Unlocking Zero Trust: The Power Of Identity-First Security

For decades, protecting IT infrastructures meant securing the perimeter, but this approach is no longer sufficient to keep the modern enterprise protected. Cloud applications and remote work have redefined the security perimeter. The data center is no longer the hub of the network activity. Data and applications are dispersed across hybrid and multi-cloud environments and shared externally with partners and vendors. Employees access this data remotely on personal devices over the public Internet. At the same time, infrastructures are growing in scale and complexity with the addition of new technologies, such as IoT, GenAI, and blockchain.

Zero-Trust-Identity-Security

 

These shifting paradigms have left cybersecurity with little choice but to adapt or die. Darwin’s theory of evolution applies to all, and cybersecurity is no exception.

With the shift to a hyper-connected, distributed IT landscape, organizations can no longer rely on perimeter-based security controls. They are not built for cloud and remote work environments. Security controls must adapt to perimeter-less environments and move where the data and applications are – outside the perimeter, in public and private cloud deployments. This is why more and more organizations are turning to the Zero Trust security model.

Zero Trust Security in a Nutshell

The Zero Trust security framework operates on the core principle of “never trust, always verify.” Unlike the perimeter-based security model, which assumes everything inside the network is trustworthy, Zero Trust assumes that threats can originate from both outside and inside the network perimeter. Therefore, it mandates explicit verification of every human and non-human identity, regardless of location, before granting network access. Strict authentication helps minimize the risk of unauthorized access to critical resources.

In addition to trust, Zero Trust also addresses the problem of access sprawl. It recommends that the user or machine must be granted only the minimal level of access to resources needed to perform the authorized actions. This is referred to as the principle of least privilege. Limiting access privileges reduces exposure and minimizes the impact of malicious lateral movement in the event of a security breach.

Beyond authentication and authorization, Zero Trust emphasizes continuous monitoring and analysis of network traffic and access requests. Real-time analysis helps detect vulnerabilities and suspicious behavior and mitigate threats proactively.

The strength of the Zero Trust model lies in its location-agnostic approach, which bases security on multiple factors rather than the entity’s location. These factors include the human or non-human (machine) identity, location, time, behavioral patterns, and other contextual information. This comprehensive approach ensures that the right people and machines have the right access to the right resources at all times, safeguarding their digital assets.

The Rise of the Identity-First Approach for Zero Trust Security

In a Zero Trust network, no entity is granted implicit trust; trust must be earned to gain access to information. One of the effective and reliable ways of establishing this trust is to place identity at the center of all access control decisions. This strategy is referred to as the identity-first approach to the Zero Trust model.

The identity-first approach focuses on evaluating each access attempt individually by thoroughly verifying the identity of the requesting entity and determining if the entity is authorized to access the resource it is requesting. Strict authentication and authorization help organizations gain granular access control and ensure only trusted and authorized entities are allowed access to critical resources, aligning with the Zero Trust principle of least privilege access.

Taking the identity-first approach to Zero Trust helps extend security beyond the perimeter and closer to the entities, wherever they are. This significantly improves visibility, threat detection, and risk management, strengthening the enterprise security posture. It also helps align with compliance regulations and standards, such as the GDPR, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and SOC2, which enforce robust authentication mechanisms to ensure data security.

Non-Human (Machine) Identities Are Key for the Successful Implementation of Zero Trust

When implementing identity-first security, most organizations focus solely on managing human or user identities. However, identity does not apply to humans alone. Machines (applications, workloads, and devices) too require their own unique identities to establish trust and access the network securely.

Non-human or machine identities refer to PKI-based digital certificates and cryptographic keys. Digital certificates issued by trusted certificate authorities (CAs) help verify the identity of the machine they are tied to. Cryptographic keys are a pair of public and private keys that help encrypt and decrypt data for secure communication on the Internet. Together, digital certificates and keys help authenticate machines and secure machine-to-machine communications, thereby establishing digital trust.

Today’s infrastructures operate with millions of machine identities. The move to the cloud, the proliferation of IoT, and the widespread use of containers have led to a steep rise in the number of machine identities across the enterprise. As machines communicate and interact with each other autonomously, often without human intervention, verifying their identities and access permissions is critical to securing the network and safeguarding digital assets.

