GRC Viewpoint

PKI and Zero Trust: A Winning Combination for Your Security Posture

Several years after becoming a popular buzzword in technology circles, there continues to be great interest in and implementation of Zero Trust. According to cybersecurity vendor Okta, Zero Trust adoption has reached a tipping point. In its 2022 State of Zero Trust Security Report, more than half of the organizations surveyed already had a Zero Trust initiative in place. In addition, nearly 100 percent of the respondents said they would have one in place within 18 months. 

The term “Zero Trust” was popularized by then-Forrester Research analyst John Kindervag in 2009. He introduced the concept highlighting the need for a more robust and identity-centric approach to security.  Another known phrase is “Never trust…always verify.” Fast-forward to May 2021 when the White House gave Zero Trust a significant boost. Its executive order declared the US. government “must adopt security best practices…and advance toward zero-trust architecture.” With that, Zero Trust adoption seems to have gone into the stratosphere. 

The concept of Zero Trust shifts the traditional perimeter-based security model to a more proactive and dynamic approach that assumes no trust by default. By adopting Zero Trust, an organization works towards the goal of securing every individual’s access request to resources or systems, regardless of their location or network environment. 

Zero Trust, Meet PKI 

While Zero Trust is still a relatively new concept, Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), on the other hand, is a mainstay of security. The extremely popular technology framework has been in use for decades and provides a way to manage digital certificates and encryption keys. PKI is primarily used for secure communication, authentication, and data integrity. It establishes a trusted relationship between entities using cryptographic keys and digital certificates. According to Pragma Market Research’s most recent PKI Market Research Report, the global PKI market is projected to reach $28,841.90 million by 2028 from $5552.40 million in 2022.

But can Zero Trust and PKI work together? The answer, of course, is absolutely yes! The combination of PKI with a Zero Trust framework can truly strengthen an organization’s security posture by adding layers of protection and authentication to its systems and data. While PKI and Zero Trust serve different purposes, they can be integrated and are complementary approaches to security. In a Zero Trust model, every user, device, and network part are treated as potentially untrusted and requires authentication and authorization for every access request. 

What this comes down to is by combining the principles of PKI and the capabilities of Zero Trust, organizations can strengthen their security posture, mitigate risks, and ensure that access to critical resources is based on strong authentication, strict authorization, and secure communication via strong user and device authentication.

Digging Deeper into PKI & Zero Trust and Preventing Data Breaches 

PKI enables strong user authentication using SSL/TLS certificates. Each user receives a unique certificate that requires a private key to access protected data. This process mitigates the risks associated with weak passwords and compromised credentials. 

PKI also plays a critical role for securing communications such as email. Since Zero Trust requires encryption for data in transit, integrating PKI enables organizations to ensure their trusted communications channels will be secure. Not only does this protect sensitive data from being accessed by unauthorized users such as hackers, but it is also critical given the increasing problem of phishing, especially Business Email Compromise (BEC) attacks, which usually lead to costly data breaches.

Things to Consider when implementing a Zero Trust Model 

Implementing a Zero Trust model, including strict authentication and continuous verification, can introduce more steps in the user authentication process. If not implemented carefully, this can affect the user experience and potentially lead to frustration and reduced productivity. Balancing strong security measures with a seamless user experience requires careful consideration and proper user education and training. 

It is important to design and implement such integrations carefully by talking to your trusted Certificate Authority to implement the necessary PKI technology and who understands the specific requirements and complexities of the organization’s environment.

In a Zero Trust environment, where every access request requires authentication and authorization, management of certificates can become more complex. Organizations need to show proper processes and systems to manage certificate enrollment, renewal, revocation, and monitoring to ensure the integrity and security of the underlying cryptographic PKI infrastructure.  

By Debbie Hayes, Director Of Product Marketing At GlobalSign

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