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Helping global governments and organizations adopt Zero Trust architectures

For more than a decade, Google has applied a Zero Trust approach to most aspects of our operations. Zero Trust’s core tenet–that implicit trust in any single component of a complex, interconnected system can create serious security risks–is fundamental to how we operate and build our security architecture. 

Early in our security journey, we realized that despite our best efforts user credentials would periodically fall into the hands of malicious actors. This is why we developed the BeyondCorp framework. We needed additional layers of defense against unauthorized access that would not impede user productivity. We also understood that software that interacts with the larger world should not have a perimeter-based trust model. These realizations led to the layered protection in our BeyondProd framework, which extends the Zero Trust paradigm to our production workloads. 

Earlier this year, the United States Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a Federal Strategy to Move the U.S. Government Towards a Zero Trust Architecture. This marks an important step for the U.S. government’s efforts to modernize under Executive Order 14028 on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity. In parallel, guidance from the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Center (NCSC) has also called for the move to a Zero Trust approach to security and outlined in 2021 its report on Zero Trust architecture design principles.

Adopting a Zero Trust approach can help organizations inside and outside the public sector stay ahead of both regulatory requirements and security threats, but it requires thoughtful planning and execution. Our goal is to bring the best practices for Zero Trust together in one place, leveraging the experiences and knowledge of our existing customers, and Google’s own experience with implementing Zero Trust. 

How Google Cloud can help government agencies move toward Zero Trust

Agencies can rely on Google Zero Trust capabilities for remote access, secure collaboration, and boundary security. To better serve the Zero Trust needs of our customers, we introduced BeyondCorp Enterprise in January 2021, a solution that provides Zero Trust secure access to resources and applications in the cloud and on-premises. BeyondCorp Enterprise was built based on years of Google’s own innovation as we implemented Zero Trust globally for ourselves. It leverages the Chrome browser and Google’s global network, and it offers integrated real-time threat and data protection.

Here are five ways BeyondCorp Enterprise can be applied to help organizations adopt the Zero Trust cybersecurity principles set forth in the recent White House memorandum (M-22-09) and other global government guidance for Zero Trust. 

1. Enable enterprise applications to be used over the public internet: It’s no secret that VPN usage poses daily burdens and long-term challenges for IT and cybersecurity managers, as well as end-users. BeyondCorp Enterprise provides users with seamless and secure access to web applications (including SaaS apps and apps hosted on any cloud), plus central management controls and threat and data protection capabilities, all built-in to the Chrome browser. Through BeyondCorp Enterprise, end-users can access applications simply and still benefit from enterprise-grade security, without sacrificing their productivity or user experience. 

2. Leverage phishing-resistant MFA to access secure resources: Many cyberattacks start with phishing messages that lead users to infected websites and attempt to steal credentials. The use of phishing-resistant MFA, as recommended by M-22-09, can protect personnel from sophisticated online attacks. BeyondCorp Enterprise supports strong phishing-resistant authentication, by allowing factors such as Titan Security Keys to be used as attributes in access policies that are enforced at the application layer.

Organizations can customize how to incorporate phishing-resistant MFA methods into their access policies for individual applications and resources. Phishing protection is also built into the Chrome browser, powered by Google Safe Browsing, and these capabilities block access to malicious content, detect phishing sites, prevent malware transfers, and generate reports of unsafe activity, adding even more protection against bad actors.

3. Use context-aware authorization: The U.S. federal strategy states that a Zero Trust architecture should incorporate more granularly and dynamically defined permissions and that every request for access should be evaluated to determine whether it is appropriate. With context-aware authorization, organizations can build and customize access policies to include different contextual signals about a user including their role, their location, and even the time of day. Every interaction between a user and a BeyondCorp-protected resource is evaluated in real-time against the resource’s access policy to ensure users are and remain authorized to access it, with continuous authorization for all interactions at a per request level. 