Overlooking this huge subset of identities is a big risk as it weakens the Zero Trust architecture and leaves organizations exposed to credential thefts, man-in-the-middle attacks, phishing, ransomware, MFA compromises, and more. For a Zero Trust model to work effectively, organizations must focus both on human and non-human (machine) identities and implement systems and processes for their proper management.

According to the Identity Defined Security Alliance’s 2023 Survey: 90% of businesses had an identity-related incident in the past and 98% agreed that the number of identities they needed to manage is increasing.

Getting the Identity-First Approach Right with Machine Identity Management

Unlike human identities, which are typically associated with individual users and grow gradually, non-human (machine) identities can proliferate rapidly across dynamic environments, including cloud, IoT, and containerized infrastructures. According to the State of Access 2024 Report by Veza, the ratio of non-human vs. human identities is 17-to-1.

Without proper management and oversight, machine identities (digital certificates and keys) can become a blind spot for security teams, leaving the organization vulnerable to unauthorized access and data breaches. However, managing a burgeoning volume of machine identities has become a significant and persistent challenge for security teams today.

According to a 2023-2024 survey by SailPoint, 44% of companies are still at the beginning of their identity journeys, often lacking foundational governance and holistic visibility into the identities in their environment.

Organizations primarily manage digital certificates with ad hoc and manual processes, such as spreadsheets and point solutions specific to issuing CAs. These approaches are not scalable. As the volume of certificates increases, certificate management grows complex, leading to problems, such as certificate expiration and vulnerabilities that can cause outages and data breaches.

Certificate Lifecycle Management with Visibility, Control and Insights – All in One Place

Effective certificate lifecycle management (CLM) requires three key elements: Visibility, Automation, and Control.

  • Visibility: Complete visibility of all the certificates in the network is crucial to preventing certificate-related outages, vulnerabilities, and compliance violations. Automated CLM solutions offer centralized visibility of certificates along with necessary information, such as expiry dates, crypto standards, certificate location, and issuing Certificate Authority. The single-pane-of-glass visibility and ready access to certificate information help ensure certificates are valid and compliant, and their associated assets are secure.
  • Automation: Enrollment, provisioning, renewals, and revocations are crucial tenets of certificate lifecycle management. Automation simplifies and streamlines the execution of these certificate processes end-to-end. Automated workflows allow you to automatically trigger actions and approvals, renew certificates based on pre-set policies, and deploy them on the target device, application, or service without any human intervention. Advanced CLM solutions can offer endpoint binding, meaning the certificate is deployed to the end point as well as fully configured for use. This helps keep machine identities up-to-date, eliminate unnecessary outages, and, more importantly, mitigate the risk of a data breach.
  • Control: Policy creation and enforcement for certificate issuance and management is crucial for effective certificate governance and compliance. The policy should apply to criteria, such as approved CAs, crypto standards (i.e. key size, key type), certificate validity periods, and trust levels. Role-based access control (RBAC) should be implemented to regulate permissions and provide the appropriate level of access to certificates and keys to the right roles–promoting cross-functional alignment. This helps prevent mismanaged or unauthorized actions related to certificates and CAs. Automation helps enforce policies consistently, ensuring all certificates comply with industry best practices and regulatory mandates.

Go Identity-First for Zero Trust

As attacks grow more sophisticated, security must adapt to these changes. Zero Trust Security offers a framework to upgrade security systematically and holistically. However, achieving Zero Trust requires a solid identity-first security framework – one that includes both human and non-human (machine) identities. Effectively managing both groups of identities can help organizations establish trust, mitigate risks, and safeguard their digital assets while enabling digital transformation and growth.

How AppViewX Powers the Identity-First Strategy and Zero Trust

AppViewX provides digital identity protection solutions that simplify PKI and certificate lifecycle management for modern enterprises. The AVX ONE Platform brings together AppViewX PKI+ (PKIaaS) and AppViewX CERT+ (CLM automation) to provide a comprehensive approach for organizations to scale their machine identity management, improve efficiency, build crypto-agility, and achieve Zero Trust security.

Talk to one of our experts to learn more about AppViewX solutions.

Tags

  • Certificate authority
  • certificate lifecycle management
  • Certificate Management
  • Cloud applications
  • HIPAA
  • PCI-DSS
  • PKI
  • pkiaas
  • Zero Trust
  • Zero Trust model
  • zero trust security

About the Author

Krupa Patil

Product Marketing Manager

A content creator focused on providing readers and prospective buyers with accurate, useful, and latest product information to help them make better informed decisions.

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