Are Careless Insiders the Biggest Federal Cyber Threat?

Andrea Danti/

Agencies face a ton of cybersecurity threats, but hapless insiders are especially worrisome, according to a recent survey.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys.

I always enjoy reading over the SolarWinds survey results each year. Directed at federal IT managers, who can remain anonymous, it gives a good snapshot view of the state of government cybersecurity from a knowledgeable group of feds without regard to office, agency or national politics.

It’s often not exceedingly positive in terms of painting a picture of agency technology. If anything, the yearly survey has shined a light on a few gaping inadequacies since it started in 2014. When asked their honest opinion about the state of a network, most system administrators will tell you the brutal truth, especially if their jobs aren’t on the line.

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This year’s survey results are particularly interesting, especially given what was identified as the greatest threat to federal cybersecurity.

First off, it’s important to note that there were some very positive things about the survey results this year, with the biggest one being that a full two-thirds of the 200 respondents said their agency was proactively managing cybersecurity threats and taking the issue very seriously. That is up from previous years when the government got blindsided by major hacks like the one at the Office of Personnel Management in 2015. Although a recent Government Accountability Office report stated that OPM was still dangerously vulnerable to attack, it looks like the shock of the breach there has fostered some positive cyber improvements—or at least a greater focus on security—at other agencies.

Unfortunately, recipients also stressed that not enough money was being spent on cybersecurity defenses, which was listed as the greatest obstacle to federal IT security at 30 percent. This was followed by competing priorities at 16 percent. So, like always, there is not enough money to go around, but at least IT workers are seeing more of a focus on critical cybersecurity areas.

When we get to ranking the top threats leveled against federal agencies, the survey gets a little more surprising. Foreign governments made the list, with 48 percent of respondents saying they were the greatest threat to national cybersecurity. That’s a lot of concern directed toward other nations but not enough to earn them the top spot in this year’s survey. I guess Vladimir Putin will need to try a little harder, though I’m sure he will.

No, according to government IT managers, the greatest threat to federal networks in 2017 is, drum roll please, bumbling insiders. Scoring 54 percent, this group represents government workers who, because of a lack of training or simply because they don’t care, continue to perform risky cybersecurity practices in a world where everyone should instead be extremely vigilant. These cyber Barney Fifes are what keeps most federal IT managers up at night.

It’s important to note that the survey respondents did not consider this hapless group of poor-security-practicing individuals to be purposefully malicious. We are not talking about a new round of Edward Snowdens. Actual insider threats, either turncoats or those who would betray their agencies for money or ideology, got their own category. While still worrisome, those deliberate threat actors only worried 29 percent of the recipients more than other groups, though those concerns are likely higher at the National Security Agency and other security agencies that have been stung by malicious insiders.

It’s also interesting to note that 66 percent of the respondents said that network modernization at their agency is causing increased IT security challenges. New technologies come with unique vulnerabilities—especially if users are not properly trained.

The correlation here is pretty obvious. On the one hand you have modernization programs going on at many agencies, and on the other you have untrained users threatening the cybersecurity of those same agencies. If the users who are making mistakes are not actually malicious, then the reason they are such a danger is probably because they have not been properly trained. We all know that training budgets are among the first to get slashed in this era of “doing more with less,” but that could prove a real danger to the federal government.

If more money and effort is not directed at training users, especially in good cybersecurity practices as it relates to new processes or systems, then it’s conceivable, likely even, that an agency modernization program could push it a step backward in terms of cybersecurity maturity. I think that is what the SolarWinds survey is demonstrating this year, that a greater focus on cybersecurity and IT modernization at agencies is a good thing, but only if users are properly trained in how to interact with the new technology. It may cost more, but it’s an investment that’s critically important in this era of constant threat.