4. Incorporate device-level signal into authentication: At Google, we believe that trust must be granted based on what is known about a user’s identity and their device. We are pleased that OMB similarly recommends that authentication incorporate at least one device-level signal alongside identity information. Since BeyondCorp Enterprise supports device-level attributes without requiring users to install agents, this can be done easily by leveraging the Endpoint Verification extension in the Chrome browser, where administrators can gather endpoint security posture information and easily construct and implement granular resource access policies. The ability to collect and utilize this information through an agentless approach is especially helpful for BeyondCorp Enterprise customers who support a workforce with bring-your-own-device policies or unmanaged devices.

5. Include the extended workforce in your Zero Trust strategy: A Zero Trust approach aimed to provide secure access to the right users, at the right time, and for the right purposes should be inclusive of all users, not just full-time staff. Government agencies rely on contractors and partners to carry out many important missions. Unfortunately, the extended workforce is often more vulnerable to attacks if they are given too much privileged access or if their security practices are not properly assessed before access is provisioned. At the same time, federal administrators can’t always manage third-party devices or software directly, which can make secure access challenging. 

BeyondCorp Enterprise supports a feature called protected profiles, an ideal solution for granting Zero Trust access to the extended workforce. It enables users to securely access resources from unmanaged devices and be protected by the same security capabilities without needing to install agents. Furthermore, administrators can gain visibility into risky activities and view any security events that are generated from within protected profiles.

Applying the NCSC Zero Trust principles on Google Cloud

Last year, the U.K. government’s NCSC launched its Zero Trust architecture design principles to help organizations securely adopt a Zero Trust architecture. To help private and public sector organizations in the U.K., the Google Cybersecurity Action Team (GCAT) released a detailed research paper that outlines how organizations can leverage Google Cloud technologies and services to align with these principles. This is a technical guide aimed at enterprise and security architects charged with developing and executing a Zero Trust strategy under the principles outlined by the NCSC, including: 

Know your architecture, including users, devices, services and data with Google Cloud Professional Services Organization (PSO) who can support discovery, planning and risk mitigation.

Know your User, Service and Device identities including reference architectures for Cloud Identity.

Assess your user behavior, device and service health by leveraging built in reporting from Google Cloud and Chronicle.

Use policies to authorize requests with BeyondCorp Enterprise policy-based authorization. 

Authenticate & Authorize everywhere by reviewing the BeyondCorp and BeyondProd frameworks which combine to deliver ubiquitous authentication and authorization.

Focus your monitoring on users, devices and services with device management and Cloud native monitoring capabilities. 

Don’t trust any network, including your own. Review details on Google’s Secure by Design infrastructure.

Choose services designed for Zero Trust. Review how to protect modern and legacy applications with BeyondCorp. 

For more detail on how we’re supporting the U.K.’s NCSC, please review our recent research paper for insight into their priorities, and where Google will be discussing Secure by Design principles and how to respond to security incidents. 

Zero Trust assessment and planning services for organizations

Organizations that are managing complex environments while undergoing Zero Trust adoption could benefit strongly from experienced support and guidance. The Google Cybersecurity Action Team (GCAT) is committed to helping customers meet Zero Trust security and compliance requirements in the cloud through specialized consulting engagements and workshops for public sector customers. Read more about how growing cybersecurity requirements for U.S. federal government customers via executive orders and White House mandates are being supported through Google Cloud solutions.

GCAT’s multi-week Zero Trust Foundations engagement helps organizations build a strategy to achieve a Zero Trust security model across their operations. Zero Trust Foundations is co-delivered by Google Cloud’s Office of the CISO and our public sector Professional Services Organization. It can help focus and accelerate customers’ Zero Trust efforts by sharing lessons learned from Google’s own BeyondCorp zero-trust journey, and our global implementation of defense-in-depth best practices. Contact us today to learn more.

To learn more about ways Google Cloud can help organizations embarking on a Zero Trust journey, tune into our second annual Google Cloud Security Summit on May 17 and hear directly from customers who are already using our Zero Trust solutions to achieve their organization’s security goals. 

About the Authors: 
Jeanette Manfra is the former Assistant Director for the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at the Department of Homeland Security. Dan Prieto is the former Director of the Defense Industrial Base Cybersecurity program at the Department of Defense. Both Dan and Jeanette also served in the White House on the staff of the National Security Council’s cybersecurity directorate.

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