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Zero Trust Guidance Rewrites US Cyber Strategy

“Our adversaries our in our networks, exfiltrating our data, and exploiting the Department’s users.”

So reads the humbling introduction to zero trust guidance recently released by the Department of Defense (DoD). It acknowledges in the very first line that cybersecurity has failed on almost every front. Then it makes a complete commitment to zero trust as the solution.

Many were waiting on this guidance and wondering what, exactly, it would entail. It comes following an order from the Biden administration 18 months ago to strengthen America’s cybersecurity in a big way. Many changes and long-overdue improvements have come out of that order. But by far the most significant is a commitment on the part of all federal agencies to adopt a complete zero-trust posture by 2027.

We now have a road map for how the government plans to get there. I will cover that shortly. Before that, let me highlight a few reasons I think the latest guidance (and the strategy that prompted it) are worth paying attention to.

First, that strategy will form the backbone of U.S. cybersecurity, which in turn will play a critical role – or may even be the cornerstone – of continued national security. Cyber attacks will be the most accessible, most common, and most devastating kinds of attacks in the future, so how countries defend themselves against this massive risk really matters. I have been writing about national cyber defenses from a few lenses recently. What makes the US approach unique, from my perspective, is the insistence on not just applying a cyber strategy consistently across all agencies but focusing it so specifically on zero trust. Some will call it practical, even mandatory, to make zero trust the guiding principle of cybersecurity in a decentralized world. Others, however, might view it as putting too many eggs in one basket. Time will tell.

Which brings me to my second observation, which is that the US government is embarking on the biggest experiment in zero trust ever undertaken. Keep in mind that the phrase “zero trust” has barely existed for more than a decade, and few large-scale, trust-free environments are actually up and running. Despite widespread zero trust adoption across the private sector, the government is by far the biggest trailblazer on this front, and the road ahead will be illustrative for all. What will it take to eliminate trust from the whole of the federal government? And once 2027 arrives, how secure will the government really be? This test case could cement zero trust as the centerpiece of cybersecurity moving forward – or it could reveal zero trust to be just the latest flawed fad. I suspect the answer will land somewhere in the middle. But unpredictability is the dominant feature of cybersecurity, so who knows what will happen? It will be important no matter what.

The Next Five Years in Zero Trust

A 2027 deadline to standardize zero trust across all federal agencies creates a lot of work to finish in a short five years. To its credit, the DoD seems to be fully aware of that fact because the roadmap is systematic and comprehensive to an extreme degree. Since there are so many different agencies with so many levels of cyber maturity – along with existing zero trust deployments – the guidance aims (and largely succeeds) at being accessible and universal. Which is a bonus for the private sector because companies can then easily adopt the government’s zero trust strategy as their own.

The roadmap has four distinct goals:

  • Zero Trust Cultural Adoption – Everyone in the DoD understands and commits to zero trust principles (trust nothing, verify everything, encrypt automatically, segment risks etc).

  • DoD Information Systems Secured & Defended – All new and legacy systems follow the DoD zero trust framework and put prescribed capabilities in place. Further guidance on this is forthcoming.

  • Technology Acceleration – The DoD and its vendors get faster at scaling, innovating, or replacing new technologies as new threats and new tools emerge in the coming years.

  • Zero Trust Enablement – The zero trust framework has the resources and support it needs to remain a robust and consistent effort.

Each of the goals has multiple objectives considered imperative for achieving the desired outcome. Overall, the DoD identifies 45 capabilities and 152 total activities required for framework compliance. I would encourage anyone to peruse the framework – it’s heavy on jargon but also a valuable visualization of how the disparate components of zero trust fit together to form a cohesive security strategy. It’s not just MFA and encryption (though the framework calls for both of those things). Perhaps more important to realize, it’s not just about security or IT either – it’s a whole new way for information to move.

As such, what the DoD has set out to do (and the timeline they have committed to) is fairly remarkable. Whether it will succeed is debatable. Whether it’s interesting, important, and impactful for everyone in America isn’t. It will be a fascinating five years.

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