“Compliance is all about risk management and lessening risk, and the same is true of Zero Trust.”—Abbas Kudrati
What’s risk management and why is it important?
Risk management, the process of developing a strategy for addressing risk throughout its lifecycle, normally involves four phases: risk identification, assessment, response, and monitoring and reporting.
Risk management plays a critical role in helping organizations with their security posture enhancement. Taking insider incidents as an example, they are not only costly to organizations but also time-consuming to be contained. Given the limited resources available, we have seen many organizations often prioritize investment in security controls, which can address the more critical risks. As such, the return on investment (ROI) is maximized in effectively protecting the organizations’ assets as well as ensuring their business operations. Risk management is an ongoing activity. Are the long-established risk management programs in the enterprises staying on top of the evolving digital and threat landscapes?
With trends like digital transformation, cloud migration, and hybrid work, traditional trust boundaries are getting blurred. Perimeter-driven defense is no longer adequate in protecting against the rising attack vectors. More attention has been drawn to the Zero Trust security model that assumes attackers are in the enterprise environment and encourages organizations to always verify explicitly and enforce least-privilege access.
How can Zero Trust architecture help with risk management?
Microsoft approaches the following Zero Trust architecture as a reference for customers to defend their digital estates.
Let’s look at how Zero Trust architecture can help an organization effectively manage enterprise risk management practice throughout the four phases:
1. Identification: More thorough asset discovery and risk identification with the six pillars
In the initial step of risk management, organizations need to categorize the system and information processed, stored, and transmitted based on impact analysis. With prioritization, activities of identifying threats and vulnerability to the assets are then performed. The Zero Trust architecture emphasizes the full coverage of organization assets across the entire digital estate, with six pillars specified as identity, endpoint, network, data, application, and infrastructure. Following the reference architecture would allow organizations to obtain a holistic view of their IT landscapes and associated risks.
Some questions for organizations to consider during the asset discovery and risk identification phase:
- What types of structured and unstructured data do you create, process, and store? Are all data classified, labeled, and encrypted?
- What applications do you access? Are they in the cloud or on-premises?
- What types of infrastructure do you manage—in the cloud or on-premises?
- Who has access to your resources, including network, data, applications, and infrastructure? Are they internal or external stakeholders, human or non-human actors? How are the authentication and authorization of the identities enforced?
- From which endpoints are access to your resources allowed? Are they owned by a company or individuals? How is device management performed and compliance reviewed?
- What are the normal and abnormal paths of an identity accessing your resources of any kind?
2. Assessment: Continuous risk assessment as input to access control evaluation and enforcement
Typically, a risk assessment on an information asset is performed periodically or upon major changes. It allows organizations to determine the potential risks and evaluate if the existing processes and controls are sufficient to lower the risks to an acceptable level. In the more dynamic digital world where attacks happen at cloud speed, Zero Trust architecture recommends continuous risk assessment—each request shall be intercepted and verified explicitly by analyzing signals on user, location, device compliance, data sensitivity, and application type. In addition, rich intelligence and analytics can be leveraged to detect and respond to anomalies in real-time, enabling effective risk management at the request level.
In addition, the security controls included in the Zero Trust architecture enable defense-in-depth, which shall be taken into consideration during regular risk assessment at system or organizational levels. With identity being the new first line of defense, strong multifactor authentication helps to determine if the actor is who it claims to be, reducing the likelihood of unauthorized access. Device compliance check then helps to reduce the likelihood of actors using compromised or outdated endpoints to access organization resources. In case of a breach, network micro-segmentation based on least-privilege access principle will minimize the lateral movement of malicious actors, narrowing the attack surface and containing the damage. Encryption of data in transit and at rest renders data unreadable and unusable without decryption keys, further lessening the impact of data breaches.
3. Response: Real-time responsive measures to mitigate risks throughout the request life cycle
Zero Trust architecture can also be aligned with the four general categories of risk response strategies: tolerate, operate, monitor, and improve. By design, it is recommended that telemetry, state information, and risk assessment from threat protection shall all feed into the Zero Trust policy engine to enable automatic response to threats immediately. Upon collection and evaluation of all risk signals from various sources, Zero Trust policies shall be enforced in real-time to allow, deny, restrict, or further authenticate access requests. Such approaches offer great responsiveness to risks detected in real-time throughout a request lifecycle, allowing organizations to address risks in a timely manner.
4. Monitoring and reporting: Visibility at all levels empowering risk monitoring and reporting
Risk monitoring and reporting are also critical components to ensure risk governance and assurance. It is common for organizations to keep risk monitoring and reporting at the system level. With Zero Trust architecture, organizations would benefit from the flexibility of gaining visibility at all levels into risks. At the granular level, risks of a single-user identity or sign-in will be evaluated, logged, and reported. With IT and security tools integrated, other potential breach indicators like a high volume of data access and transfer and malware detection can be associated, allowing the first line of the risk management team to obtain all necessary details for investigation. The rich threat and vulnerability data can be further processed to offer an aggregated view of an organization’s risk posture, making the risk reporting to senior management and auditors more accurate and hassle-free. With the insights generated from risk monitoring and reporting, risk management strategy and policy can be continuously reviewed and improved to stay relevant and effective.
Learn more about the Microsoft Zero Trust framework.
Organizations may leverage the free Microsoft Zero Trust Maturity Assessment Quiz to understand their current state of Zero Trust maturity and our recommendations on the next steps. More details of how Microsoft can empower organizations in their Zero Trust journeys can be found in the Zero Trust Essentials eBook.
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