States vs. feds: Who does cybersecurity the best?

States vs. feds: Who does cybersecurity better?

Federal, state and local governments face different flavors of cybersecurity threats, but there is a common need for additional threat intelligence sharing and better cyber-talent recruitment, a recent research report suggests.

According to the study, “State of Cybersecurity in Local, State and Federal Government” conducted by the Ponemon Institute, more than half of state and federal respondents said cybersecurity practices are not clearly defined, and the majority agreed that the effectiveness in preventing and detecting cyberattacks is low.

Both state and federal respondents also agreed that one of the top cybersecurity objectives is to secure the nation’s critical infrastructure.  And agencies at all levels are getting frequent reminders of the challenge: according to the report, federal agencies have faced material security breaches nearly every nine weeks, and state agencies every 12 weeks, over the past two years.

Reducing this risk demands improvements in the cybersecurity posture of government. The report found that federal agencies have a stronger cybersecurity posture than state agencies, as federal agencies rely more on intelligence sharing and are more effectively recruiting expert personnel to reduce cybersecurity risks.

Furthermore, more state and local organizations describe their cybersecurity programs as being in the early and middle stages of maturity, while federal agencies put theirs in the late to mature stages. According to Larry Ponemon, founder of the Ponemon Institute, some believe this maturity reflects the length of time agencies have been engaged in security activities.

In fact, 86 percent of state and local respondents said managing cybersecurity risk is one of their most stressful jobs, compared to the 73 percent in federal. State and local governments "may not have the right tools and people in place as compared to federal,” said Ponemon in a webinar on Oct. 28.

Rob Roy, chief technology officer for HP Public Sector Enterprise Security Products, added that because state and local personnel work closer to citizens, the responsibility rests heavily on their shoulders. That, combined with a lack of resources and sufficient funds to improve threat intelligence, can cause more stress, he said.

State and local respondents also ranked their ability to prevent, detect, contain and recover from a cyberattack lower than did federal respondents. According to Roy, this statistic could actually be helpful for states in requesting better resources.

“These findings can enable them to make the case of, 'this is what we’re struggling with, here’s where the feds are, let’s go ahead and improve our situation,'” Roy said.  According to the report, state and local respondents believe that recruiting more skilled personnel, increasing IT budgets and sharing more threat intelligence can help to boost their cybersecurity posture.

Federal agencies have more mechanisms in place for sharing threat intelligence than do state and local organizations, which also lack the budgets to recruit and hire the needed experts, Roy said.

Similarly, 43 percent of state and local respondents listed the failure to patch known vulnerabilities as a top security threat, as opposed to 34 percent of federal organizations. While patching is hardly “high-science,” Ponemon said, it takes a lot of effort and can also be a leading cause of stress. 

According to Roy, programs like the Department of Homeland Security's Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation are extremely costly.  And while state and local governments are eligible to use CDM, they don't have access to the congressional funding that federal agencies do.

And regardless of internal infrastructure, organizations at all levels feel their applications and databases are most susceptible to an information security compromise like loss or theft. “Application layer security is very weak,” said Roy, “due to an overreliance on using the network security to protect the applications.”

Properly using gathered threat intelligence is also an area where all levels of government can improve. According to the report, just 29 percent of federal respondents and 21 percent of state and local respondents feel their organization’s collection and use of actionable intelligence from other sources are effective in predicting malicious activities.

But information sharing is key, Roy said. It can “help us turn the tide and make it harder on the adversary to share and be able to use the same attack on multiple organizations.”

When it comes to choosing security technologies, agencies at all levels focus heavily on performance and cost, citing the cost of maintaining these technologies, the lack of skilled personnel to manage them and the products’ high technical difficulty levels as top reasons for dissatisfaction.

One area where state and local organizations shine, however, is security innovation.  State and local respondents were notably “more positive about their ability to innovate” than their federal peers, Roy said. He suggested this may have to do with the more flexible and autonomous nature of state and local organizations. 

About the Author

Amanda Ziadeh is a former reporter/producer for GCN.


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