Jan 05 2022

Why the Zero-Trust Journey Requires Strong Database Security

Federal agency IT leaders should follow these best practices to protect critical data via a zero-trust architecture.

As the threat landscape evolves and adversaries find new ways to exfiltrate and manipulate data, the government has been finalizing zero-trust adoption guidance to adhere to the Biden administration’s cybersecurity executive order to “advance toward zero trust architecture” — and, important, build a more robust security program across government.

However, even as agencies adopt zero trust, many are only paying attention to the endpoints, leaving the database vulnerable to malicious attacks. While federal guidelines such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) Program help agencies improve visibility and reduce attack surfaces, they do not provide a standard for database security.

The zero-trust methodology helps agencies protect data in any location, but we also need to ensure that compliance practices are updated to improve and accommodate database-specific security and improve the overall security posture. Often, databases are the last line of defense against data exfiltration by cybercriminals. To combat this, agencies should ensure they classify databases themselves as critical assets for zero-trust security controls to be applied.

To implement a strong database security program with a zero-trust approach, agencies should follow these steps.

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Build a Data-Centric Security Program with Layers

Agency IT leaders should start by building a data-centric security program. As hybrid work continues and technology advances, data is spread across data centers on-premises, in the cloud and in hybrid environments. IT administrators need a defense-in-depth security approach with a well-designed security stack consisting of layers across systems, tools and policies.

As outlined in CDM guidelines and in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Cybersecurity Framework, a layered approach can better resist an attack, while a single-solution approach leaves room for security gap

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With strong identity and asset management controls and full visibility into users, applications, devices, networks and data, agencies can better monitor and manage database and data security. Agencies also need to consider the tools they are using for continuous policy-based monitoring and run consistent vulnerability and configuration scans to detect and mitigate potential threats or weaknesses in their security posture.

Through this, agencies can improve management of potential insider threats, collect data and intelligence based on policy to prioritize the most critical vulnerabilities, and harden risk management and mitigation tactics, while maintaining protection of their high-value assets across data centers.

DIVE DEEPER: How do granular identity and access management controls enable zero trust?

Strengthen Vulnerability Management to Prepare for Future Attacks

Next, agencies should perform regular testing of all layers of the infrastructure using real-world attack scenarios based on credible intelligence of how adversaries compromise their targets.

With the massive amount of data and rapid growth of IT infrastructure, it is more critical than ever for agencies to scan and test databases for vulnerabilities so they can better understand the risk if attackers were to exploit uncovered weaknesses.

While vulnerability assessment technology has existed for more than 25 years, the toolsets and design can differ. Traditional VAT solutions focus on assessing systems more broadly, but other VAT solutions bring specific expertise to a particular set of IT assets, such as databases and data stores. The 2021 Gartner Market Guide for Vulnerability Assessment states that in-depth assessments of databases and applications such as enterprise resource planning systems are not widely supported in traditional VA solutions.

Today, traditional, broad-based VAT solutions have included database scanning only for compliance purposes and do not achieve the level of protection necessary to secure the data held in government databases.

Government and industry need to work together to optimize investments in threat detection and vulnerability assessments. It’s time to improve vulnerability assessment standards to ensure protection of critical data sets. Agencies should leverage trusted third-party investigators to ensure a return on security investments and that all controls and countermeasures are sufficient in reducing risk.

EXPLORE: Create a zero-trust environment among users as well as on your network.

Zero Trust is a Journey as Databases and Threats Evolve

Adopting a zero-trust approach isn’t a one-and-done task. While agencies such as the DHS, the Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have made significant progress in zero-trust adoption, there’s still more to do.

According to the Office of Management and Budget’s draft zero-trust strategy document, agencies have until the end of September 2024 to make headway on specific zero-trust security goals, including implementing an enterprisewide identity to access apps, completing inventory of every device used for government work, encrypting all DNS requests and HTTP traffic within their environments, treating all applications as internet-connected and implementing an enterprisewide logging and information sharing platform.

To accomplish this, government needs a database-specific security approach that includes continuous vulnerability and configuration assessments and remediation, database privileged access visibility and control, and continuous database activity monitoring to alert and respond to anomalous database activity.

As the threat landscape evolves, so should agencies’ security methods. As part of a zero-trust model, agencies should do regular security testing to help ensure proper configurations to reduce risk to critical functions and data. Remember, strong data-centric security means securing the data and data centers themselves. It’s time to take a holistic approach to security on our zero-trust journey.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: How can network behavior monitoring enable zero trust?

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