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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

How to create a secure cyber environment

Companies across the U.S. have been scrambling for the past months to ensure their operations comply with the new data protection and privacy rules stipulated by the General Data Protection Regulation. The new European Union regulation serves as a powerful reminder that protecting data is one of the most critical challenges facing any organization today.

Government agencies face a unique challenge in this new security environment as they work to upgrade legacy software and hardware. Cloud-based components can help with keeping data safe from breaches -- but only if properly implemented. Even as the cyber attack levels continue to rise, agencies can take steps to remain proactive and vigilant.

Cybercrime in the government

Government entities are experiencing more cyber crime than ever before, with agencies twice as likely to experience a data breach than non-U.S. government organizations, according to the 2018 Thales Data Threat Report. The vast quantity of personal and confidential data that is gathered and stored by government makes it a prime target for cybercriminals, which both explains and exacerbates the issue.

This government security reality is made worse by limited budgets and prolonged procurement cycles, which often leave federal agencies doing their best with older equipment. From a personnel standpoint, government IT departments also face an uphill battle, with hiring freezes limiting the workforce available for critical, ongoing security updates and software patches. The large number of contractors currently working in government IT systems means agencies may not have direct control over their security practices and as a result have suffered from a breaches.

Impact of government breaches

The cost of handling data breaches within the government is difficult to estimate. On top of the reputational costs of informing partners and the public that their data has been infiltrated, class-action lawsuits have been filed charging government organizations with poor handling of sensitive data. One example is the $1 million lawsuit brought against a Minnesota county child-support investigator who inappropriately accessed nearly 400 driving records without authorization. The suit claimed that the county had insufficient procedures in place and failed to appropriately protect the data. A similar lawsuit ended with a county agreeing to pay $2 million in taxpayer funds to settle. Yet another massive breach at the Maricopa County Community College in Arizona cost taxpayers up to $26 million, including $7.5 million in consulting and network upgrade fees. Individually, of course, these lawsuits represent drops in the proverbial bucket, but if they continue increasing in number and scope, the threat to our nation escalates accordingly.

Rapid notification equals rapid recovery

Protecting government agency systems and data means keeping software and hardware updated, enforcing security policies and performing regular and redundant backups -- and doing so despite, and because of, the limitations outlined above.

One way that agencies can ameliorate the impact of a data breach is through immediate communication with staff and all those who were potentially affected. If an agency doesn’t realize the full extent of a security incident until weeks, months or even years later, the damage has almost certainly been compounded, and it is much more difficult to recover the information, understand exactly who was impacted and fix the underlying security problem.

Rapidly notifying staff throughout the IT department of an anomaly that needs review makes it much more likely that a data breach can be discovered quickly, improving the odds of a more-positive outcome. To be prepared as the breach-related chaos unfolds, it's also crucial that agency leadership develop, test and install a comprehensive cyber mitigation and continuity plan.

The first element -- mitigation -- should of course focus on addressing and stopping as many threats as possible before they impact the agency. Continuity is just as important, because in today’s cybersecurity environment, a successful attack is a “when” not “if” scenario. The IT team must ensure the agency has a communication plan in place that will keep everyone in sync during one of these scenarios. Having access to a platform that provides easy SMS text messaging, email and voice messaging allows IT managers to broadcast their messages and reset to a corrective course much more rapidly.

We’re asking today’s agencies to do more with less and that’s especially true when it comes to defending against cyber threats. By understanding the current threat landscape and acknowledging institutional challenges, agencies can laser-focus their efforts on plans, process and technologies that will have the greatest impact when breaches occur.

About the Author

Don Hall is government solutions director at OnSolve.

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