The case for email encryption in local government

Encryption ensures that only the intended recipients of a government email would be able to open and read the content and its attachments -- a necessary requirement in health care, education and law enforcement.

From paving potholes to funding schools, running a town, city or state is not easy, and budgets are always tight. With so many moving parts to manage in local government, it’s easy to let something like out-of-support servers or password policy enforcement lapse while taking care of more pressing matters, like bringing business to the area and making sure roads and bridges are safe.

However, there’s too much at stake when local government officials don’t mind their Ps and Qs when it comes to data security. Just consider how many departments fall under the purview of local government, and the types of data they handle. From health and social workers storing protected health information (PHI), to law enforcement officers accessing Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) databases, to legally sensitive documents like government contracts, the data collected and used by local government is a veritable goldmine for cybercriminals.

And beyond the threat of mere data leaks, there are also the growing issues of cyber terrorism and cyber espionage. With so many threats and so little bandwidth, how can local government make sure it's protecting its sensitive data as well as its citizens?

One important measure that should be implemented across states, cities and towns is email encryption.

By using encryption, documents and data are unreadable to anyone except the intended recipients. Complex algorithms jumble data that can only be unlocked via an encryption key that the recipient possesses. So even if cyber thieves download an agency’s sensitive data or documents, they’re out of luck unless they also have the encryption key.

Email encryption takes those principles and applies them to email. A local government email encryption solution would ensure that only the intended recipients of a government email would be able to open and read the email and its attachments, because only the intended recipients would have the key necessary to decrypt the contents. It seems like an obvious solution — but are local governments using it?

Email encryption statistics for local government are hard to dig up, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Last November’s breach of the State Department email system shows the federal government’s email systems are vulnerable attacks, so state and local governments should also be prepared. And the threat is growing: the number of cybersecurity incidents involving government agencies grew 35 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office. For local government, email encryption is an important defense against the looming menace of cybercrime.

The following local government email encryption use cases are just a few examples of how can encryption can help municipalities, cities and states protect sensitive data,

Health and human services. Anyone working in health and human services is familiar with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and the penalties for not protecting a patient’s sensitive health data, be it lab results or medical forms. For the uninitiated, a first HIPAA violation can result in a fine of $100 to $50,000 (or more, if willful neglect can be proven). If that one violation involved multiple patients -- say, medical files of multiple patients on an unencrypted public server or on a laptop that gets stolen -- that fine is repeated for each patient affected.

As patients, healthcare providers and health and human services workers access patient data more frequently through digital means like email, the potential vulnerability to cybercrime grows. An agency that transmits PHI in any way, shape or form via email must use encryption to protect that data from breaches (and protect the agency from stiff fines).

Even if patient data falls into the wrong hands, encryption renders it virtually unusable unless the cyber thief also managed to obtain the encryption key. In that way, local government email encryption gives workers a second layer of protection against HIPAA violations and costly penalties.

Education. Another essential function of state and local government is to educate students, but that comes with its own set of data privacy and compliance standards. Signed into law in 1974, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) mandates that parents have the right to consent to or challenge the disclosure of grades, standardized test scores, behavioral reports and health information. (That last data type, of course, is also protected by HIPAA.) If a school is found to be violating FERPA guidelines, it risks losing any federal funding it receives until the issue is remediated.

Of course, teachers and professors are sharing more student data by way of email than ever. Half of all colleges and universities submit sensitive student data through email. If local government email encryption practices include K-12 schools, community colleges and state universities, even our youngest citizens can enjoy the right to privacy.

Law enforcement. Local government email encryption policies don’t just protect digital assets, they can also help protect citizens from crime in the physical world. Local governments can access the CJIS databases, run by the FBI, to inform them of potential, local  criminal activity. To retain access to CJIS, however, agencies must stay compliant with CJIS guidelines, from storing and using sensitive data to including criminal justice information in email messages and attachments. That means law enforcement agencies present the most cut-and-dried case for local government email encryption.

It’s imperative for local governments to make sure they’re taking the correct measures to protect sensitive data. Over half of all government data breaches are caused by government employees, according to a study conducted by Verizon. A data breach could be as simple as sending an email to the wrong recipient, or incorrectly redacting a document prior to sending.

Fortunately, there are technologies in the cybersecurity and privacy market today that are relatively cost effective and easy to use, so it’s important that agencies find the service that works best for them. Ultimately, governments must ensure that their digital information stays private, and email encryption can help provide that security.

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