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Government Hacked Yet Again. It's About Time Federal Cybersecurity Became a National Issue

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By Darren Guccione July 25, 2015

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Darren Guccione is CEO of Keeper Security.

The group of hacktivists, Anonymous, claimed in a tweet on Wednesday they hacked the Census Bureau and leaked employee details online. The hack was in protest of TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which is an agreement being negotiated between the U.S. and E.U. critics say would increase corporate power and make it more difficult to regulate markets. The leaked Census Bureau data includes names, emails, phone numbers, positions and password hashes of employees.

This breach comes just one month after it was revealed the Office of Personnel Management was hacked. However, the massive OPM breach isn’t just one more high-profile hack. It’s a wake-up call for all Americans that we need to make government cybersecurity a national issue. What’s at stake aren’t just the identities of federal government employees or state secrets, but the digital security of all Americans.

Yet, the aftermath of the OPM hack, with all its humiliating details of ignored warnings, has shown the federal government is both stubbornly slow to fix mistakes and woefully understaffed with cybersecurity experts.

As recently as 2013, the security firm Veracode ranked the government as the most vulnerable industry to cybercrime in its annual “State of Software Security” report. In an interview the same year with ZDnet, Veracode Chief Technology Officer Chris Wysopal said the government “was doing a worse job with data security than if we’re dealing with your bank down the street.” He noted the obvious irony: “It's frustrating because certain parts of the government know more than anyone else about these problems,” specifically, Wysopal said, the National Security Agency.

In March, three months before OPM announced its systems had been compromised, a federal government report found that cybersecurity incidents were up 15 percent in fiscal 2014 from the previous year. Indeed, 2014 saw attacks against the White House, the State Department, the U.S. Postal Service and OPM. The attack against OPM, which officials believe happened in March 2014, was thought to have been stopped. Regardless, OPM did very little to shore up its defenses afterward.

Also in 2014, an Office of the Inspector General report urged OPM to shut down systems that were operating without security authorization. Even though the breach had already occurred, OPM’s refusal to shut down the noncompliant systems speaks to a general sluggishness that pervades government cybersecurity protocols. It should surprise no one, not least the government itself, that Veracode’s 2015 “State of Software Security” report once more ranked government the worst in terms of vulnerability.

And the problem is not limited to the federal government.

State agencies, cities, universities, transit authorities and so many others all collect and use personal data of their constituents. As Steve Bridges, a cyber insurance broker from JLT Specialty in Chicago, notes: “It’s almost mandatory to share personal data when you are interacting with government – your name, Social Security number, credit card information, etc. These entities seem to always be under budgetary pressure and if the feds aren’t investing in the appropriate security, it’s likely that lower levels of government are spending even less.”

There are a number of factors that contribute to the government’s terrible cybersecurity record. But the Veracode report helps point to one very telling culprit.

The report found that government agencies fix less than one-third of all detected problems. Only one-third! Compare this to financial service firms (81 percent) and manufacturing companies (65 percent) and we begin to see the scale of the problem. Government agencies don’t necessarily mean to be negligent at cybersecurity, but government processes and protocols are such that timely fixes to big holes are next to impossible.

This isn’t necessarily earth-shattering news. That the public sector is slower than the private sector is just the way the world works. But it doesn’t need to be.

After the OPM hack, the White House launched a 30-day “Cybersecurity Sprint” to analyze and shore up some of those glaring holes that usually take so much time to fix. The White House announced shortly afterward that federal civilian agencies were able to increase the use of multifactor authentication “by 20 percent within the first 10 days of the Sprint.” Other agencies were able to increase MFA to 100 percent, according to the White House. Fast fixes can happen, even in government.

But is it enough?

In June 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported the percentage of federal employees under the age of 30 hit an eight-year low of 7 percent, adding that this could have huge consequences on Uncle Sam’s tech savvy. While attracting younger workers doesn’t necessarily correlate to adding more cybersecurity experts, it does suggest the newer generation of tech experts are avoiding government. For example, in 1975, more than 20 percent of the federal workforce was under 30. And at least one person in government believes it’s time to reverse the trend: President Obama.

In a recent Fast Company article, it was revealed that President Obama has been quietly recruiting top tech talent from companies such as Google and Facebook to “reboot how the government works.” These experts are focusing on remaking the government’s digital systems for efficiency.

This is a step in the right direction for technology, but there is no mention of cybersecurity experts being part of Obama’s stealth startup. The best way for the government to fix its massive cybersecurity problem is to hire top cybersecurity talent.  

Overall, what’s needed is for cybersecurity to be elevated as a national issue. Politicians should be rushing to the cameras to boast about what they’ve done to improve cybersecurity for the public’s data that day. Unfortunately, incidents like the OPM hack more often serve as a chance to point fingers and score partisan points.

To improve government cybersecurity, hiring the right talent needs to be a top priority, and 2016 presidential candidates should make this clear. It might be the only way to push the government from a worst to best rating when it comes to protecting confidential and sensitive information of the United States and its citizens.

(Image via Sean Pavone/ Shutterstock.com)

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