SAFE-T; A Progressive Approach To Zero Trust Access

The foundations that support our systems are built with connectivity and not security as an essential feature. TCP connects before it authenticates. Security policy and user access based on IP lack context and allow architectures that exhibit overly permissive access. Most likely, this will result in a brittle security posture.

Our environment has changed considerably, leaving traditional network and security architectures vulnerable to attack. The threat landscape is unpredictable. We are getting hit by external threats from all over the world. However, the environment is not just limited to external threats. There are insider threats also within a user group, and insider threats, across user group boundaries.

Therefore, we need to find ways to decouple security from the physical network and also decouple application access from the network. To do this, we need to change our mindset and invert the security model. Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP) is an extension of zero trust which presents a revolutionary development. It provides an updated approach that current security architectures fail to address. SDP is often referred to as Zero Trust Access (ZTA).

Safe-T’s package of the access control software is called: Safe-T Zero+. Safe-T offers a phased deployment model, enabling you to progressively migrate to zero-trust network architecture while lowering the risk of technology adoption. Safe-T’s Zero+ model is flexible to meet today’s diverse hybrid I.T requirements. It satisfies the zero-trust principles that are used to combat today’s network security challenges.

Network Challenges

  • Connect First and Then Authenticate

TCP has a weak security foundation. When clients want to communicate and have access to an application: they first set up a connection. It is only after the connect stage has been carried out, can the authentication stage be accomplished. Unfortunately, with this model, we have no idea who the client is until they have completed the connect phase. There is a possibility that the requesting client is not trustworthy.

  • The Network Perimeter

We began with static domains, whereby internal and external segments are separated by a fixed perimeter. Public IP addresses are assigned to the external host and private addresses to the internal. If a host is assigned a private IP, it is thought to be more trustworthy than if it has a public IP address. Therefore, trusted hosts operate internally, while untrusted operate external to the perimeter. Here, the significant factor that needs to be considered is that IP addresses lack user-knowledge to assign and validate trust.

Today, I.T has become more diverse since it now supports hybrid architectures with a variety of different user types, humans, applications and the proliferation of connected devices. Cloud adoption has become the norm these days since there is an abundance of remote workers accessing the corporate network from a variety of devices and places.

The perimeter approach no longer reflects the typical topology of users and servers accurately. It was actually built for a different era where everything was inside the walls of the organization. However, today, the organizations are increasingly deploying applications in the public clouds that are located in geographical locations. These are the locations that are remote from an organization’s trusted firewalls and the perimeter network. This certainly stretches the network perimeter.

We have a fluid network perimeter where data and users are located everywhere. Hence, now we operate in a completely new environment. But the security policy controlling user access is built for static corporate-owned devices, within the supposed trusted LAN

  • Lateral Movements

A major concern with the perimeter approach is that it assumes a trusted internal network. However, evidently, 80% of threats are from internal malware or a malicious employee that will often go undetected.

Besides, with the rise of phishing emails, an unintentional click will give a bad actor the broad-level access. And once on the LAN, the bad actors can move laterally from one segment to another. They are likely to navigate undetected between, or within the segments.

Eventually, the bad actor can steal the credentials and use them to capture and exfiltrate valuable assets. Even social media accounts can be targeted for data exfiltration since they are not often inspected by the firewall as a file transfer mechanism.

  • Issues with the Virtual Private Network (VPN)

What is happening with traditional VPN access is that the tunnel creates an extension between the client’s device and the application’s location. The VPN rules are static and do not dynamically change with the changing levels of trust on a given device. They provide only network information which is a crucial limitation.

Therefore, from a security standpoint, the traditional method of VPN access enables the clients to have broad network-level access. This makes the network susceptible to undetected lateral movements. Also, the remote users are authenticated and authorized but once permitted to the LAN they have the coarse-grained access. This obviously creates a high level of risk as undetected malware on a user’s device can spread to an inner network.

Another significant challenge is that VPNs generate administrative complexity and cannot easily handle cloud, or multiple network environments. They require installation of end-user VPN software clients and to know where the application that they are accessing is located. Users would have to make changes to their VPN client software to gain access to the applications situated at different locations. In a nutshell, traditional VPNs are complex for administrators to manage and for users to operate.

Also, poor user experience is most likely to occur as you need to backhaul the user traffic to a regional data center. This adds latency and bandwidth costs.

Can Zero Trust Access be the Solution?

The main principle that ZTA follows is that nothing should be trusted. This is regardless of whether the connection is originating inside or outside the network perimeter. Reasonably, today we have no reason to trust any user, device or application. You know that you cannot protect what you cannot see but the fact that you also cannot attack what you cannot see also holds true. ZTA makes the application and the infrastructure completely undetectable to the unauthorized clients, thereby creating an invisible network.

Preferably, application access should be based on contextual parameters, such as who/where the user is located, the judgment of the security stance of the device and then a continuous assessment of the session should be performed. This moves us from network-centric to user-centric, providing a connection-based approach to security. Security enforcement should be based on user context and include policies that matter to the business. It should be unlike a policy based on subnets that have no meaning. The authentication workflows should include context-aware data, such as device ID, geographic location and the time and day when the user requests access.

