The U.S. Department of Defense is set to adopt an initial zero-trust architecture by the end of the calendar year, transitioning from a network-centric to a data-centric modern security model.

Zero trust means an organization does not inherently trust any user. Trust must be continually assessed and granted in a granular fashion. This allows defense agencies to create policies that provide secure access for users connecting from any device, in any location.

“This paradigm shift from a network-centric to a data-centric security model will affect every arena of our cyber domain, focusing first on how to protect our data and critical resources and then secondarily on our networks,” Vice Adm. Nancy Norton, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency and commander of the Joint Force Headquarters-Department of Defense Information Network, said at a virtual conference in July.

To understand how the DoD will benefit from this new zero-trust security model, it’s important to understand the department’s current Joint Information Environment, or JIE, architecture; the initial intent of this model; and why the JIE can’t fully protect modern networks, mobile users and advanced threats.

Evolving DoD information security

The JIE framework was developed to address inefficiencies of siloed architectures. The goal of developing a single security architecture, or SSA, with JIE was to collapse network security boundaries, reduce the department’s external attack surface and standardize management operations. This framework helped ensure that defense agencies and mission partners could share information securely while reducing required maintenance and continued infrastructure expenditures.

Previously, there were more than 190 agency security stacks located at the base/post/camp/station around the globe. Now, with the JIE architecture, there are just 22 security stacks centrally managed by the Defense Information Systems Agency to provide consistent security for users, regardless of location.

Initially, the JIE was an innovative concept that took the DoD from a highly fragmented architecture, in which each agency managed its own cybersecurity strategy, to an architecture in which there is a unified SSA.

However, one of the early challenges identified for the JIE was managing cloud cybersecurity as part of the SSA. The components in the JIE — the Joint Regional Security Stacks family’s internet access points and cloud access points — have traditionally focused on securing the network, rather than the data or user.

As more DoD employees and contractors work remotely and data volumes increase, hardware cannot scale to support them. This has created ongoing concerns with performance, reliability, latency and cost.

A cloud-first approach

In response, the DoD leverages authorized solutions from the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, and it references the Secure Cloud Computing Architecture guidance for a standard approach for boundary and application-level security for impact Level 4 and 5 data hosted in commercial cloud environments.

The purpose of the SCCA is to provide a barrier of protection between the DoD Information Services Network and the commercial cloud services that the DoD uses while optimizing the cost-performance trade in cybersecurity.

Defense agencies are now exploring enterprise-IT-as-a-service options to move to cloud, and reduce the need for constant updates and management of hardware. Through enterprise-IT-as-a-service models, defense agencies will be able to scale easily, reduce management costs and achieve a more competitive edge over their adversaries.

Moving from a network-centric to a data-centric framework

Before the pandemic hit, defense agencies were already moving to support a more mobile workforce, where employees can access data from anywhere on any device. However, a cyber-centric military requires security to be more deeply ingrained into employee culture rather than physical protection of the perimeter.

The next evolution to secure DISA and DoD networks is to embrace a secure access edge model with zero-trust capabilities. The SASE model moves essential security functions — such as web gateway firewalls, zero-trust capabilities, data loss prevention and secure network connectivity — all to the cloud. Then, federal employees have direct access to the cloud, while security is pushed as close to the user/data/device as possible.

SP 800-27, zero-trust guidance from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, provides a road map to migrate and deploy zero trust across the enterprise environment. This guidance outlines the necessary tenants of zero trust, including securing all communication regardless of network location, and granting access on a per-session basis. This creates a least-privilege-access model to ensure the right person, device and service have access to the data they need while protecting high-value assets.

As the DoD transforms the JIE architecture to an as-a-service model with zero-trust capabilities, defense agencies will experience cost savings, greater scalability, better performance for the end user and war fighter, improved visibility, and control across DoD networks — and ultimately a stronger and more holistic cybersecurity capability moving forward.

Drew Schnabel is the vice president for Zscaler’s federal business.

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