Living in the twenty-first century certainly has its advantages. But it also comes with risk. With data more prolific than ever, both people and organizations face a heightened threat of cybersecurity attacks. The environment is even more dangerous for government entities, which hold some of the most critical pieces of information out there. This article will explore the topic of data security, the risks faced by governments, and what steps can be taken to minimize them.
A Look at the Current Reality
Cybercrime is on the rise around the world, with the victim count having increased by 16 times since 2001. Things got particularly bad during the COVID-19 pandemic when cyber attacks increased by 125% globally through 2021. People are hot targets for criminals, but government bodies are even more attractive; according to a recent report conducted by CloudSEK XVigil, the number of cyberattacks on government agencies climbed by 95% between 2021 and 2022.
These incidents can take on many forms, including:
Hacking – Hacking is broadly defined as unauthorized access to a computer system in order to steal information or disrupt services.
Phishing – Phishing is an attempt by cybercriminals to acquire sensitive information through emails or other web-based means.
Malware – Malware refers to any malicious software, script, or code that alters the state or function of a victim’s device. It can be used to steal data, demand ransom payments, or cause other disruptions.
Social Engineering – Social engineering is a tactic employed to manipulate people into giving up compromising information or access privileges.
Misuse – Some cyber incidents are the result of downright abuse of privilege by employees. This internal threat can be hard to detect and eliminate.
The Unique Cybersecurity Risks of Government Organizations
Every business, organization, and entity with a digital presence is vulnerable in today’s digital age. But governments are at a particularly high risk of cyberattacks. We’ll explore some of the reasons why below.
Staff and Skills Shortage
One of the biggest problems plaguing governments’ ability to bolster their data security today is a lack of staff. The tech industry at large is dealing with a talent shortage; highly qualified candidates are logically going for the best offers they’re given, usually from big-name companies with unreal perks and cushy salaries. The remaining employers are left to contend for outliers, some of which turn out to be good hires, and some of which don’t.
Government institutions tend to have little luck finding and retaining staff with the skills and integrity necessary to fulfill cybersecurity roles. The candidates willing to take lower public salaries are usually underqualified, while some applicants have histories that make them untrustworthy of the job. Combined with a lack of internal resources to train recruits, IT departments are lucky to be able to maintain the status quo – let alone keep up with new and emerging threats.
A 2022 report by Verizon found that 82% of organizational security breaches occur due to, or are in some part driven by human error. Meanwhile, industry experts say that proper training can cut the risk drastically.
Outdated Resources and Systems
Government is notorious for being slow and antiquated. It seems like whatever part of it you deal with, whether that be the Department of Motor Vehicles or passport renewal office, was set up in the eighties and hasn’t changed since then. In many cases, departmental operations still rely on what’s known as a ‘legacy system’, or old and outdated computer software.
But technology has evolved a lot over the past decades. With all of the advanced tools and strategies available to cybercriminals today, what passed as cutting-edge originally doesn’t cut it at all anymore. Outdated software is much easier to breach and therefore a target on the back of every government that uses it.
On top of it all, legacy systems are expensive to maintain. Being so old, they rarely integrate well with newer technology, nor migrate information easily. This is an extra cost burden that can make both preparing for and recovering from a cyberattack as a government entity harder to afford.
What do cybercriminals love most, you may ask? They’re after data – but not just any data. The best kind is capable of violating people’s privacy, compromising their identities, and exploiting them for money. Government institutions have a lot of it.
From tax information and benefits use to employment, social security, healthcare, and more, the government is arguably the only place that knows just as much about you as yourself. Most countries have strong internal policies and practices in place to protect citizens’ sensitive information among employees, but computers are another story. They can be attacked at any time, and as we’ve already established, often lack the proper security measures to stand up against modern threats.
Like everything else, technology’s management in government institutions is plagued by bureaucracy. Even though many leaders are well aware of the two aforementioned points and want to make changes, actually doing so is difficult. The system wasn’t built to be efficient – it’s plagued by multiple consultative, review, and approval processes, not to mention restricted in terms of funding. So it’s reasonable to say that the average government office would have more trouble adopting a new, cutting-edge cybersecurity solution than a private business. Moreover, government bodies usually like to do things holistically; if and when updated privacy measures are given the go-ahead, they would likely require a great deal of cross-departmental collaboration and coordination in order to be implemented properly. This slows down agility even more, leaving most institutions unable to effectively defend themselves against the cybersecurity risks of the day.
What Can Be Done?
Just like everyone else, government institutions are not defenseless against the threat of cybercrime. They have a number of options at their disposal when it comes to mitigating potential attacks, many of which are simple and cost-effective:
Enhance Authentication Measures
A large portion of successful cyberattacks carried out today are related to compromised credentials, such as usernames, emails, and passwords. An individual doesn’t even need to actively share theirs with anyone for it to be used, either. Hackers are capable of harvesting information through malware and other malicious methods.
