A Zero Trust Mindset Replacing the Age of Innocence in Cybersecurity


In the face of repeated major exploitations of critical U.S. networks, it is past time for the U.S. government to recognize that traditional security systems such as perimeter entry controls or whitelists are no longer adequate. As the SolarWinds hack proved, any security system can be penetrated with enough time and effort. Cybersecurity must be based on “zero trust,” which assumes that threats exist continually both inside and outside a network or cloud environment. A strategy of zero trust is based on the need to continuously monitor and validate the presence of every individual, organization, device, and piece of information on a network.

In the past year, we have seen just how bad things can get when a lack of planning leads to the worst-case scenario becoming the new reality. A country without a contingency plan for an epidemic has disrupted life as we know it for more than a year. An electric grid without weatherproofing devastates an entire state.  Networks without proper security are readily hacked. Planning and preparation for the so-called “once in a century” event should be standard for all critical infrastructure, given how frequently such events actually occur.

While not “acts of God,” devastating attacks on our cybersecurity infrastructure can produce results as bad as or worse than any pandemic or natural disaster. Recent intrusions, from the SolarWinds breach to an attack on a Florida town’s water supply, continue to expose U.S. industry and government as desperately ill-prepared.

For years, there have been calls for comprehensive cybersecurity planning in the public and private sector to stave off attacks by domestic and international threats. Progress has been mixed. While the Department of Defense (DoD) has made strides in defining requirements and implementing solutions that will strengthen and protect IT networks, there is much that needs to be done.

We heard about some of this progress during the recent hearing on “Future Cybersecurity Architectures” before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC). Senators and witnesses from the National Security Agency (NSA) and the DoD focused heavily on zero trust architecture, a cybersecurity framework that continually assesses the trustworthiness of access requests to information resources. Testimony from DoD witnesses, NSA Director of Cybersecurity Rob Joyce, Senior Information Security Officer/Chief Information Officer for Cybersecurity David McKeown, and Senior Military Advisor for Cyber Policy to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Rear Admiral William Chase extolled the virtues of zero trust as the new waypoint on the journey to a secure future.

The National Security Agency, a strong advocate of the new approach, explained it this way: “Zero Trust is a security model, a set of system design principles, and a coordinated cybersecurity and system management strategy based on an acknowledgment that threats exist both inside and outside traditional network boundaries. The Zero Trust security model eliminates implicit trust in any one element, node, or service and instead requires continuous verification of the operational picture via real-time information fed from multiple sources to determine access and other system responses.”

Though far too soon for a victory lap, DoD has created programs to field much-needed capabilities that will strengthen cybers defenses. Likewise, Congress has driven the pace and funding for these programs since at least 2017. As noted in the Senate hearing referenced above, Rear Admiral Chase highlighted Comply-to-Connect (C2C) as an important foundational component of the DoD’s Zero Trust initiative predicated on a simple principle: you can only protect what you know you have.

C2C establishes a framework of tools and technologies operating throughout a network infrastructure. This framework discovers, identifies, characterizes, and reports on all devices connected to the network. C2C does not require network managers or users to trust that the network is secure, as all users are both authorized access and are compliant with the minimum standards of security. This way, C2C allows for an environment of zero trust. In essence, all C2C users and devices must prove their legitimacy to be allowed to operate on DoD networks. Those devices that may be authorized but lack the proper security software can be remediated.

The bigger challenge, largely absent in the SASC hearing, is how to protect everything that is not what we would consider to be an “Information Technology asset.” The majority of these assets—many of which can be easily deemed as “critical”—are part of Industrial Control Systems (ICS) used by the military. Simply put, even if IT networks were protected, every air conditioning unit, power outlet, and water main under DoD is a potential risk to mission readiness at every base, post, camp, and station across the Services. Arguably, C2C should be part of a broader cyber strategy for ICS as well as networks and nodes. The problem is that the managers for ICS do not naturally look to IT security folks to address the security of these other systems.

Despite the U.S. armed services’ investment in cybersecurity, the country still lacks a thorough cybersecurity strategy for securing the ICS environment. C2C is helping here, as some solutions provide the means to identify ICS vulnerabilities. But the defense department needs to do more of the hard work of securing ICS.

Our adversaries are getting smarter and constantly looking for vulnerabilities in our defenses. What better way to cut us off at our knees than by infiltrating a military base’s electric grid and killing the power for the entire installation? Congress is watching to see how the DoD accounts for military ICS security, and will probably become more directive in the next NDAA. In addition, the Biden Administration has identified critical infrastructure cybersecurity as a priority, which is an indicator that military ICS will be a factor in any future federal cybersecurity planning.

In cybersecurity’s age of innocence, it was assumed that electronic walls could be built sufficiently high and wide to be made impregnable. The reality is that for a variety of reasons, any network, ICS, and cloud environment can be hacked—if not from the outside, then from within. Today, with the rose-colored glasses falling from our eyes, it is clear that only a strategy based on zero trust offers any chance of successful cyber defense.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. He has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC.

Image: Reuters.





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