What Is Zero Trust Identity Security? [Access Management]

Trusting no one and verifying everyone is a security measure businesses may not think to take, but this measure becomes the main gatekeeper with zero-trust identity.

What is a zero-trust approach? A zero-trust approach is a method where anyone trying to gain access to information on a network, whether internal or external, needs to be verified. This extra security helps prevent data breaches from occurring.

What Is Zero-Trust Architecture?

Zero-trust architecture is an approach to Identity and Access Management (IAM) that assumes at every relevant point identity verification and authentication must occur. 

Under this approach, no device, user, identity, or system has any inherent trust to access any resource. No one inside or outside of an organization has carte blanche to navigate any infrastructure or data source, and any attempt to do so will trigger authentication challenges.

Traditional Security Approaches

This definition makes zero-trust authentication models seem deceptively simple. In reality, they call for a new way to think about old access control paradigms. For example, one of the more traditional approaches to authentication management is a “perimeter” model, where security models focus verification and access on the outer touchpoints of a given system.

Users accessing that system face verification requests at an outer touchpoint, but once they are verified, they move through the system with the given level of credentials that they have in place. Likewise, technologies, identities, and applications already inside the system are assumed to be trustworthy and have relatively free reign to access system resources.

With a zero-trust security model, however, that assumption is removed. As you access new systems, there are no privileged networks or organizational identities but rather a continual verification of identity alongside other potential factors (like location, device, or role).

In many ways, this approach doesn’t change much for external users. If they have an identity in place with specific privileges, then they should be able to access resources based on those privileges. However, no trusted internal identities can move throughout a system, which means that malicious actors cannot hijack them to undermine your security infrastructure.

Zero-trust architecture functions as a part of a broader security strategy. Primarily, a zero-trust identity system limits resource access based on what the system knows about your identity. For example, roles can significantly define how user identities navigate a system, as can location information based on geographic data logged from a device. 

In fact, zero-trust does not assume that administrators or superuser identities are inherently trustworthy either. So a superuser identity wouldn’t necessarily be able to elevate or expand their role or permissions either.

What Is the Relationship Between Zero-Trust Identity and Data Governance?

Zero-trust is at the heart of a robust security model that promotes a cohesive data governance approach to break down data silos and integrate identity management (IdM), access controls, and governance into a single policy.

Some of the ways that these principles promote solid data governance policies include the following:

  • Security Through Least Privilege: These models resemble, and sometimes incorporate, the Principle of Least Privilege, which simply means that any identity only has access to the minimum set of resources and data needed to do their job.

    This includes limiting system access based on role and limiting superuser privilege to manipulate a system. In turn, this approach can contain or completely block attacks when an identity is compromised.

  • Protection Against Sophisticated Attacks: One of the more common attacks we see in modern times is ransomware. An attacker encrypts critical hard drives or system resources and threatens to delete the key (thus rendering the data useless) unless a ransom is paid.

    A zero-trust model here would mean that the attacker doesn’t have access to encrypt a large amount, or any, data systems, and the risk of catastrophic data or functional system loss is lower.

  • Continual Assessments of Data Contexts: Zero-trust principles require that you understand the context in which system resources are used. Security doesn’t live in a vacuum, and a zero-trust approach necessarily considers how data is used, when it should not remain accessible, and how governance policies impact data usage and security.
  • Compliance: National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-207 defines a robust framework for architecture that provides high levels of security and fits nicely into government and defense regulations.

    While these principles aren’t required in all security regulations, many do include such principles and maintaining those principles can go a long way towards compliance across multiple industries.

What Identity Solutions Help Enforce Zero-Trust Identity?

In terms of actually implementing authentication, you’ll need to use different critical IdM and identity solutions to enforce it. Fortunately, there are several combinations of features, technologies, and techniques that can support such a paradigm. These include the following:

  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): One of the key components of a zero-trust identity approach is having strong authentication to verify identities. Strong MFA is one of the best and most rewarding ways to ground authentication approaches, especially using strong biometrics and other verification forms.
  • Single Sign-On (SSO): SSO strengthens authentication security by centralizing it and reducing password usage. Simpler and smoother authentication user experience lessens attack surfaces and promotes better security from users, and as such, SSO can serve a significant role in any secure approach.
  • Privileged Identity Management (PIM): Role management is important for these solutions. Implementing PIM using the Principle of Least Privilege ensures that users can only exercise permissions essential to the function or execution of their duties.

Why Zero-Trust Identity Is Not Enough

“Zero trust” sounds excellent on paper, and in most cases approaching IAM or IdM through the lens of a zero-trust approach is a good step. However, zero-trust emphasizes limiting access within a system—it doesn’t address a critical security concern in verifying the user is who they say they are at the point of authentication.

Why does that matter? Because password compromises, stolen biometrics, or breached security systems are some of the most common forms of data theft. If a hacker enters a system using privileged credentials, such architecture might be too little or too late to prevent catastrophic data loss.

Conversely, combining zero-trust methods with solid identity proofing and biometrics, like those offered from 1Kosmos BlockID, can provide indisputable and compliant proofing alongside distributed IdM and strong biometrics.

Towards this goal, 1Kosmos provides the following features:

  • Private Blockchain: 1Kosmos protects personally identifiable information (PII) in a private blockchain and encrypts digital identities in secure enclaves only accessible through advanced biometric verification. Our ledger is immutable, secure, and private, so there are no databases to breach or honeypots for hackers to target.
  • Identity Proofing: BlockID includes Identity Assurance Level 2 (NIST 800-63A IAL2), detects fraudulent or duplicate identities, and establishes or reestablishes credential verification.
  • Streamlined User Experience: The distributed ledger makes it easier for users to onboard digital IDs. It’s as simple as installing the app, providing biometric information and any required proofing documents, and entering any information required under ID creation. The blockchain allows these users more control over their digital identity while making authentication more straightforward.
  • Identity-Based Authentication Orchestration: We push biometrics and authentication into a new “who you are” paradigm. BlockID uses biometrics to identify individuals, not devices, through credential triangulation and validation.
  • Integration with Secure MFA: BlockID and its distributed ledger readily integrate with a standard-based API to operating systems, applications, and MFA infrastructure at AAL2. BlockID is also FIDO2 certified, protecting against attacks that attempt to circumvent multi-factor authentication.
  • Cloud-Native Architecture: Flexible and scalable cloud architecture makes it simple to build applications using our standard API, including private blockchains.

If you want to learn more about 1Kosmos BlockID, private blockchain identity management, and proofing, be sure to watch our webinar on Decentralized Identity: Bedrock Business Utility. And, if you want to stay on top of new products, services, and events from 1Kosmos, sign up for our newsletter.

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Meet the Author

Javed Shah

Former Senior Vice President Of Product Management

Javed has spent his entire twenty year career designing and building blockchain and identity management solutions. He has led large customer facing pre-sales teams, led product management for identity management platforms like the ForgeRock Identity Platform and the ForgeRock Identity Cloud. Javed has an MBA from UC Berkeley.