Future Cybersecurity Architectures: DoD’s Zero Trust Pilot Program and Native Zero Trust Design
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In response to the SolarWinds Orion and Hafnium Microsoft Exchange breaches in the late Winter of 2020/early Spring of this year, the U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Cyber, held a hearing on April 14th. Entitled “Future Cybersecurity Architectures“. The specific breaches were actually only the context for a larger conversation about (and a general update on) DoD implementation of the recently approved DoD Zero Trust Architecture Framework. Expert witnesses at the hearing included:
Mr. David McKeown is the Senior Information Security Officer/ Chief Information Officer for Cybersecurity at the Department of Defense (DoD). McKeown leads and oversees the implementation of the DoD Zero Trust Framework across the agency.
Mr. Robert Joyce, Director of Cybersecurity at the National Security Agency (NSA) in the newly formed NSA Cybersecurity Directorate, leads the IC’s and DoD’s most technical cybersecurity component and provided the subcommittee with the most technical details on the DoD Zero Trust implementation.
Rear Admiral William Chase III is currently serving as the Senior Military Advisor for Cyber Policy to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and the Deputy Principal Cyber Advisor to the Secretary of Defense.
To be honest, the title of this testimony – “Future Cyber Security Architectures” – is what initially caught our research eye, as we are always on the lookout for the best in class thinking at the systems design level. Based on the title, we thought we would be providing the OODA Loop Membership an analysis of some DARPA, NSA, DIA skunkworks, cybersecurity architectures. Next-level stuff, you know?
That the hearing is actually a Senate and DoD deep-dive on Zero Trust Framework implementation? Well, it threw us for a loop. After spending some time with the content, however, we determined that there are some kernels of information of value to our readership. First, the hearing is succinct and worth a listen (while cycling through some other productivity tasks). Don’t worry about taking notes. A transcript and the joint statement by the witnesses are provided at the end of this post.
Second, kudos to Cyber Subcommittee Chair, Senator Joe Manchin, who sets up at the top the public availability of the hearing for the American People, encouraging the expert witnesses to speak in clear accessible language, “devoid of acronyms.” For this author, who admittedly still has a zero-trust learning curve, the tone set by Sen. Machin was refreshing – and important. That the American general public would cue up and binge-watch Congressional hearings on a regular basis…
Finally, Rob Joyce is always interesting. In this hearing, he is recently returned from London, where he was the U.S. representative for cybersecurity in the United Kingdom (UK). His return to the U.S. was prompted by his appointment as Director of the newly formed NSA Cybersecurity Directorate.
“Zero trust will yield zero results without a risk analysis.” – Junaid Islam
A recent zero trust industry survey, based on a broad sampling of cybersecurity and IT professionals, revealed that “most organizations expect to be fully deployed with a zero trust architecture within two years. Initial steps include improving identity and access management, strengthening application access management, and increasing protections for external parties, such as customers and supply chain partners. Technical and resourcing barriers to zero trust currently rate highly. Organizations must deal with a set of barriers to deploying zero trust successfully. The current top-rated barriers deal with technical (e.g., dealing with limitations in legacy systems) and resourcing (e.g., obtaining appropriate financial and staffing resources to do zero trust properly) issues.” (1)
As OODA’s Bob Gourley wrote earlier this year, “The New Enterprise Architecture Is Zero Trust.” As far back as February 2020, we reported on why many security pros lack confidence in their implementation of Zero Trust. No matter how unique, daunting or promising, the survey reinforces that Zero Trust implementations will also have the usual cybersecurity and IT implementation challenges of:
- Assessment of the technical expertise/institutional knowledge available within an organization;
- Followed by “build or buy decision-making processes and approvals”; and
- Budgetary concerns.
All these elements combine to determine how quickly a solution is implemented, the actual success of an implementation, and/or the perception of success or failure of a project (which is sometimes separate from reality). For cybersecurity projects, there is the additional sorting out of an organization’s cyber risk strategy (if one exists), cyber policies relative to a parent organization, for example, and interoperability with supply chain partners, etc. Again, the list is long. In September, OODA Network Member Junaid Islam argued that “zero trust will yield zero results without a risk analysis” and provides in his OODA Loop post a “modified OODA loop type process to guide your [Zero Trust] strategy development and execution.”
The Extreme Sampling That is the DoD Zero Trust Architecture Implementation
The additional value of this subcommittee hearing and expert testimonials is what is known in research circles as an extreme sampling: “Extreme or deviant case sampling means selecting cases that are unusual or special in some way, such as outstanding successes or notable failures.” (2) What makes the DoD Zero Trust Framework implementation extreme sampling?
The DoD Zero Trust Framework implementation is extreme and, as a result, instructional in that a super-aggressive pilot program was called for in both the 2019 and 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), as part of the Mature Cyber Security Orchestration and NSA Integrated Adaptive Cyber Defense (IACD), both in conjunction with private industry. So, unlike most organizations, there is top-down support within DoD for speed, expediency, and a very fast implementation process.
Also, while the DoD budget is not infinite, it comes close. In addition, based on the bona fides of these expert witnesses, internal technical capabilities are clearly not a problem. Finally, The Solarwinds Orion and Hafnium incidents accelerated the entire implementation, as McKeown points out in his testimony to the Cyber subcommittee:
“We have long recognized that zero trust is the defensive capability best situated to counter the current and future tactics, techniques, and procedures utilized by our adversaries. These recent events have led us to accelerate the implementation of our zero-trust framework. Zero trust represents a paradigm shift in how we design our networks that significantly decreases the potential efficacy of adversary attacks.”
This DoD implementation is devoid of all the forces of inertia that cybersecurity and IT professionals grapple with when trying to act with any urgency or expediency in many organizations. We are not naive: DoD has its own internal political levers and inertia, to be sure. But based on their mandate and the need to accelerate their pilot program, the ‘extreme sampling’ characteristics make this pilot program a worthwhile use case – devoid of the organizational frictions and behaviors through which we all have to usually navigate.
Follow up OODA Loop Research: Native Zero Trust Design
Mr. McKeown also mentioned something of interest, in passing, during his opening statement :
“DOD has been laying the foundation for the implementation of the zero trust framework across the Department of Defense Information Network (DODIN). This is a significant effort but one we have no doubt we can achieve. Through our current effort to accelerate this implementation, we will leverage our recently approved zero trust reference architecture as a blueprint to integrate existing and new cyber defense capabilities that are critical to enabling zero trust.”
“As we continue to transition to the cloud, we will ensure that these environments are built from the ground up utilizing our zero trust architecture. “Cloud One and Platform One, developed by the Air Force, are prime examples of environments with “native zero trust design.”
While this hearing did not provide us with the DARPA, NSA, DIA, “Next-level” cybersecurity architectures we were expecting, this notion of “native zero trust design” is promising. Be on the lookout for further OODA Loop analysis in a future post.
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