Executive Summary

The Looming Crisis: cyber attacks on government agencies

From civic awareness to crisis communications, social and digital channels have become one of the most important tools for government organizations at the local and state level. Moreover, these channels are critical enablers of eGovernment, empowering state and local governments to engage with the public in meaningful ways and provide services with greater transparency and efficiency. However, increased digital activity has also increased the risk of cyber attacks on government agencies.

While the benefits of social and digital technologies to the government are indisputable, addressing the government data security is a problem. It is also the case that every agency has potential to suffer cyber security attacks, widespread misinformation, or data loss and compliance violations. The borderless nature of the digital space means greater digital risks for the government and even municipal and state level governments are no longer immune to wider geopolitical conflicts, as cyber security attacks are driven by financial gain. In fact, such entities may even present more lucrative targets for cybercriminals, as the common perception is that state and local organizations have subpar cyber security measures in place.

A holistic government cyber security strategy to cover social and digital channels should embrace a three-pronged approach:

Cyber Security Solutions for Government

 March 2018, Atlanta fell victim to one of the costliest cyberattacks on a government agency. The ransomware attack was originally estimated to have reached $2.7 million in recovery efforts, but more recent estimates claim that the disaster could cost taxpayers up to $17 million.3

  • No protection against digital risks such as internet attacks cost victims $1.42 billion in 2017
  • 53% of InfoSec professionals experienced spear-phishing attacks in 20175
  • Hackers use social media as a research tool for targeted phishing attacks6

Government Agencies Are Prime Targets for Social Engineering Attacks 

Phishing remains one of the most common digital threats facing the public sector, not least because it’s the main vector for data theft and malicious software infections, like ransomware. Social engineering scams may be waged against the state, local and federal government organizations alike by foreign actors, unscrupulous political opponents or hackers. Given that digital data is now one of the most powerful and valuable commodities on the planet - digital risks for the government are high too. Malevolent actors are using it to command high ransoms, sow public discord, or even influence election outcomes.

Social Media Security for Governments

Email is often considered the main delivery vector for social engineering scams, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore, particularly in the case of targeted attacks launched against specific government officials. Today, social media security for governments is the primary digital risk, with Verizon claiming a 30% success rate of phishing scams launched through social media.7 In these cases, scammers, including foreign actors and cyber criminals, may attempt to dupe officials into surrendering confidential data by masquerading as friends, service providers, or even superiors within an organization. Social media is now the preferred method of cyber attacks on government agencies because individuals share a higher degree of trust with perceived friends and a lower threshold of caution, resulting in data security breach.

Phishing may also be used to drive politically motivated misinformation campaigns. For example, bad actors may launch attacks to gain access to sensitive government data via websites or social media accounts to deface accounts or post false information in places where it’s highly visible.
 
The magnitude of these cyber attacks on government agencies is made even more immediate given that states and cities frequently maintain different social accounts for different departments. For example, one locality’s social media footprint might look like the image on the left.
 
A disparate collection of accounts makes cyber security paramount.

Preventing Cyber Security Attacks on Governments

Cyberattacks are escalating across all digital channels, particularly on social media, and they’re getting more sophisticated and ambitious in scope. One of the reasons for the unprecedented growth and diversification of cyberthreats in the public sector is the increasingly large attack surface: every employee's phone is effectively a door into an organization.
 
Given the digital threats government agencies are facing, they must look to implement real-time Cyber security solutions for governments defined by compliance protocols and strict threat definitions. In other words, threats need to be evaluated and responded to in real-time by a system that resides outside the network infrastructure to prevent any cyber security threats from getting past it in the first place. Finally, choosing a cyber security solution for the government sector that’s empowered by machine learning will provide an additional layer of protection against the evolving nature of cyberattacks.
 

Archiving & Governance

Preserving Information Integrity and ensuring government data security

As state and local governments rely more on social and mobile channels for providing news updates to citizens, the need for Social Media Security for Governments is greater than ever. Archiving content provides a complete legal record, while also offering protection against misinformation campaigns.

How Does Misinformation Affect Social Media Security for Governments?
Even state and local government entities face threats from misinformation campaigns launched in the name of hacktivism, corruption, financial gain, or even just plain old trolling. Misinformation, which primarily spreads through social media channels, has even been blamed for complicating emergency responses. Aside from alert fatigue resulting in people ignoring warnings about impending natural disasters, outright hoaxes also damage credibility and draw people’s attention away from serious issues.
 
When Hurricane Florence struck the Mid-Atlantic in September 2018, one of the more absurd claims spread by purveyors of hoaxes was that the storm lifted up sharks, inconveniently dropping them off on flooded highways and in people's backyards. As absurd as that may sound, there’s no denying that misinformation and social media security is a serious digital risk for the government, in which false information can lead to physical harm or even death.
 
