Trust-Building For Security

This post was originally published on Forbes

Trust is a fickle thing. And, weirdly enough, the basic assumption of a lot of security practices seems to include a certain level of trust in users that is pretty hard to justify these days. This is why we see so many successful breaches that can be traced back to compromised accounts, default passwords and social engineering. One then asks, “How should I reduce or eliminate inherent trust from the equation?” Good question!

By rethinking trust in a modern environment, we can get to a stage where the starting point of any security-related decision (e.g., granting access, allowing/disallowing a certain action) is a state of no trust or zero trust. Before jumping into a marketplace where zero-trust solution providers will happily part you from a considerable chunk of your budget, let’s take a look at the core concepts of trust in our environments.

Our starting point, as I mentioned, should be that we do not trust anything: not users, networks, devices or even third parties. Building trust from this point on can be done by using elements that allow the organization to get to a place where a level of confidence is achieved. At this point, we can ensure that the decision around the action requested by the actor (user) can be backed with actual facts and in a way that’s relevant to the scenario in question.

Taking into account factors such as the user’s environment, credentials, secondary identification elements and behavioral history (to name a few) can build much better context for the decision of whether to grant the user a certain level of access, including which action they are trying to perform (i.e., are they trying to simply access their own files on a shared storage service, or are they trying to delete a table from a production database?). Being able to differentiate between different actions also allows us to set different thresholds to the level of trust we require. In the traditional model of keeping trust, the rule follows that if you have the right username and password, you’re in. No matter what you intend to do, if you have access to a system, you can fully utilize whatever roles and permissions you’re granted. In a trustless scenario, every action can be associated with a different level of trust.

Take a financial user for example. On a typical day, the user may be accessing transactional data, such as ledgers, payment processing and accounting. However, monthly or quarterly reporting (especially in public companies) requires a completely different set of activities and permissions. Why should these activities be constantly accessible to our user if they are only used once in a long period of time?

In a trustless world, our user will have the defined relationship with said reporting functionality, but exercising this functionality would be scrutinized both on a temporal perspective (“Is it the right time of the quarter?”) as well as on a trustworthiness level (“Can we accumulate enough evidence to ensure this is indeed the user in question?”). From the user’s perspective, the process is still pretty much the same. They may be required to present additional validation for their identity (responding to a multifactor authentication process), but the rest of the elements can be gathered and analyzed automatically (“Can we identify the device? Is it adequately patched/protected? Can we identify the environment?”).

Through this simple process, we can significantly lower our attack surface, and even when users get compromised (and our working assumption is that every environment will get compromised), access to sensitive assets in our environment will be highly limited, and we will have better visibility into adversarial actions that cannot achieve our trust requirements.

I realize that the concept of throwing away any shred of initial trust may sound too harsh or counterproductive to some, but when you start to think about the kinds of environments we work in these days, the idea makes sense. I can tell you from personal experience that at my own company, we’ve gone through (and still make) significant changes in the way we perceive trust.

Our latest milestone in that journey has been to rid ourselves of the concept of the “enterprise network” as we all move to a guest network. The concept of providing an inherent trust value to simply be on a certain network doesn’t apply anymore to the majority of assets we access (this is, of course, in a scenario where most assets are cloud-based). This doesn’t mean that we are done with our trust journey: I keep finding myself questioning and challenging paradigms where inherent trust exists, and by going through a process of thinking on behalf of our customers, our businesses and, yes, shareholders, we keep simplifying the security approach to managing risk and keep ourselves nimble.

So here’s a quick takeaway for you: Look at the common ways in which users in your organization access assets. Now, figure out what trust assumptions are being made (implicitly and explicitly) through the process. Scrutinize each trust assumption, and ask yourself, “Should this be an explicit trust assertion that’s based on evidence relevant to this context?” Repeat periodically to make sure you are comfortable with the kinds of risks you are taking when leaving these implied trust assertions in place.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.