Bigger, Faster, Smarter

Evolving security challenge threatens to overwhelm government’s defenses.

In the past three years, breaches of IT systems and networks have exposed millions of files and personnel data held at federal agencies, yet most government systems are still vulnerable to attacks by criminal groups and state actors, notably Russia, China and North Korea. Simply put, the U.S. government’s cybersecurity isn’t keeping pace with cyberthreats.

Though governments have improved their defenses and responses to attacks, there remains a gap between the current state of cybersecurity and the more robust level that is needed. At a time when the private sector is setting the benchmark for effective security – consider the financial industry, for example – government is seen as having fallen behind.

Catching up won’t be easy. Even as agencies take action to become more secure, cyberthreats are increasing in number and sophistication.

A government report published May 2018 “confirmed the need to take bold approaches” to improve federal cybersecurity, according to the Office of Management and Budget, which worked with the Department of Homeland Security on the governmentwide risk assessment, “Federal Cybersecurity Risk Determination Report and Action Plan.”

The survey determined that 71 of 96 agencies that participated in the review “have cybersecurity programs that are either at risk or high risk.” In addition, OMB and DHS found that “federal agencies are not equipped to determine how threat actors seek to gain access to their information.”

Jonathan Darby, deputy chief of the National Security Agency’s cybersecurity operations group, in a November 2017 speech at the State Department’s Overseas Security Advisory Council’s (OSAC) annual briefing, says attacks around the world will continue to increase and become more dangerous.

“Cyber adversaries are becoming more sophisticated in how they operate,” he says, noting that tried-and-true attacks, such as spear phishing, continue to be effective.

Concerns about cybersecurity extend to state governments. Minnesota, for example, recently released a five-year strategic plan to boost its cybersecurity efforts in the face of “more sophisticated, more skilled, more organized and more professional” cyberthreats.

The state says its IT systems are the targets of around three million attacks every day. The five-year plan calls for spending nearly $20 million in fiscal 2019 on cybersecurity. Major goals of the plan include educating the state’s workforce about threats and teaching employees about cyber hygiene.

Many government agencies tend to view cybersecurity exclusively through the narrow lens of their own mission, says Alyssa Miller, manager of security management for the IT solutions provider CDW•G. Taking a parochial view can be counterproductive.

“Where I’ve seen difficulty is in the understanding of threats and how they apply to those different focus levels,” she says. “A lot of agencies are just not in the right headspace.”

Attitudes needs to change, according to OMB. The situation that now exists creates “enterprisewide gaps” in network visibility and how agencies apply IT tools, all of which compromise federal cybersecurity.

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