it to prove itself before being allowed to move through the network. Another way to think of zero trust is as a software-defined perimeter that is continuously scaling and evolving to protect applications and sensitive data, no matter the user, device, or location.

What is the history of zero trust?

The zero trust model’s origins go back at least to the early 2000s, when a similar set of cybersecurity concepts was known as de-perimeterization. Forrester research analyst John Kindervag eventually coined the term “zero trust.” The zero trust approach came to the fore around 2009, when Google created the BeyondCorp zero trust architecture in response to the operation Aurora cyberattacks, which involved advanced persistent threats (APTs) that had eluded traditional network security architectures.

What are the benefits of zero trust security?

The main benefits of a zero trust security are:

  • Superior risk mitigation from closing security gaps and controlling lateral movement on the network
  • Improved cybersecurity and support for mobile and remote employees
  • Strong protection for applications and data, whether they’re in the cloud or an on-premises datacenter
  • Reliable defense against ransomware, malware, phishing attacks, and advanced threats

Learn more about the zero trust approach and how it empowers remote workforces to remain productive.

How does a zero trust architecture work?

Implemented properly, a zero trust security model is closely attuned to behavioral patterns and data points associated with access requests made to a company network. Zero trust solutions may grant or deny access based on criteria such as geographic location, time of day, and device posture.

Effective zero trust security will be highly automated, and its protections may be delivered via cloud or from an on-premises implementation. Identity providers and access management are key components of any zero trust framework since they provide critical measures like adaptive authentication and single sign-on and streamline workflows like employee onboarding.

For these reasons, zero trust is often associated with zero trust network access (ZTNA), which is used specifically to protect access to corporate applications and the data stored in them.


How the approach to cybersecurity and zero trust network access has evolved

See how ZTNA has become mainstream to meet the needs of a hybrid organization.

What are some key components of zero trust security?

Zero trust tools can also deliver advanced protection through:

Zero trust offers network segmentation and traffic isolation

Cybersecurity solutions such as next-generation firewalls and secure browsers help isolate traffic from the main corporate network. This segmentation curbs lateral movement, improves the organization’s security posture, and minimizes the damage of a breach even if it does occur. Because risky users are confined to a relatively small subnet of the network, they cannot move laterally without authorization. Under normal circumstances, microsegmentation security policies also help limit access by user group and location.

VPN-less proxies with zero trust software

Traditional VPNs do not align with zero trust principles, since one-time access gives a user the metaphorical keys to the kingdom. Instead of this castle-and-moat security approach, the zero trust model uses a dedicated VPN-less proxy that sits between user devices and the full spectrum of applications, from web and SaaS apps to client/server (TCP and UDP) based apps, and even unsanctioned web apps. This proxy can enforce granular cybersecurity measures, such as adding a watermark and disabling printing, copying, and pasting on an endpoint if the contextual evidence supports doing so.

Zero trust adaptive authentication and adaptive access

Adaptive access and adaptive authentication allow organizations to understand the state of end user devices without having to enroll them with a mobile device management (MDM) solution. Based on a detailed device analysis, the system intelligently offers the user with a suitable authentication mechanism based on their role, geo-location, and device posture.

Remote browser isolation

Remote browser isolation redirects the user session from a local browser to a hosted secure browser service when the access occurs on an unmanaged device. This ensures users can access their apps in a sandbox environment and allows them to stay productive. At the same time, this protects endpoints and networks from malicious content from the internet with browser isolation capabilities, creating an airgap from corporate resources.

Security analytics

Security analytics solutions amass the valuable data needed for determining what counts as anomalous activity on a network. Networks can intelligently evaluate in real time whether a request is risky and help automate security enforcements based on user behavior and anomalies detected in the system. This helps reduce manual work for IT, provides timely enforcement, and reduces the risk of breaches.

How do you build a zero trust network architecture?

Implementing zero trust does not involve a single product. Rather, it’s an overarching security framework for continuously evaluating risk and controlling secure access across an environment. Accordingly, multiple solutions, including but not limited to those described above, may be deployed in tandem to support a zero trust model.

The exact process for designing and building zero trust security will vary by organization and solution set, but a common progression will involve:

  1. Assessing existing cybersecurity controls and determining the key network flows and vulnerabilities.
  2. Determining a protected surface that will be shielded from harm through zero trust measures.
  3. Implementing specific technologies such as adaptive and multifactor authentication, VPN-less proxies, and secure embedded browsers.
  4. Continuously monitoring the network to keep tabs on suspicious activity and fine-tune the solution mix and overall cybersecurity approach as needed

Citrix solutions for zero trust

Citrix provides a range of solutions to help organizations at every stage of the zero trust journey:

  • Citrix DaaS protects access to virtualized apps with sophisticated access policies that adapt to user behaviors and risk scores.
  • Citrix Secure Private Access is a VPN-less solution that delivers zero trust access with adaptive authentication and SSO to IT sanctioned applications accessed from managed and BYO devices.
  • Citrix Analytics for Security tracks user activity to create individual risk scores. These scores can be used to identify suspicious behavior and activate cybersecurity controls designed to prevent data breaches.

See how you can achieve zero trust security with Citrix DaaS