Avoiding Common Misconfigurations in Zero Trust Architectures

August 28, 2023 | By Chris Vernooy

Zero Trust Architectures

As cyberattacks grow more advanced and data breaches more severe, organizations are transitioning from implicit trust security models to Zero Trust Architectures (ZTA). The core principle of Zero Trust is “never trust, always verify” which mandates strict identity verification and least-privilege access controls for every transaction.

Avoiding Common Misconfigurations in Zero Trust Architectures

This article will examine some of the most problematic misconfigurations that can arise when architecting Zero Trust environments. It will cover Zero Trust Architecture broadly, as well as Zero Trust network architecture (ZTNA) and software-defined perimeters (SDP), specifically. For each area, pitfalls and best practices will be provided to help security teams avoid these mistakes and maximize the value of Zero Trust deployments.

Zero Trust Architecture establishes enterprise-wide security principles and access policies based on least privilege and granular controls. A software-defined perimeter builds on Zero Trust networks by cloaking resources until authenticated access is required. 

  • Verify explicitly – Never trust identities or resources inherently. Validate every access attempt.
  • Use least privilege – Restrict permissions and access to only what is required.
  • Assume breach will or has already occurred – Continuously monitor and verify; don’t rely on perimeter defenses alone.
  • Inspect thoroughly – Deeply analyze user behavior, network patterns, and system logs.
  • Perimeter enforcement points – Verify identity/context before granting network access.
  • Encryption by default – Secure all network traffic flows and endpoints with strong encryption. 
  • Dark cloud model – Endpoints remain invisible until accessed.
  • Identity-based access – Verify identity before granting temporary credentials for resources. 
  • Device-based access – Verify the identity of non-person entity access such as service accounts or specific devices that are authorized to perform certain actions on a system or inside of a micro-segmented area
  • Just-in-time provisioning – Credentials must expire after the sessions’ end to recloak access.
  • Microsegmentation – Granular segmentation and least privilege access within the SDP.

While Zero Trust strengthens overall security when combined with other strategies such as traditional network security, common missteps in implementation can lead to a decrease in its effectiveness. Overall, the concepts are very similar to ones that have been around for a long time, it’s just the tools and some of the implementations that change. It is an anti-pattern that a lot of companies fall into the trap of abandoning tried and true methodologies for “the new hotness.” It is most effective to layer new strategies, tools, and methodologies on top of a baseline that is ratified as secure. 

Overly Permissive Network Policies

A core goal of Zero Trust is limiting lateral movement and privilege escalation. Zero Trust relies on strict lateral movement controls to restrict access and prevent threat actors from moving laterally once inside the network. Policy sprawl creates management headaches and gaps that can be exploited. Organizations should aim for policies that grant the most limited access to meet business needs. This minimizes complexity, attack surface, and the potential damage from threat actors.

Best Practice

  • Conduct a thorough analysis of application traffic flows
  • Restrict network policies to essential IP addresses, ports, and protocols only.

Inadequate Segmentation

Properly configuring micro-segmentation with authorized connections for all PE and NPE traffic flow is incredibly difficult, so it’s often not configured completely, opening dangerous security gaps. Closely related to permissive network policies is the failure to properly segment Zero Trust environments into discrete security zones and access tiers. 

Best Practice: Carefully analyze the types of data, users, and workloads to segment them into logical zones with appropriate boundaries and access controls. 

  • Map business needs and workloads to define logical trust zones to contain access.
  • Leverage microsegmentation where appropriate to minimize lateral pathways between workloads.
  • Monitor and log all traffic to detect anomalies 
  • Integrate security controls into segmentation architecture to enforce unified policies.
  • Regularly review and refine segmentation as business needs evolve.

Insecure and Weak Remote Access 

The shift towards remote and hybrid work has made securing remote access critical. But misconfigured external connectivity to internal Zero Trust environments can undermine policies. Organizations should implement secure Zero Trust remote access with strong identity verification like context-aware MFA, device health checks, and Zero Trust network access brokers authorizing sessions based on identity and context. Internal and external credentials should also be fully separated.

Another mistake is allowing insecure remote access protocols like RDP or VNC. These older protocols predate Zero Trust and lack critical security protections like endpoint verification and encryption, though newer versions of RDP can use encryption. Allowing their use forfeits the ability to validate the security posture of remote devices attempting access.

Similarly, overly permissive VPN policies undermine Zero Trust remote access. Legacy VPNs grant network-level access without considering the specific user, device, or context of the connection. Zero Trust VPN policies should restrict access through dynamic controls based on factors like user role, device type, geolocation, and audit state. However, allowing VPN to a gateway network where then Zero Trust tools are used to enforce access for every transaction is a strong security posture

Any Zero Trust remote access architecture must be designed holistically to enforce consistent security controls and access policies. Common missteps like the ones outlined above introduce misconfigurations that defeat the purpose of the Zero Trust model entirely.

