How to avoid becoming the next OPM


How to avoid becoming the next OPM

The questions are flying on Capitol Hill about federal agency cybersecurity practices. As we learn more about the Office of Personnel Management breach, federal leaders are left wondering how such an incident could occur and whether other agencies are vulnerable to similar attacks. The incident prompted Federal CIO Tony Scott to initiate a 30-day cybersecurity “sprint,” recently concluded, that called on agencies to evaluate their security practices and address vulnerabilities.  But federal agencies aren’t the only ones that should be reevaluating their approach to security.

State and local governments also are undoubtedly on the radar of today’s advanced cyber-threat actors. States collect valuable data, and many agencies store citizens’ personally identifiable information just like the feds do. So while attention is focused on solving cybersecurity in D.C., states should also be watching very closely and investing in their cyber defense efforts. To accomplish this effectively, state IT leaders need to embrace new ideas and innovative technologies to address today’s security needs.

Data opportunity waiting

One of the biggest opportunity areas for improving security is through data analytics. Government organizations at every level, from the biggest federal agencies down to local government, are producing, collecting and storing more data from more sources than ever before. Managing and utilizing this information is a daunting task, especially for state and local governments facing limited resources and budgets.

The biggest reason agencies aren’t making the most of their data is that they don’t have the right tools in place to do so. That’s not to say analysis isn’t already happening. There are many state agencies successfully analyzing data and finding value in this information. In most cases, however, this analysis is happening in silos using multiple technologies for different data sets, which provides a limited view of the intelligence.

However, states that wish to improve security practices and achieve operational, single-pane visibility should make sure they adopt analytics solutions that have:

  • The ability to pull in machine data from disparate sources for analysis and the scalability to accept new data sources as they emerge
  • The flexibility to correlate the data from multiple sources (logs, clouds, applications, sensors, networks, etc.) and visualize it through dashboards
  • The speed to perform analysis quickly and support real-time response to security breaches 

Address problems with new approaches

Another emerging capability that is becoming increasingly relevant for government is the ability to perform behavioral analytics. Most recent government breaches, including that at OPM, were perpetrated by actors with legitimate user access credentials, and the same tactic has been used to infiltrate state and local government systems. This means that one of keys to preventing a serious security incident is focusing on detecting the threats that are already on the network – whether that is an insider, or an external attacker who has phished or otherwise illegally obtained valid credentials.

Technologies that tap into machine-learning and data-driven behavioral analytics are more equipped to defend against breaches than traditional security incident event management solutions. The right approach can enable security systems to identify anomalous behaviors by users and automatically tag them for further investigation. These anomalous actions are determined based on the normative behavior of users, meaning any unusual behavior by malicious actors using legitimate credentials will be flagged. In today’s threat environment, it’s important to view all data as security-relevant.

Comprehensive analytics capabilities are important to the security and modernization of state and local government. Security operations or policy changes are driven by intelligent decision making, but gathering data and converting it to actionable intelligence is difficult without the right technologies to support the process. Platform analytics enable both proactive detection and defensive threat mitigation, and the information learned can be shared across agency departments and deliver faster time to value.

State and local agencies would be wise to keep all this in mind as they reevaluate their security posture and explore investing in solutions to help prevent their own OPM-like breach. 

About the Author

John Zarour is director of state and local government and K-12 for Splunk.


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