Automating Archiving to Confront Misinformation at Scale
Even state and local government entities face threats from misinformation campaigns launched in the name of hacktivism, corruption, financial gain, or even just plain old trolling. Misinformation, which primarily spreads through social media channels, has even been blamed for complicating emergency responses. Aside from alert fatigue resulting in people ignoring warnings about impending natural disasters, outright hoaxes also damage credibility and draw people’s attention away from serious issues.
 
When Hurricane Florence struck the Mid-Atlantic in September 2018, one of the more absurd claims spread by purveyors of hoaxes was that the storm lifted up sharks, inconveniently dropping them off on flooded highways and in people's backyards. As absurd as that may sound, there’s no denying that misinformation and social media security is a serious digital risk for the government, in which false information can lead to physical harm or even death.
 
A robust Cyber security solution for the government would take into account all the above government cyber security strategies. It would also be powered by machine learning, provide threat intelligence and classify misinformation so government agencies can proactively confront misinformation before it causes much damage.
 
Government agencies have a moral and political duty to maintain a canonical source of truth. To ensure credibility, maintain authenticity, and comply with federal regulations, there’s a greater need than ever to maintain an archive of all communications, including those taking place on social channels. However, given the vast amount of data stored on such platforms, the automation of data governance presents the only practical way to achieve that.
 
Adapting to a nearly 25,000% increase in Facebook messages at the beginning of Covid-19.
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Archiving & Governance Compliance Monitoring in the Government

Protecting Citizen Privacy 

Though government employees are held to a different standard from the rest of the population with regards to what they can and cannot post on social media, it remains a major channel for oversharing as well as for unintentional (and intentional) information leaks.

How Insider Threats Leave Government Agencies Exposed

The fact that the clear majority of cyber attacks succeed because of human error shouldn’t come as a major surprise. Employees are the ones with all the login credentials – they’re the people charged with discretion when it comes to handling private matters. Nonetheless, social media has inured many to clear communication boundaries; and oversharing has become a serious problem for public employees. In the case of government agencies, many information leaks and data loss come from former or even current employees.

Data loss and compliance violations present some of the biggest cyber threats facing government agencies. Aside from deliberately malicious activity, there’s also the constant data security risk because of human error, such as accidentally sending sensitive public data over unsecured channels like public social networks or discussing regulated matters over internal chat applications (i.e., HIPAA, PII) jeopardizing social media security for governments. Similarly, the growing adoption of online payment processing for city and state services also presents the risk of citizens’ financial information being passed through an unsecured channel. Many leaks have had disastrous reputational and legal consequences. Regardless of who or what is to blame, the effects are still the same – data makes its way outside of a government network or privacy protocols are breached, leading to a government data security catastrophe.

While cybercriminals might hijack identities or exploit technological vulnerabilities, an insider often has to make little or no effort at all to leak sensitive information, accidentally or otherwise. Data leakage is more likely to happen when organizations don’t have the full support of employees when it comes to privacy and security. They’ve already been entrusted with access to data-bearing systems, which also makes them one of the first and last lines of defense in your organization. Often, a severe data loss occurs at the hands of people who have a poor understanding of the rules and best practices governing public cyber security and compliance. And, organizations can be the culprit when data security policies defined by the government agency are either outdated relative to current technology or misaligned to employee realities. Securing an organization means protecting the people within it.
 
Cyber Security Solutions for Government Requires Constant and Customized Surveillance

Every government cyber security strategy starts with a clear definition of access rights and privacy and data security protocols, all of which must be enforced through technological, physical and administrative security measures, as well as ongoing employee training. Agencies need 24/7/365 surveillance to prevent exposure of sensitive data before it’s too late. Recording and eDiscovery are not enough. Compliance monitoring solutions should flag any posts with violations in real time. Policy engines should be ready out of the box for standard regulations (e.g., HIPAA), and customizable to adapt to particular local needs.
 
Lastly, data-loss prevention and compliance monitoring solutions must balance detection while prioritizing privacy. This approach ensures employee buy-in which leads to a more effective cyber security strategy for the government agency while empowering staff to use social media and other digital channels with confidence.

Final Words

From faster and more efficient crisis communication to more effective civic engagement, there’s no denying the benefits that digital transformation and social media can bring to state and local government agencies. Social networks and other digital platforms, like internal chat or cloud storage drives, have brought profound change to organizations across all sectors.
 
As smaller government agencies face increasing pressure to transform digitally, while adhering to an ever-stricter set of security, privacy and compliance demands, it has become more important than ever to implement a cyber security strategy for government agencies that scales with the ever-changing demands of today’s technology landscape. SafeGuard Cyber was developed to empower agencies and other organizations with fully automated cyber security and digital threat protection by detecting threats, mitigating security risks, assuring compliance and facilitating data governance.
 
We’re proud to protect organizations from national heads of state and their cabinets to smaller American cities. Find out how SafeGuard Cyber can help your government and officials by requesting a demo or free risk assessment today.
 

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