Best Practice: 

  • Remote access gateways placed in DMZs isolated from internal networks
  • Universal enforcement of Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
  • Utilization of strict Zero Trust Network Architecture (ZTNA) 
  • Re-architecting of remote access policies and technologies
  • Enforce least privilege and implement access tiers based on sensitivity.
  • Integrate identity and endpoint security technologies to enable dynamic access decisions.
  • Provision remote access through secure Zero Trust access brokers 
  • Closely monitor remote access patterns and activity for anomalies.

Over-Privileged Accounts

Service accounts, admin users, and credentials embedded in scripts have excessive permissions that are retained over time. Zero Trust relies heavily on identities – both human and non-human – as the primary access control mechanism.  Allowing multiple people to share accounts makes auditing and accountability impossible. Using powerful service accounts for mundane tasks exceeds least privilege principles. Basing account privileges on seniority rather than actual needs grants unnecessary access as well. Setting group permissions ignores differences between individual role needs within groups. 

Zero Trust Architectures require proactively configuring privileges to enforce the least privilege, constantly reviewing entitlements, and utilizing automation. Any over-privileged accounts violate Zero Trust principles and pose serious security risks. Misconfiguration can occur when assigning roles to accounts. If roles are granted without carefully considering the specific responsibilities of each user, they may end up with more privileges than needed. Improperly configured access control rules can lead to accounts having broader access to resources than intended. This could result from allowing default access permissions or overlooking restrictive measures. It’s obvious to suggest proper RBAC should be configured. However, the NPE (non-person entity) accounts in ZTA and SDP environments, like service accounts in traditional environments, have to be limited to specifically what that account needs to access or actions it needs to perform and must be audited or removed on a specific cadence. 

Best Practice: 

  • Continuously audit entitlements
  • strictly scope privileges for accounts, users, and automation to only what is absolutely necessary
  • Revoke permissions that users do not use regularly
  • Revoke over-permissioned access

Limited Visibility

Gaps in monitoring user access patterns and actions might miss insider threats and account misuse. Blind spots regarding device security configurations, patching, and compliance status could allow compromised endpoints to connect. Missing application logs detailing access attempts and resource usage inhibits anomaly detection and response. Each area where visibility is hampered represents a potential avenue for threats to bypass Zero Trust controls.

Not integrating identity systems hampers validating user identities and attempting access. Lacking full network flow telemetry obscures anomalous lateral movements between workloads. Fragmented visibility due to disjointed security tools introduces gaps that threats can move through undetected. Undiscovered shadow IT resources reside outside security controls and monitoring. Poor endpoint visibility results in faulty trust assessments of devices. Narrow telemetry data limits analyzing behavior patterns to uncover hidden risks. In summary, limited visibility into any element of the network architecture forces Zero Trust systems to make access control choices without complete supporting data. This undermines the foundation of dynamic context-based decisions and enables risks to be missed. Thus comprehensive visibility is imperative for making and enforcing secure Zero Trust access policies across network environments.

Best Practice: 

  • Ensure extensive
  • Logging is enabled across infrastructure and feeds into a centralized analytics platform with alerting capabilities

Overly Permissive Network Layer (Layer 2-3) Rules

Firewalls are critical to enforce Zero Trust network principles by restricting traffic flows between micro-segments. However, rules that are too broad may allow unnecessary lateral traversal. A core principle of Zero Trust is least privilege access, with connectivity and communication restricted to only what is absolutely essential.

Flat ‘any-to-any’ network architectures allow direct lateral connections between workloads and users. This facilitates easy connectivity but grants unnecessary pathways that threats can leverage. Legacy networks were designed for access by default when users and devices were implicitly trusted. However, we cannot ignore layer 2 and 3 separation of assets, underneath the Zero Trust Architecture implementations. When vulnerabilities are inevitably found in the tool used to implement Zero Trust

Tightening technical controls is essential, even at the cost of some usability. For Zero Trust, ‘never trust, always verify’ should guide network architecture decisions.

Best Practice: 

  • Define tight firewall policies allowing only essential traffic between micro-segments on specific ports and protocols
  • Restrict IP whitelists where possible

Non-Encrypted Internal Traffic 

Encryption should be enabled for traffic within Zero Trust networks, not just external-to-internal connections. Unencrypted traffic allows an attacker who penetrates internal defenses to easily intercept sensitive communications by sniffing network packets. This could compromise credentials, personal data, intellectual property, and other critical information. Encryption would render such traffic unreadable even if intercepted. Lateral movement by threat actors is heavily assisted by the ability to read network traffic to discover pathways and resources. Zero Trust assumes that threats are already inside networks and aims to contain them. Allowing plaintext communications eliminates many of these containment controls. 

