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Why the public sector is still catching up with proactive cybersecurity

Historically, the United States has been a reactive government when addressing cybersecurity. We typically wait for a problem or breach to occur and then find a solution when it’s absolutely necessary. In the past, the need for increased cybersecurity measures was mostly considered an expensive annoyance among those in government. Over time, as the severity of these breaches increased, the most powerful lawmakers in the executive and legislative branches agreed that a more proactive approach to security was the only way to ensure protection.

Over the past decade, security experts saw the potential for damage using malicious code that could be deployed by terrorists and unfriendly nation-states to potentially harm key U.S. assets. It was only after the steady drumbeat of historical breaches that the level of consciousness in Washington was raised and the threats to the U.S. economy and infrastructure were recognized.

Security experts used to be able to rattle off the names of infamous computer viruses that inflicted wide-scale damage on government agencies and private corporations alike. However, over time, millions of viruses have emerged, and it’s become nearly impossible to prevent these attacks on an individual basis. With so many recent documented cases of cyberattacks, some argue that a digital Pearl Harbor could be on the horizon if we don’t agree on a method of protecting ourselves from these growing threats. 

For government agencies, the roadblock to stronger security protection lies in a variety of places. The primary challenges to implementing a secure automated system in the public sector include:

  • The heterogeneous nature of the many products currently being used in the IT infrastructure at large government agencies. This varied set of tools, vendors and services makes it difficult to monitor security settings across a wide set of products.
  • The cost of security solutions. There has been much debate about cost-cutting measures in Congress recently, but staying ahead of security threats is an expensive challenge. Solutions need to be identified that solve problems and reduce costs.

Government agencies have similar attitudes towards automated cybersecurity and proactive protection. Top security professionals agree there is a real need for an active approach to network security. However, prioritization often becomes a roadblock, as it’s difficult to make the case to top management that protection against future threats should be at the top of the list. In a budgetary climate like the one we currently find ourselves in, the squeaky wheel gets the grease — and in security, you often don’t know of a problem until it’s too late. Cybersecurity in particular will always be a hard sell in government, but ultimately, no one wants to be the agency that makes it to the front page of a newspaper because of a breach.

The good news for cybersecurity is that funding for proactive and advanced security measures has not been cut to anywhere near the levels of other government initiatives. Thankfully, we have bipartisan support for cybersecurity. The argument that remains is the extent of the parameters and reach of legislation and/or executive orders. 

Key requirements for proactive security in the public sector include:

  • An open architecture that can work across multiple platforms in order to reduce cost and get rid of Band-Aid solutions.
  • Ease-of-use and understanding are also huge factors to consider when evaluating security software. A clear dashboard with graphical displays is essential when evaluating the day-to-day operation and usefulness of any security protocol. Visual information needs to replace text-based outputs.
  • The ability to eliminate manual processes and reduce the need for large numbers of contractors to maintain disparate systems.
  • Finally, look at what other successful private-sector organizations are currently using. A solid client list is a good sign. This creates instant credibility and trust.

Fortunately, there are solutions proliferating in the public sector that came from private-sector success stories. The recent Government Security News Homeland Security Awards lists many of these companies now bringing “proactive” approaches to government agencies. These awards show that proactive approaches are being implemented in leading agencies.

As an example, RedSeal Networks, the winner in continuous monitoring of network configurations, recently saved a government agency a great deal of money by implementing an automated solution that allowed a reduction in many contractors, elimination of many costly manual processes and proprietary patch solutions and resulted in much improved security. Companies such as FireEye have gone to proactive identification versus fixing only known problems. These proactive trends must continue if we are to stay ahead of the threats.

About the Author

Jim Flyzik is president of consulting firm, TheFlyzikGroup. He held numerous senior IT positions during his 28 year tenure in the federal government and hosts the monthly radio program, "The Federal Executive Forum" on Federal News Radio.


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