Annapolis, MD (Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com)

Cybersecurity from the statehouse to the local library

City, county and state leaders are seeking safety in numbers as they band together to combat the increase in cyber attacks that have been targeting municipal governments. A new report outlines programs that show particular promise in their collaboration approaches and offers tips for state officials who want to partner with local counterparts on cybersecurity.

The National Governors Association and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) released the report, titled “Stronger Together: State and Local Cybersecurity Collaboration,” on Jan. 15, less than two months after a ransomware attack affected Louisiana government servers. A ransomware that shut down Baltimore city servers last May could cost the city more than $18 million in restoration and repair costs.

The amount of interaction between state and local entities varies, according to the report. The NASCIO 2019 State CIO Survey found that 65% of states provide security infrastructure and services to local governments. In states that provide security-as-a-service programs to locals, they’re often in the form of managed security services, election security, phishing training, cyber response and ransomware response, according to the report.

For instance, Louisiana's Emergency Support Function, which integrates cyber response into the state’s overarching emergency management framework, was called into action after Gov. John Bel Edwards declared an emergency in July 2019 to respond to a ransomware attack on school districts. Local governments reported the incident quickly, enabling the state to launch a forensic investigation and stop the attack from spreading to seven more targets.

Iowa has been helping counties with cybersecurity since 2012. After initial outreach efforts, only 50 of the state’s 99 counties took advantage of the state’s cyber help, but today all 99 participate in at least one of the state’s offerings. Iowa used the Federal Emergency Management Agency's State Homeland Security Grant Program funding to pay for licensing, appliances and hardware and tools, such as vulnerability scanning and an intrusion-detection service that continuously monitors networks.

Particularly pertinent with the 2020 election looming is Illinois’ two-year-old Cyber Navigator Program, through which dedicated workers help local election officials bolster their cyber posture. “Cyber Navigators conduct risk assessments, connect local election officials to resources and seek to demystify cybersecurity by converting jargon into business-friendly terms,” the report states.

Other states that are working to prevent and respond to cybersecurity attacks include Colorado, which developed the Colorado Threat Information Sharing network to quickly share threat information among state and local agencies, industry and other nongovernmental groups. Last October, the state Office of Information Technology went a step further by issuing the “Security Guidance and Resources for Local Governments.”

In 2018, the Georgia Cyber Center launched to prepare the next-generation cybersecurity workforce, but it also offers a cyber range, a place where students, companies and government professionals can test their cyber infrastructures. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s cybercrime unit -- including a cybercrime training center -- is headquartered at the Cyber Center.

In Wisconsin, officials treat cyber support to local, tribal and private entities the way they handle physical emergencies: through the state’s Cyber Response Team. The CRTs also analyze threats and exchange cybersecurity information. A Homeland Security Department grant provided a 75% reimbursement to train teams specifically to support local government.

Despite all these efforts, much work remains to support state and local collaboration. The report offers three action items for states:

  • Build relationships with local governments.
  • Raise awareness of any cyber services available through cyber summits and stakeholder education sessions.
  • Explore cost savings opportunities that could result from including local governments in service contracts.

Although many chief information security officers “believe that increased engagement with locals has strengthened the state’s overall cyber posture, and they have made it a top cybersecurity priority,” the new report states, NASCIO and NGA advocate for a “whole-of-state approach.”

“Cybersecurity is not just an IT problem anymore,” the report states. “It is a critical business risk, homeland security and public safety threat, voter confidence issue, and economic development opportunity. Cybersecurity requires commitment from state executives and officials to use all levers of state government to move forward. And as such, it is essential that states take a multidisciplinary approach.”

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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