Best Practice: 

  • Require encryption for network traffic by default
  • Deploy TLS inspection capabilities and proxy services as needed to secure legacy protocols. 
  • Implement appropriate monitoring and decryption of traffic at specific chokepoints to gain observability into encrypted network connections and data in a secure way

User Behavior Monitoring

Continuously monitoring network flows is critical to identifying anomalous patterns in Zero Trust networks. But many organizations lack mature network detection capabilities. A core tenet of Zero Trust is to continually monitor and analyze events to identify threats. Not monitoring user behavior opens the door to insider threats abusing legitimate access for nefarious purposes. Behavioral analytics can spot anomalous activity like unusual access times, abnormal resource access, or data exfiltration. Yet many organizations only focus on external threats.

Best Practice: 

  • Strengthen network visibility with sensors and analytics
  • Collect flow logs from switches/routers
  • deploy probes
  • Leverage appropriate tools for the environment 

Excessive Credential Lifetimes

Prolonged credential lifetimes can create a wider window of opportunity for attackers to exploit compromised credentials, leading to various security risks. One of the main concerns with extended credential lifetimes is the increased exposure to credential theft and abuse. If an attacker manages to steal a user’s credentials, such as through phishing attacks or password leaks, they can use these credentials for an extended period without being challenged for re-authentication. This gives attackers more time to move laterally within the network, escalate privileges, and access sensitive resources, significantly increasing the potential impact of a successful attack.

Furthermore, prolonged credential lifetimes can hinder the timely detection of unauthorized access. In a Zero Trust model, continuous verification is crucial for quickly identifying anomalous behavior and potential security incidents. Many regulatory frameworks and security standards require organizations to enforce regular re-authentication to minimize the risk of unauthorized access. Failure to meet these requirements can result in compliance violations and potential legal consequences.

Best Practice: 

  • Tight constraints on SDP credential lifetimes, minimizing the duration and automatic revocation after the session ends
  • Implementation of policies and controls to address security risks of extended credential lifetimes in Zero Trust Architecture
  • Enforcing periodic re-authentication through session timeouts, token refreshes, and regular user access reviews
  • Application of Multi-factor Authentication (MFA) to critical resources, reducing unauthorized access risk post credential compromise
  • Investment in robust monitoring and behavior analysis tools for quick detection and response to suspicious activities
  • Mitigation of potential security breaches by balancing usability and security
  • Ensuring protection against credential-related threats while maintaining Zero Trust model effectiveness

Loose Resource Tagging

Loose or no resource tagging in a Zero Trust Architecture can have significant security implications, as resource tagging is a fundamental aspect of this security model. Tagging involves labeling resources with metadata that defines their characteristics, access requirements, and security policies. When resource tagging is absent or not adequately implemented, several security risks arise.

One of the main concerns is the lack of visibility and control over resources. Without proper tagging, it becomes challenging for administrators to distinguish between different types of resources, leading to potential misconfigurations or inconsistent access controls. This lack of visibility can create blind spots in the network, allowing attackers to exploit overlooked resources with weaker security measures.

Moreover, without resource tagging, access policies become less precise and effective. Zero Trust requires detailed access policies that match specific resource attributes, user roles, and contextual information. When resources are not properly tagged, access controls may be applied at a broader level, potentially granting more access than necessary. Another security implication of loose or no resource tagging is the potential for data leakage and data breaches, sensitive data should be appropriately classified and protected with access controls based on resource tags. 

Best Practice: 

  • Appropriate resource tagging and tight security group definition based on least privilege principles
  • Periodic review to prevent expanding security group permissions over time
  • Enforcing strict resource tagging practices in Zero Trust Architecture
  • Implementation of a well-defined tagging taxonomy categorizing resources by attributes, importance, and security needs
  • Use of automated tools and processes for consistent resource tagging across the network
  • Regular review and updating of resource tags to ensure accuracy of access policies
  • Strengthening of Zero Trust security model, enhancing access controls, and reducing unauthorized access and breaches
  • Resource tagging as a critical element of successful Zero Trust Architecture
  • Enabling fine-grained access controls and maintaining a strong security posture

Unsecured Endpoints

Loose endpoint security controls on devices accessing SDP environments weaken the security chain. Allowing unpatched, misconfigured, or malware-infected devices into SDPs creates risk. Unsecured and unmonitored endpoints pose significant security implications in a Zero Trust Architecture security model. Zero Trust is based on the principle of assuming that no device, whether inside or outside the network perimeter, can be trusted by default.

