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As complexity climbs, how can agencies manage cyber risks?

There’s a new cyberattack or data breach almost daily. A few weeks ago, federal prosecutors announced charges against Chinese military hackers, alleging that the Chinese intelligence officers were behind the Equifax data breach. And just last month, stories of hackers infiltrating dozens of United Nations servers last year and malware being discovered on Defense Department servers surfaced.

Not only is the public sector a significant target, as evidenced Verizon’s 2019 Data Breach Investigation Report, but infiltrations into government systems are historically slow to be discovered.

While there have been more attacks and the number of breaches and their associated costs continue to rise, this isn't a new problem. Information security has been designated a high-risk area by the Government Accountability Office since 1997, and federal agencies must continually adjust how they think about security; specifically, how they identify, manage, prioritize and mitigate risks.

Point product proliferation

Over the last few decades, government has grappled with how to best secure growing networks while supporting mission needs and adopting new, modern technology. Bring-your-own-device initiatives and advancements in internet-of-things technology have resulted in a massive increase in endpoints connecting to agency networks that substantially increases risk.

Those responsible for securing enterprise networks struggle to guarantee security because they often simply don’t know what’s actually on their networks. They’ve lost all visibility into their endpoints, ironically, because they stitched together security solutions and created too many for legacy tools and methods to manage. The collection of point solutions running across federal networks has only further compounded the problem. Most of those point tools require an agent to be installed, and studies have shown that the more agents there are on an endpoint, the higher the probability that it will be breached

To be clear, there has been a monumental amount of effort put into solving this risk management problem. For example, many agencies have leveraged the guidance found in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Special Publication 800-53, which provides a multi-tiered risk management model, and just last year the Department of Homeland Security launched the Agency-Wide Adaptive Risk Enumeration (AWARE) scoring algorithm as part of the Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program to inform decision-making in the management of cyber risk.

Despite efforts to date, the actual urgency of the matter has been blunted by the fear, uncertainty and doubt that sometimes compels agencies to buy blind, as is evidenced by the volume of point products on the CDM Approved Product List ballooning beyond 430,000 individual SKUs. Decision-makers are burdened by tools that often fail to integrate and communicate with others, are expensive to maintain and deliver irregular, unreliable and dated data.

To sustain agency missions, it’s critical to stay ahead of cyber adversaries. A single decision made on yesterday’s data could elevate an agency’s security risk. Risk management must be rooted in real-time, accurate data.

What’s the solution?

Remember the basics: Security basics are just as important as the more complex security solutions. Just as there’s no real benefit to locking the skylights if the front door is left wide open, securing against a rare strain of malware holds no benefit without first implementing basic security controls, such as those offered by the Center for Internet Security.

Recognize distractions: To stay on task, IT teams must be aware of what might draw attention away from their intended focus. It’s easy to get distracted by vulnerabilities on non-critical assets  or low-priority risks -- either because the fix or remediation seems quick and easy or because the volume of similar issues is just too hard to ignore. Focus on and prioritize high-value assets to effectively reduce risk and improve security posture.

Rectify the relationship: There’s often a substantial priorities gap between IT operations and security teams, making it more difficult to manage an organization’s risk, much less quickly make informed mission-critical decisions. By unifying the two teams, agencies can reduce complexity and close visibility gaps created by siloed tools, reduce infrastructure costs and adapt to new computing models, such as the cloud. Unified efforts can improve network visibility and drastically reduce the time for critical patch management, asset inventory and incident response. Lastly, agencies can eliminate security guesswork by aligning both teams with consistent and accurate data.

Reduce risk by rank: At a basic level, federal agencies can leverage a risk-scoring solution such as AWARE, a risk assessment method or a risk management framework to determine their vulnerability (e.g., exposure value x likelihood); however, the output of such a calculation is only as good as the input data, so agencies must have accurate, real-time data for making risk prioritization decisions.

The security problems agencies face today aren’t new, but government enterprise networks have become significantly more complex. Rather than being considered a budget black hole, security teams should be seen as board room advisors. By taking a holistic, platform approach to technology risk management, security teams reduce the number of point products, reallocate budget and scarce resources and justify future budget requests for critical security activities -- all while providing a comprehensive view of the security landscape that enables strategic business decisions.

About the Author

Colby Proffitt is a cyber strategist at Tanium.


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