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Navigating Zero Trust: Defensive vs. Offensive Cyber Controls


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    When navigating the dynamic landscape of cybersecurity, it is critical to understand the dichotomy between “defensive” and “offensive” controls, particularly within the framework of zero trust security architectures.

    Defensive cyber controls are centered on perimeter-centric security measures engineered to prevent the unintentional loss or exposure of data.  Such controls are designed to prevent malicious actors on the outside from getting inside and stealing data. These measures include things like identity management (SSO, 2FA, PAM), device management (EDR, XDR), network controls (SASE, CASB), application controls (CNAPP, ASPM), and controls focused on structured information stored in cloud databases (DLP, DSPM).  While these defensive measures are crucial to prevent unintentional loss of data — they fundamentally fail to provide policy controls on massive amounts of sensitive unstructured data that we intentionally share every single day with others outside of our organization.

    Conversely, offensive cyber controls embrace a paradigm shift towards intentional data sharing with third-party partners. Rather than solely focusing on preventing accidental loss of data, offensive controls promote the intentional sharing of data to drive business value.  Techniques include granular policy controls on sensitive unstructured data flowing in and out of the business via email, files, and saas workflows. When properly implemented, offensive controls enable organizations to easily share data with partners, suppliers, and stakeholders, without compromising security or privacy.

    It’s not one or the other, but both “defense” and “offense” that are required to implement a comprehensive zero trust security transformation.  

    While defensive controls strive to contain and protect data within the confines of the organization, offensive controls explicitly acknowledge the necessity of data sharing for innovation, collaboration, and business growth. By embracing both “defense” and “offense” — organizations can govern the entire data estate, not just a portion of it.

    The distinction between defensive and offensive cyber controls underscores the nuanced approach required to navigate the zero trust landscape effectively. While defensive measures fortify the perimeter and prevent bad actors from stealing data — offensive controls enable good actors to share data efficiently and securely.  By striking a balance between defense and offense, organizations can harness the full potential of zero trust to safeguard their data assets while fostering innovation and collaboration in a digital, but dangerous world.

    Matt Howard

    Matt Howard

    A proven executive and entrepreneur with over 25 years experience developing high-growth software companies, Matt serves as Virtu’s CMO and leads all aspects of the company’s go-to-market motion within the data protection and Zero Trust security ecosystems.

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