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New York needs to get ahead of cyberattacks, audit finds

The unit dedicated to ensuring the cybersecurity of New York state agencies, local governments and public authorities is behind the curve, a new audit finds.

In a report released Nov. 12, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) cannot assure that its Cyber Incident Response Team (CIRT) is meeting the needs of its customers.

Cyberattacks have already hit New York state agencies, 911 systems, cities, towns and school districts and pose a significant risk to water systems, utilities, airports, schools and health care facilities, and cyberattack complaints increased from 114,702 in 2019 to 241,342 in 2020, according to the FBI. The financial impact of these attacks are not insignificant. After a 2019 ransomware cyberattack, the city of Albany, for example, spent $300,000 to replace destroyed servers, upgrade user security software, purchase firewall insurance and harden the city’s systems.

“New York’s Cyber Incident Response Team plays a vital role in safeguarding our infrastructure and critical data against cybersecurity threats,” DiNapoli said. “There are a lack of forward-thinking strategies, widespread training, and specific and measurable objectives that are critical in assessing progress. Additionally, the agency needs to be more proactive. As cybersecurity attacks continue to rise, I encourage the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to take quick action on this urgent issue.”

Between May 2018 and December 2020, CIRT responded to 122 cyberattacks statewide, including 39 phishing incidents, 23 ransomware attacks and incidents of compromised accounts. But CIRT’s activities have only reached a fraction of the 2,800 entities it is responsible for, the auditors said.

The report also said that CIRT is not doing enough to proactively evaluate the cybersecurity needs of the agencies it assists and measure its progress in improving security. It conducted 11 risk assessments at the request of counties, local government and a non-executive agency, but most of CIRT’s activity is on a by-request basis or when areas of need are identified, the report said.  Only five training sessions on phishing emails were conducted between July 2020 and March 2021, in spite of the risks of ransomware-infected emails.

“Without clear goals and documentation of security needs and progress officials cannot be assured their work is achieving the desired outcomes, if it is focused where public entities most need help, and if its limited resources are being used to the greatest benefit of the entities it was created to support,” the audit said.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help local governments fund modernize and protect their networks against future cyberattacks, but in the meantime, DiNapoli recommended the DHSES develop specific, measurable objectives and goals so that CIRT can evaluate if it is achieving its mission. He also called on CIRT to identify the cybersecurity needs of the entities it is charged with supporting.

DHSES generally disagreed with the audit’s recommendations, saying auditors misunderstood how CIRT operates. The agency’s full responses are included in the audit.

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