Zero trust network access vs. least privileged access

If there’s a phrase as buzzy as Zero Trust these days, it’s least privileged access. The two sound similar in both name and concept. If you’re employing zero trust aren’t you, by default, also only granting least privileged access? Yes and no. The two practices are closely tied together, and both revolve around the idea of protecting access points and utilizing access governance and access control — the systems that govern an access policy and the precision and control over which users can access what. By understanding Zero Trust vs. least privileged access, and how they interact, you and your organization can better implement them and protect what’s most important — your critical access points and assets.

What is zero trust network access?

Whether you call it zero trust, zero trust network access, or even zero trust network architecture, it all means the same thing — it’s a concept that removes any implicit trust, regardless of who is accessing and what is being accessed. Since no one is trusted in this model, insider and outsider access need to be verified and authenticated each time a user logs into a system. Multi-factor authentication is the most common, and one of the simpler forms of ZTNA. With MFA, a use needs to be authenticated through two or more methods, such as a password and a code texted to a phone number, or a password and a keycard swipe. Any combination that’s more than a single sign-on. Another method is credential vaulting, which prevents a user from ever knowing the password generated for them. This prevents passwords getting leaked or a user that shouldn’t have access gaining access.

What is least privileged access?

Least privilege access is a system that restricts access rights and privileges to only those who need it for any given required job. It’s the difference between having a key that works on every door and one that only opens certain rooms. When it comes to which users across an organization have which keys, an organization needs to also practice role-based access control as part of least privilege access. This means that a key (or access permission) should only be given to users based on their role and responsibilities. For example, a receptionist in HR at a large healthcare system shouldn’t be able to access hospital files for a patient in the ICU.

Zero trust vs least privilege: Differences and similarities

Both zero trust and least privilege are focused on controlling access, protecting access points, and minimizing risk. Both concepts involve removing trust and limiting access. Each concept focuses on a different part of access, however. Zero Trust Network Access is focused on removing trust from both internal and external users. It helps remove internal threats by limiting internal access, a threat often overlooked by organizations. It also blocks external threats through techniques like multi-factor authentication and credential vaulting. However, if there is a breach, least privileged access is the fine-grained access control measure that minimizes the attack surface. If a hacker is able to gain access through a user, but there are access controls to prevent that user from, say, accessing certain assets or accessing them within certain time frames or without external validation, it immediately blocks the attack from going deeper into the system or moving laterally.

Which should you employ: Zero trust or least privileged access?

Both. The castle-and-moat defense no longer works. Hackers are sophisticated and are able to use a decentralized approach to attack organizations, so your cybersecurity strategy should be just as decentralized, employing every measure possible to protect as many access points as possible. By following the principle of least privilege access and making sure Zero Trust strategies are a fundamental part of your organization’s cybersecurity strategy, you’re setting yourself up for success and reducing the risk of an accidental or intentional breach. Access management software can automatically employ these strategies, for both third parties and internal user access. We recommend utilizing one for both efficiency and security. Enterprise Access is a strong solution for third parties, and Access Intelligence can help track, audit, and secure internal access.