Looking back at the hundred-plus FBI cyber investigations and victim notifications I’ve worked over the past decade, without a doubt, the most concerning and most difficult ones centered around local and state governments.
States and cities face a tall order: protecting critical data and infrastructure. They’re expected to conduct an investigation, and remediate and prevent future attacks, all with under-staffed or non-existent cybersecurity teams, limited incident response capacity, and a lack of reliable technology.
Working closely with CIOs in cities like Los Angeles and states like Colorado has given me perspective on what is working and where we should be devoting our energy. Here are the top four observations — and solutions — for helping city and state CIOs resolve their cybersecurity challenges.
1. Get the basics right, then tackle IoT
I get it. IoT is important. IoT is scary. But we are still not doing the basics on the workstations and servers that run those IoT devices. Many jurisdictions, for instance, do not yet have a complete and accurate inventory of every asset on their network. And the easiest way to breach a network will always be through the one unpatched piece of software the organization doesn’t know about — not the smart streetlight (yet). This is not to say states and cities should halt all IoT efforts. Rather, they should prioritize their time and investments in getting essential cyber hygiene efforts done first.
Action item: Have your security team run a vulnerability scan and compare the endpoints found with your IT team’s most recent patch report. If the reports are identical, compliment both teams; if they’re not, check both teams’ tools. One of them is broken.
2. Break down organizational silos
IT operations in state and city government are often run by the various agencies within the government, rather than being centralized under the state’s or city’s CIO. This leads to shadow IT, with a wide range of servers, software, and hardware spread across the state and city, and no standardized way to measure their risk level or even know when systems need to be updated. IT administrators cannot share best practices, causing further inefficiencies. What’s worse than shadow IT? Shadow security — rogue systems with no security features turned on. Fortunately, some states and cities have made significant efforts toward consolidating and federating their IT, and the broader trend is toward consolidation, as NASCIO reported in its survey of state CIOs.
Action item: Identify the agency or department with the least number of cybersecurity resources and consolidate those first. Don’t boil the ocean by starting at the agency with the most crown jewels.
3. Reduce the number of tools
Because technology management is so spread out across agencies, states and cities tend to have dozens of tools for managing their IT and security. I once responded to an incident at a state government that had more than a dozen different tools for asset inventory and patching alone. If you have a dozen tools, you need people with expertise in each piece of software, and you have to commit valuable time and money to train those people. When a mistake gets made and leads to an incident, IT staffers have to bring in outside help, because no one internally has expertise in all the tools, which is required to conduct a proper response. States and cities can significantly reduce their risk, and improve efficiency, by consolidating IT operations and security tools. Shared tools also are better for states’ budgets, because procurement officials can negotiate state-wide prices.
Action item: Track the top 10 agencies in your state or city by number of employees and count the number of IT and security tools being used across all 10 networks. Start thinking about how many tools overlap and which ones can be decommissioned.
4. Create dedicated security roles
The cybersecurity workforce gap is an oft-discussed issue, but it’s especially prevalent in local governments and even some state agencies. Too often, IT professionals are tasked with taking on security roles, too, or their positions are only part time. In both cases, not enough attention is being paid to security. IT teams need to get creative in solving their workforce issues. Try forming tiger teams made up of diverse experts from across agencies to evaluate your state holistically and solve discrete IT and security problems. Consider leveraging existing resources, such as your state’s National Guard. Explore ways to partner with local universities to get young people interested in government and cybersecurity. By far, the most interesting cyber cases I’ve investigated happened only because I worked for the government. It is why NSA, not Silicon Valley, is able to hire the best mathematicians — they recruit early and often.
Action item: Sponsor a capture-the-flag hacker tournament at a state college and offer the top three winners summer internships at your agency.
Many of these challenges and solutions are connected. Reducing the number of tools not only helps with security, it also addresses your workforce issues by freeing up the time and money you were formerly spending on a plethora of tools and training.
States and cities are clearly placing an increased emphasis on improving IT management and security, as was made clear when 38 governors signed the National Governors Association’s cybersecurity compact this summer. Now it’s time to tackle the tough issues.