Why Agencies Should Make Zero Trust Their Mission

Cybersecurity cyber

By: Lisa Lorenzin, Director of Emerging Technology Solutions for the Americas, Zscaler

Federal CIOs will be working harder than ever to deploy cloud applications and infrastructure over the next year as they work to meet 2020 Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI) deadlines, continue to deploy shared services, and work to meet evolving mission requirements.

The cloud push brings new opportunities for flexibility and efficiency. But alongside this progress, federal cyber leaders need new cyber defenses to protect increasingly complex environments that now span multiple cloud providers in addition to existing data centers.

It’s not news that security concerns have stymied cloud progress. Furthermore, agencies are saddled with technical debt that makes innovation difficult and leads to a slower-than-expected cloud adoption. As a result, in 2019, 80 percent of the federal IT budget is spent supporting legacy systems rather than on driving innovation.

To accelerate cloud adoption, overcome technical debt, and support 21st-century missions and citizen services, agencies need flexible security solutions that provide a consistent user experience across both cloud and data center environments. Increasingly, federal agencies are considering a zero trust approach to help address these requirements.

Based on the idea that an organization should not inherently trust any user or network, zero trust helps agencies balance security and productivity. Under this model, any attempt to access a system or application is verified before the user is granted any level of access. Authorized users receive secure, fast access to private applications in the data center or cloud, regardless of whether the user is on-site or remote, an agency worker, or a third party.

Zero trust is ideal for federal agencies, given the need to protect data on a massive scale in an increasingly hybrid environment. The list of devices connected to an agency’s network continues to grow.  Also, agencies increasingly manage assets that are beyond their traditional network perimeter – effectively creating a larger attack surface. Considering the variety and sensitive nature of government data, and the criticality of federal missions, agencies clearly need an equivalent level of protection.

Connect the Right User to the Right Application

Zero trust prevents unauthorized users from accessing data and systems – but that’s only the beginning. The real goal is to get the right users connected to what they need to complete their mission as quickly and seamlessly as possible. Agencies that implement zero trust solutions can take advantage of four primary advantages: security, user experience, cost, and simplicity.

From a security standpoint, agencies need a solution that provides granular, context-based access to sensitive resources. With a zero trust solution, security can follow both the application and the user consistently across the organization.

While applications are hosted in multiple environments and users will connect from diverse locations, the user experience can be consistent and transparent. Users will not have to manage added complexity if they are off-network versus on-network, or if an application is hosted in the cloud versus a physical data center.

From a cost perspective, agencies need a solution that enables them to invest at an initial level to solve an initial use case, and then expand organically as the number of use cases grows. Unlike many traditional security models that rely on network-based controls, zero trust should not require a fixed investment – making it ideal for scalable, flexible cloud environments.

Finally, agencies need simplicity. Implementing a zero trust solution should make it easy for users and administrators to consistently access the information they need. Who is using which applications and how often? What is the user experience when accessing a specific application or when accessing from a particular location?

TIC 3.0 Changes the Game

The traditional security process for remote access in federal environments, as we know, is not optimal.  The agency establishes a security perimeter and deploys a virtual private network (VPN) to connect endpoints to the network when the user is outside that perimeter. Then the user connects to the agency data center through a stack of various infrastructure devices (DMZ firewalls, load balancers, etc.) supporting the VPN appliance. If users are accessing private applications hosted on public cloud providers, their traffic is routed back out through a Trusted Internet Connection (TIC), traversing another stack of security appliances before it finally arrives at its destination.

Federal CIO Suzette Kent released the updated TIC 3.0 policy in draft form this past year. These new guidelines are more flexible than previous TIC requirements – they open the door for agencies to use modern security solutions and models like zero trust to protect data and applications in cloud environments. This is a game changer. A FedRAMP-certified zero trust solution can provide modern security, usability, and flexibility – and meet the new TIC 3.0 guidelines.

Where from Here?

TIC 3.0 is expected to accelerate cloud adoption as it enables agencies to take advantage of modern security models like zero trust. There are several steps that can help ease the learning curve for federal teams.

First, consider your current infrastructure. Many agencies have elements of zero trust in place, such as endpoint management, Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM), application and data categorization, micro-segmentation, and cloud monitoring.

Next, consider the application landscape. Zero trust is inherently complex to implement, but zero trust network access (ZTNA) solutions like Zscaler Private Access (ZPA), a FedRAMP-authorized cloud-based service, can provide a scalable zero trust environment without placing a significant burden on the IT team. ZPA connects users to applications without placing them on the network or relying on an inbound listener, instead leveraging a global cloud platform to broker inside-out connections that carry authorized user traffic in using TLS-encrypted micro-tunnels. These tunnels provide seamless connectivity to any application regardless of where it’s running, creating a secure segment of one and ensuring apps remain invisible to the internet. The approach reduces the attack surface and eliminates the risk of lateral movement within the security perimeter.

Finally, take advantage of federal community resources. ACT-IAC just published the ACT-IAC Zero Trust White Paper, developed by a government/industry task force. The document shares key concepts around zero trust, recommended steps, and specific lessons learned working within federal environments. ACT-IAC recently hosted a panel discussion on zero trust among industry and agency technologists that explored these concepts at their recent IT Modernization Forum.

As the National Transportation Safety Board recently demonstrated, leveraging a zero trust approach now means agency teams will gain the ability to access and share mission-critical information quickly –anywhere, anytime, from any device. As agencies build cloud confidence, they can, finally, start to shift spending. This means less legacy, more innovation, and ultimately secure, modern government services built to deliver an experience that agency teams will appreciate.