What Federal Cybersecurity Can Learn from Football

New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) pulls in a touchdown pass in in front of New York Giants free safety Landon Collins (21) and outside linebacker Devon Kennard (59) the second half of an NFL football game.

New Orleans Saints tight end Benjamin Watson (82) pulls in a touchdown pass in in front of New York Giants free safety Landon Collins (21) and outside linebacker Devon Kennard (59) the second half of an NFL football game. Butch Dill/AP

There is one question asked continually across government and the private sector – what is the right “playbook” for cybersecurity?

Kevin Davis is vice president of public sector at Splunk.

Fall has arrived and the NFL season is now well underway. While watching the games this past Sunday, I found myself thinking about the preparation that goes into each game and the intense scrutiny that follows every Monday morning for the losing team. Having played college football at Boston College for Tom Coughlin (now the two-time Super Bowl winning head coach of the New York Giants), I understand this better than most.

Coach Coughlin was a demanding coach, but he was also fair. What he asked from each player was simple – that you worked hard to be as prepared as possible and that you strived to continuously improve. Thinking about this now, these are the same standards we should be applying to government when it comes to cybersecurity.

In some ways, the “Monday morning quarterback” responses we often see in football are similar to the reactions we see in the wake of security breaches, with lots of questions surrounding what went wrong and how to improve before the next game (i.e. next attack).

However, when it comes to cybersecurity preparation, there is one question asked continually across government and the private sector – what is the right “playbook” for cybersecurity?

Federal CIO Tony Scott, the State Department and many others were asking this question following the Office of Personnel Management security breaches which compromised the personal information of more than 20 million people. Scott began searching for answers by initiating the 30-day cybersecurity sprint, calling on federal agencies to evaluate their networks, implement necessary upgrades or patches, and report back with their progress.

The results were positive, with many federal agencies strengthening their authentication processes for privileged and unprivileged users. In fact, 13 large agencies implemented stronger authentication for nearly 95 percent of their privileged users. Nearly all of the recent federal breaches, OPM included, involved a malicious actor using legitimate government or contractor credentials, which is why an emphasis has been put on adopting protections like two-factor authentication.

Improved authentication, encryption and other security tactics are important pieces to a strong cybersecurity playbook, but a truly effective cyber program should have a more strategic approach. In other words, agencies also need a game plan before they can effectively use what’s in the playbook.

Understanding the Opposition

The first step for any coach developing a game plan is to better understand the opponent you’re facing. Unfortunately, when it comes to sophisticated cybersecurity adversaries, these advanced persistent threats and malicious actors aren’t easy to identify. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about our cyber enemies.

Threats today are constantly evolving, so it’s imperative government cybersecurity teams stay educated on the latest threat techniques. IT and security teams must evolve and adapt to keep pace globally.

Cyberattackers target agencies sensitive information and data with different motives and objectives. For instance, a nation-state threat may target defense agencies to learn about U.S. military operations abroad, but an independent actor could target the same network with goal of acquiring and selling the employee’s personal information to highest bidder.

Understanding the motivation and information attackers are targeting can help shape agencies’ defense measures and facilitate identification of potential threats in government systems by knowing where to look.

Analytics Provides Offensive and Defensive Capabilities

The best football teams have the personnel to impact the game offensively and defensively. The same thing holds true for the most effective cybersecurity programs. Government organizations need capabilities for both offense (i.e. proactive) and defense (i.e. reactive) to be effective against current and emerging threats. Having an effective and reliable analytics solution is critical because it can serve as the central component of an agency’s offensive and defense cybersecurity efforts.

Agencies can use an analytic-driven security platform to continuously monitor activity across systems and networks with sensitive information. The right solution platform can take machine data from disparate sources and use it to provide IT and cyber teams with greater visibility and insight into what’s happening across the network. This enables teams to effectively and proactively monitor system performance and user behavior in real-time and identify vulnerabilities or abnormal behavior that could indicate a potential threat.

From a defensive standpoint, real-time analysis can initiate automatic alerts to set in motion response protocols for investigating and mitigating threats. Also, improved visibility supports continuous monitoring of the health of network assets, enabling IT to identify legacy equipment nearing end-of-life so it can be replaced quickly and thus, avoiding any potential vulnerability.  

Adopting a Foundation for Today and Tomorrow

Government IT and security leaders need to view cybersecurity as a continuous improvement process that requires nonstop attention, ongoing funding and a strategic approach that incorporates tools for developing a strong security posture. Many agencies have adopted or are looking into an analytic-driven platform to serve as the “nerve center” or foundation for their cybersecurity programs because of the many facets it can support.

In football, it’s commonly said that on any given Sunday, you can win or lose. In today’s environment, agencies are at risk of being attacked on any given day, often without agencies knowing it’s even happening. There is no winning because cybersecurity is a “game” that will never end. That’s why preparation, planning and investment in the right cyber strategy is so important.

NEXT STORY: 5 Cybersecurity Truths to Know Now

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