It’s not good enough to provide network access. We must provide granular application access with a dynamic segment of 1. Here, an application microsegment gets created for every request that comes in. Micro-segmentation creates the ability to control access by subdividing the larger network into small secure application microperimeters internal to the network. This abstraction layer puts a lockdown on lateral movements. In addition, zero trust access also implements a policy of least privilege by enforcing controls that enable the users to have access only to the resources they need to perform their tasks.

Characteristics of Safe-T

Safe-T has 3 main pillars to provide a secure application and file access solution with:

1) An architecture that implements zero trust access,

2) A proprietary secure channel that enables users to remotely access/share sensitive files and

3) User behavior analytics.

Safe-T’s SDP architecture is designed to substantially implement the essential capabilities delineated by the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) architecture. Safe-T’s Zero+ is built using these main components:

The Safe-T Access Controller is the centralized control and policy enforcement engine that enforces end-user authentication and access. It acts as the control layer, governing the flow between end-users and backend services.

Secondly, the Access Gateway acts as a front-end to all the backend services published to an untrusted network. The Authentication Gateway presents to the end-user in a clientless web browser. Hence, a pre-configured authentication workflow is provided by the Access Controller. The authentication workflow is a customizable set of authentication steps, such as 3rd party IDPs (Okta, Microsoft, DUO Security, etc.). In addition, it has built-in options, such as captcha, username/password, No-Post, and OTP.

Safe-T Zero+ Capabilities

The Safe-T Zero+ capabilities are in line with zero trust principles. With Safe-T Zero+, clients requesting access must go through authentication and authorization stages before they can access the resource. Any network resource that has not passed these steps is blackened. Here, URL rewriting is used to hide the backend services.

This reduces the attack surface to an absolute minimum and follows the Safe-T’s axiom: If you can’t be seen, you can’t be hacked. In a normal operating environment, for the users to get access to services behind a firewall, they have to open ports on the firewall. This presents security risks as a bad actor could directly access that service via the open port and exploit any vulnerabilities of the service.

Another paramount capability of Safe-T Zero+ is that it implements a patented technology called reverse access to eliminate the need to open incoming ports in the internal firewall. This also eliminates the need to store sensitive data in the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It has the ability to extend to on-premise, public, and hybrid cloud, supporting the most diverse hybrid and meeting the I.T requirements. Zero+ can be deployed on-premises, as part of Safe-T’s SDP services, or on AWS, Azure and other cloud infrastructures, thereby protecting both cloud and on-premise resources.

Zero+ provides the capability of user behavior analytics that monitors the actions of protected web applications. This allows the administrator to inspect the details of anomalous behavior. Thence, forensic assessment is easier by offering a single source for logging.

Finally, Zero+ provides a unique, native HTTPS-based file access solution for the NTFS file system, replacing the vulnerable SMB protocol. Besides, users can create a standard mapped network drive in their Windows explorer. This provides a secure, encrypted and access-controlled channel to shared backend resources.

Deployment Strategy

Safe-T customers can exclusively select an architecture that meets their on-premise or cloud-based requirements.

There are 3 options:

i) The customer deploys three VMs: 1) Access Controller, 2) Access Gateway, and 3) Authentication Gateway. The VMs can be deployed on-premises in an organization’s LAN, on Amazon Web Services (AWS) public cloud, or on Microsoft’s Azure public cloud.

ii) The customer deploys the 1) Access Controller VM and 2) Access Gateway VM on-premises in their LAN. The customer deploys the Authentication Gateway VM on a public cloud, such as AWS or Azure.

iii) The customer deploys the Access Controller VM on-premise in the LAN and Safe-T deploys and maintains two VMs 1) Access Gateway and 2) Authentication Gateway; both hosted on Safe-T’s global SDP cloud service.

ZTA Migration Path

Today, organizations recognize the need to move to zero trust architecture. However, there is a difference between recognition and deployment. Also, new technology brings with it considerable risks. Chiefly, traditional Network Access Control (NAC) and VPN solutions fall short in many ways, but a rip and replace model is a very aggressive approach.

To begin the transition from legacy to ZTA, you should look for a migration path that you feel comfortable with. Maybe you want to run a traditional VPN in parallel or in conjunction with your SDP solution and only for a group of users for a set period of time. A probable example could be: choosing a server used primarily by experienced users, such as DevOps or QA personnel. This ensures that the risk is minimal if any problem occurs during the phased deployment of SDP access in your organization.

A recent survey carried out by the CSA indicates that SDP awareness and adoption is still in an early stage. However, when you do go down the path of ZTA, vendor selection which provides an architecture that matches your requirements is the key to successful adoption. For example, look for SDP vendors who allow you to continue using your existing VPN deployment while adding SDP/ZTA capabilities on top of your VPN. This could sidestep the possible risks involved if you switch to completely new technology.

* Matt Conran has more than 19 years of networking industry with entrepreneurial start-ups, government organizations and others. He is a lead Architect and successfully delivered major global greenfield service provider and data center networks. Core skill set includes advanced data center, service provider, security and virtualization technologies. He loves to travel and has a passion for landscape photography.

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About the Author: Matt Conran

Matt Conran

 

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