Government institutions should focus on implementing stronger authentication measures, such as multi-factor authentication or biometrics. Multi-factor authentication acts as an extra layer of assurance in the event that traditional login information is compromised. Biometrics do the same while also making it easier for employees themselves to access systems with quick-scan facial recognition and fingerprinting.
But on that same topic, organizations of all kinds need to be cautious when involving biometric data in their security systems. It too is a hot commodity on the black market and must be protected.
Invest In Better Infrastructure
Easier said than done in government, yes. But it’s absolutely critical to ensuring operational resilience against cybersecurity threats. Upgrading from legacy systems altogether is the best and most impactful measure here, but government organizations can benefit from as little as updating their existing systems with more secure versions.
The same goes for network infrastructure. By implementing more robust firewalls, government organizations can protect their data from malicious attacks and keep intruders out of sensitive networks. These kinds of hardware investments can pay off in the long run by providing a more secure and reliable digital platform for employees, therefore lessening the risk of compromise and reducing long-term data breach costs.
Assess Areas of Vulnerability
Understanding where you stand is the first step in improving any type of security strategy. It’s important to identify the weakest spots so they can be targeted first with proper solutions. Audits are a common practice for government entities to begin with, so conducting them for cybersecurity should come naturally. Audits can help organizations detect vulnerabilities in the systems, applications, and networks that are used to store or process data. This includes analyzing potential security gaps in third-party solutions if they are being utilized.
Encrypt As Much as Possible
For all of the sensitive information flowing within their networks, government departments should be encrypting data whenever and wherever possible. Encryption is a simple yet effective tactic that protects important information by converting it into unreadable code before transmission. No human can understand it – only the receiving computer with a proper encryption key.
This practice has become especially important as more and more employees work remotely. On-site networks are now connected to home networks which may not have the same level of security.
Build a Culture of Cybersecurity
Government organizations can invest in as many fancy tools and systems as they want, but doing that alone won’t completely insulate them from the risks of a cyber attack. Employees are a major part of the equation and deserve just as much attention from leaders. The best way to improve their readiness on a holistic level is through culture change, which we’ll explain how to implement below.
It’s not enough to remind staff of the importance of not sharing their passwords every now and then. If common sense logic like that was enough to prevent data loss, we wouldn’t see as many attacks as we are today. Organizations, especially those involved in government, need to take a comprehensive approach to employee training by conducting professional programs either in-house or in collaboration with a third-party provider. The education should apply to all levels of the hierarchy, too – entry-level individuals, teams, managers, staff, and leadership.
Incorporate Cybersecurity into Employee Evaluations
An employee’s ability to follow best practices in cybersecurity is just as important, if not more so, than their organization, communication, or other areas of performance. Government organizations can benefit by prioritizing this during evaluations, as it establishes the seriousness of the subject and incentivizes employees to remain aware. This can take the form of graded tests, employee feedback, or even just a reminder that cybersecurity is being monitored as part of their performance.
Drills serve as an excellent way of confirming that cybersecurity training and education measures are working as intended. They work similarly to any other type of emergency drill, only in this case are usually kept secret from employees. IT plans a mock incident and then tests how the team reacts to it. This allows them to identify any gaps in the security protocols or potential personnel blind spots that may have been overlooked.
Update and Continuously Revisit Security Policies
Technology changes and gets more advanced by the day, and so should cyber security policies. They ought to reflect all of the risks an organization currently faces, as well as the practices best suited to mitigate them. Again, this means more than discouraging password sharing. It calls for policies and procedures that clearly outline what employees should do in the event of an incident, who they should call, and what the implications are for taking unapproved actions on the network.
But that’s not all. On top of creating these up-to-date measures today, government organizations must continuously review and update them to ensure they’re still accurate and relevant. As more threats emerge, adjustments need to be made accordingly.
No matter the form, cyberattacks are becoming more frequent and more sophisticated every day. Government agencies must stay vigilant in order to protect themselves from potential threats – both from external sources and internal. The first step is awareness, but it’s just one of many.
By leveraging advanced solutions, such as TeraDact’s products: Tokenizer+, Redactor+, and Secrets+, government agencies can enhance their data security measures and proactively safeguard sensitive information. With Tokenizer+, sensitive data can be securely tokenized, reducing the risk of unauthorized access. Redactor+ enables the redaction of sensitive information from documents, preventing inadvertent exposure. Meanwhile, Secrets+ offers robust encryption and secure storage solutions, ensuring that sensitive data remains protected from malicious actors. At the end of the day, those who take action sooner and adopt cutting-edge cybersecurity solutions like TeraDact’s products are the ones who will be best positioned to protect themselves from potential danger.