3 steps government employees can take to become good cyber citizens

Because of the unprecedented levels of access and privilege users have (even if they don’t know it), they become a prime target for attackers.

laptop user typing (Vladyslav Starozhylov/Shutterstock.com)

As cyberattacks become more sophisticated across ever-expanding attack surfaces, it’s easy to assume the security team will take care of risk management and mitigation. But security is everyone’s responsibility.

Indeed, employees -- both within the agency and across the contractor community -- are one of the greatest risks to the government’s security postures. According to the latest SolarWinds Public Sector Cybersecurity Survey, careless and untrained insiders are the largest source (52%) of security threats, a trend that has remained steady for more than five years.

Just as changes must be made at the organizational level, government agencies must improve their security posture at the individual level as well. That’s not pointing the finger at the user, but because of the unprecedented levels of access and privilege users have (even if they don’t know it), they become a prime target for attackers.

Here are three ways all public-sector employees can improve personal cybersafety, which will ultimately lead to a more secure government.

1. Conduct a personal risk assessment

All users have access to systems and applications they don’t use or need anymore. Perhaps they moved to new project or different departments but still have access to a database with sensitive or mission-critical data that could be compromised if they credentials are stolen.

Users can reduce this risk by surveying the permissions they have across applications, devices and buildings. While some of these will be critical to performing their current job, others won’t. Understanding the digital footprint is the first step to mitigating potential risk exposure.

2. Right-size access privileges

Because every user presents risk, agencies are adopting measures to verify user identity and authorize what systems and data they can access.

The SolarWinds survey found identity and access management tools are heavily adopted (97%) and rated as the second-most-effective tool for application and network security behind endpoint protection software.

In addition, over half of federal and state and local organizations formally segment user access to systems and data using network segmentation and a zero-trust approach. However, the growing number of systems, devices and users makes effective segmentation hard to achieve. Adopting zero-trust is also complicated by factors such as cost and a lack of expertise. Of those surveyed, 37% said budget constraints were an obstacle while 30% struggle with resource limitations.

Individual users can augment these approaches and fill in the gaps by working with their manager to ensure they have the least amount of privileges they need to get their work done. Those who need more privileges for a specific task should request a temporary elevation. Once the task is complete, the permissions can be reverted.

These steps may take a few minutes out of the day, but they are one of the key pillars of responsible digital citizenship. 

3. Leave work at work

With more government employees working from home, keeping work and personal digital life separate is critical. Home is a remote site and should be treated as such.

Employees should make sure their Wi-Fi router’s firmware is up to date and remind themselves to check it monthly. They should also verify that they’re using the WPA3 Wi-Fi protocol, which brings better protections for Wi-Fi certified devices than the earlier WPA2 standard. They should also choose a complex network password and update it regularly. Firewall settings should be checked to ensure there are no open ports that could let hackers in. If an agency uses a VPN, employees should always use it to connect to their work network.

Other proactive measures include not transferring sensitive work to home devices and exercising caution before clicking an email link (phishing and scams targeting remote workers rose 40% during the pandemic). Once hackers penetrate a home network, they can wait for users to connect to their work network and easily infiltrate agency systems and data.

Time for users to step up

Cyberattacks never escape the headlines, and while agencies and the vendor community are constantly working to secure their expanding digital ecosystem, individual users can play a part too. Awareness coupled with these few simple behavior modifications can go a long way to improving both the user and the government’s security posture.