How one state bolsters its employees’ cyber hygiene
Strengthening its weakest link has helped Arizona reduce its click rate on phishing emails from 14% to 4%, the CISO says.
Amid ongoing cybersecurity threats from abroad and the need to keep its 36,000 government employees safe, Arizona has combined training and technology in an effort state officials said is already bearing fruit.
The program to improve the state’s cyber hygiene includes regular training for new and existing employees and real-time threat monitoring of its networks. It aims to raise awareness among agency staff and cut down on human error, which researchers have found is the most likely vector for an attack.
And Tim Roemer, director of the state’s Department of Homeland Security and chief information security officer, said the work is already paying off. The click rate on emails designed by the state and its vendors to look like phishing attacks and test employees is down from 14% to 4%, something Roemer said shows that the effort to “raise the bar of your weakest link” is working. Small changes can make a big difference, he said.
“You can't just go in on Day 1 and say, ‘I'm going to get $5 million more to buy all these cool tools, and better protect the state,’” he said. “No, you have to do more with less. Cyber hygiene and cybersecurity awareness was the fastest way to improve our cyber resiliency as a state, with no additional dollars needed. My talking point was: I grew my cybersecurity team from 16 to 36,000, and I did it with no additional funding.”
Arizona mandates cybersecurity training for all new employees as part of the onboarding process, and every year employees must complete additional cybersecurity awareness training. Agencies’ levels of participation are reported back to the state’s Department of Administration, which can then flag agencies with low participation to the Governor’s office to get them to raise their game.
Roemer said employees are trained on the various types of phishing attacks they could receive, including text messages and voice calls, and every month they receive a refresh on the latest tactics that hackers use to try and gain access. The human aspect, and ensuring staff are kept up to speed on the latest tricks and compromises, is crucial, he said.
“I understood that my employees were my weakest link, and I mean that with no offense to them, I'm one of them as well, I'm only human,” Roemer said. “[If] I do something really stupid … I am my own weakest link. That was the strategy behind it.”
In addition to employee-level training, Arizona also uses CrowdStrike’s Falcon platform to monitor and respond to threats in real time. The state’s Departments of Homeland Security and Administration created the multiagency Cyber Command to coordinate the search for and deployment of a cyber threat monitoring platform, which was especially helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic as thousands of employees worked remotely.
CrowdStrike’s endpoint protection technology is designed to keep state governments safe while not burdening employees or residents interacting with the government with new security measures or protocols.
“If there's a lot more complexity that's introduced” into users’ day-to-day processes, “that's going to be a problem,” said James Yeager, vice president of public sector and healthcare at CrowdStrike. “If you're that employee who's feeling like the IT guys are … making you do all these unique things that you didn't have to do before, it might encourage you to take a shortcut,” and that’s ultimately not the desired response, he said.
Roemer said the ability to monitor network activity via dashboards is a huge help, while the automatic flagging of perceived threats helps free up staff time to focus on them. And having every state agency on a common platform to share information helps everyone “be part of the solution” and creates “strength in numbers,” Yeager added.
It is not just in state agencies where Arizona is looking to improve employees’ cyber hygiene. The state’s annual $10 million Cyber Readiness Grant Program provides money and other training resources to local and tribal governments throughout Arizona. Roemer said those existing efforts, in addition to providing access to CrowdStrike’s platform, means the state won’t have to “reinvent the wheel” when federal cybersecurity grant dollars, which also emphasize cooperation with local governments, become available.
Roemer said the state already has a process for determining where grant dollars can be spent through task forces, advisory councils and working groups. Having given speeches to local governments about cyber threats that he said would “scare” elected officials, Roemer said cyber awareness can now be backed up by dollars, training, and sharing technology to help as part of a “whole state approach.”