One of the main security concerns with unsecured endpoints is the increased likelihood of successful attacks. Threat actors often target endpoints as entry points to infiltrate the network. Unsecured endpoints, such as devices lacking up-to-date security patches, antivirus software, or robust endpoint protection, become easy targets for malware, ransomware, and other malicious activities. Once attackers gain a foothold on an unsecured endpoint, they can use established identities to access “secured” resources.

Best Practice: 

  • Enforce strong endpoint posture checks for device health and security policy validation before SDP access
  • Regularly update and monitor endpoints
  • Implementation of robust endpoint security measures in Zero Trust Architecture
  • Regular patching and software updating
  • Deployment of advanced threat detection endpoint protection solutions
  • Configuration of strong firewall and security policies on each endpoint
  • Continuous monitoring and behavior analysis tools for endpoint security
  • Enhancement of Zero Trust Architecture security through secured and monitored endpoints

No Session Logging 

The lack of appropriate session logging in a Zero Trust Architecture can have significant security implications, as session logging plays a critical role in identifying and investigating security incidents, understanding user behavior, and maintaining compliance with regulatory requirements. Session logging provides a detailed record of user activities, including login attempts, resource access, and system interactions. When session logging is absent or insufficiently implemented, several security risks arise.

One of the main security concerns with the lack of session logging is the diminished ability to detect and respond to security incidents promptly. Without comprehensive session logs, security teams may be unaware of unauthorized access attempts, suspicious behavior, or potential insider threats. Timely detection is essential to minimize the damage caused by cyber-attacks and to prevent threat actors from moving laterally within the network undetected or pilfering data

Moreover, the absence of session logging hinders the ability to conduct thorough post-incident investigations. In the event of a security breach or data breach, session logs are invaluable for understanding the attack’s scope, the actions performed by the attacker, and the extent of the damage. Without this information, organizations may struggle to assess the impact of the incident, leading to difficulties in remediation and response efforts.

Additionally, a lack of appropriate session logging can negatively impact regulatory compliance. Many industry-specific regulations and data protection laws require organizations to maintain detailed logs of user activities for auditing purposes. Failure to comply with these requirements can result in severe financial penalties and reputational damage to the organization.

Best Practice: 

  • Centralized repository for access requests, credential issuance, and session logs
  • Correlation, monitoring, and analysis of logs to detect anomalies
  • Implementation of robust session logging practices in Zero Trust Architecture
  • Capture detailed logs of user activities, including login attempts, session duration, and resource access
  • Secure storage and retention of logs for post-incident analysis and regulatory compliance
  • Use of advanced Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) systems for effective log centralization and analysis
  • Real-time monitoring, threat detection, and incident response through SIEM solutions
  • Comprehensive session logging to enhance Zero Trust model effectiveness
  • Improved incident response capabilities and maintenance of regulatory compliance
  • Strengthening of overall security posture through prioritized session logging

Weak Authentication Factors

Weak authentication configurations can hinder the implementation of multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA is a crucial aspect of a Zero Trust model, as it adds an extra layer of security by requiring users to provide multiple forms of verification before granting access. If MFA is not adequately enforced or weak factors are allowed, the effectiveness of this vital security measure is significantly reduced, making it easier for attackers to breach the network.

Another security implication of weak authentication factors and configurations is the potential for impersonation attacks. If authentication factors are weak or easily forged, attackers can impersonate legitimate users or devices, gaining unauthorized access to resources and evading detection.

Best Practice: 

  • Enforce strong multi-factor authentication in Zero Trust Architecture
  • Use secure identity factors: biometrics, hardware tokens, authenticator apps
  • Prioritize robust authentication practices
  • Enforce strong and unique passwords
  • Implement multi-factor authentication for all users and devices
  • Consider biometric or hardware-based authentication methods
  • Provide regular security awareness training for users
  • Enforce good password hygiene

Conclusion

Zero Trust Architectures offer significant security advantages over implicit trust models by restricting access to only verified users and resources. However, Zero Trust does not inherently guarantee robust security on its own – proper implementation and avoiding misconfiguration pitfalls is essential. Network-focused Zero Trust builds on architecture with concepts like micro segmentation and encrypting all traffic by default. Software-defined perimeters take Zero Trust network principles further by cloaking resources until access is explicitly granted to verified users. For each of these Zero Trust frameworks, misconfigurations can still arise to undermine protections. 

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