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Survey: Agency Cyber Pros Prefer Perimeter Defense to Encryption

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Federal cybersecurity professionals say they plan to spend more on data security this year, according to a new survey, but what’s on their shopping list?

A new report from IT security company Vormetric and 451 Research, found most agencies are still overly reliant on perimeter defenses and are not paying enough attention to tools that protect data at rest, such as encryption.

The survey results show “that in many ways, security professionals are like generals fighting the last war,” researcher Garrett Bekker wrote in the report accompanying the survey results. “Spending intentions reflected a tendency to stick with what has worked – or not worked – in the past, such as network and endpoint security.”

The report surveyed 100 senior security executives in the federal government on their planned spending priorities this year compared to a few specific areas in the private sector, such as financial services, retail and health care.

When it comes to cyber defense in the federal government, perimeter defense is still king, according to the survey. Some 53 percent of respondents said their agencies were planning to increase spending on network defenses. Another 46 percent said they planned investments in analysis and correlations tools.

Encryption and other data-at-rest defenses, on the other hand, were ranked “dead last” in terms of spending plans over the next year, the report found. Just 37 percent of respondents said they were planning to increase their spending on such defenses.

Federal security pros appear to still have a high degree of confidence in perimeter defense. Sixty percent of federal security pros said they believe network defenses are very effective, higher than any other sector the report surveyed.

The report argued that thinking is outdated. “Perimeter defenses offer little help defending against multistage attacks,” the report stated, while other measures, such as file and application encryption “have proven to be effective at protecting data after attackers have bypassed perimeter defenses.”

Full disclosure: Vormetric offers a suite of encryption and tokenization products and services.

Still, the extent to which some federal agencies were properly locking down sensitive data, including by using encryption, came into light last year when it was revealed the Office of Personnel Management had failed to encrypt background investigation files stored on agency computer systems that contained personal information on millions of federal employees -- files later stolen by hackers in. OPM officials told lawmakers it couldn’t encrypt the sensitive data because its computer networks were too antiquated.

More than half of respondents in the survey -- 51 percent -- cited “complexity” as the biggest barrier to more widespread implementation of data security measures.

The federal government’s well-documented challenges to hire and retain cybersecurity experts also turned up in the survey results. Forty-four percent respondents pointed lack of adequate staffing as the biggest barrier -- higher than for any other sector.

About 43 percent of feds cited budget constraints as the biggest factor -- nearly double the percentage of respondents from more well-resourced sectors, such as financial services.

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