Data Exfiltration: Public Enemy No. 1 for the Public Sector


Taking a proactive approach is a critical step in improving the way the government combats threats.

One in three cyber incidents strike the public sector and 19% of ransomware attacks perpetrated on government agencies remain undiscovered for years after the initial attack, according to recent BlackFog research. U.S. government agencies are a prime target for cyberattacks—but this is nothing new.

Cybersecurity is arguably the most pressing issue facing the government today and looking to the future. With destructive attacks on the government like the Office of Personnel Management, Sol Oriens, SolarWinds and more, it’s clear that improving public sector security systems is critical to maintain the integrity of sensitive, mission-critical information and uphold our national security. But of the attacks that have targeted the government, ransomware has surged, with a 21% increase in August alone as agencies kicked off federal buying season. And of all of the attacks, 81% now threaten to exfiltrate data.

The reason the government continues to be targeted by cybercriminals is no secret: the amount of highly sensitive information agencies store is a literal goldmine for cybercriminals. With a shortage of qualified cybersecurity workers, lack of consistent funding and current investments in tools that require a knowledgeable workforce to run them, agencies are missing critical pieces of the puzzle to actually protect themselves against cyberattacks.

The good news is the government is finally waking up to the issue at hand with President Joe Biden signing an executive order aimed at hardening the federal government's cybersecurity defenses. But the bottom line is there is more work to be done.

Switching Gears to a Proactive Approach

Taking a proactive approach is a critical step in improving the way the government combats threats. Within the public sector, the common approach to security has historically been very reactive and based on defensive strategies. Consider this: if you were at war and an army was standing in front of you and you knew the perimeter was well defended with significant artillery, would you attack head-on? Probably not. The same concept applies to cybersecurity.      Ninety-nine percent of existing cybersecurity tools focus on preventing attacks the same way. Unfortunately, cybercriminals are well aware of this and are able to get around these defenses relatively easily. Existing antivirus software, for example, is trivial to bypass using the latest polymorphic code deployed by most cybercriminals.

The best course of action would be to surprise the army by using multiple approaches, bypassing the perimeter defense by looking for other weaknesses, and using trojan horse techniques. With this approach, you assume an attack is inevitable and instead of waiting for the enemy to fire first, you take other precautions to ensure the attack is unsuccessful. In the cyber realm, this type of proactive approach is critical as it not only prevents adversaries from acquiring and releasing sensitive information but enables the government to prevent attackers from getting a foothold in the first place.

A Path Forward

So how does the government get proactive in its approach to prevent cyber criminals from launching successful attacks? The answer is easier said than done, but the adoption of these three best practices will help protect and prevent the public sector from being an easy target for cybercriminals. 

  • Push for new funding: Funding challenges often limit the government’s ability to secure its networks against cyber adversaries. In order to succeed in protecting sensitive information, funds must be available to not only support their efforts but also invest in more advanced technology, hire better talent, conduct research on current and potential threats and more.
  • Embrace new technologies: With the increase in attacks, it’s clear the current systems in place are no longer sufficient to secure federal agencies. Enhancing protection against these threats can turn the tables on cybercriminals entirely. With an increase in data exfiltration, implementing anti-data exfiltration technology can stop the unauthorized removal of any data from the systems being exploited and effectively disable the attack and associated data theft extortion. In addition, with a rise in ransomware, better backup systems must be in place to ensure where the data is being stored is secured. The right solution should include all recovery mechanisms including backup, replication, storage snapshots and 24/7 data protection.
  • Focus on attracting top talent: With approximately three million cybersecurity jobs globally remaining unfilled this year, and 56% of cybersecurity professionals saying that staff shortages are placing their organizations at moderate or extreme risk, there is a clear need for the government to secure top talent in cybersecurity. Not only is this key to having a workforce skilled enough to detect and prevent attacks, but it’s also crucial to ensure public sector entities are able to successfully navigate and operate the tools they set in place to secure their sensitive information. 

At the end of the day, improved cybersecurity can and must be a priority for the U.S. government. The right techniques, tools and partners can ensure that we’re not only able to overwhelm the enemy on the physical battlefield, but in the cyber realm as well.  

Darren Williams is chief executive officer at BlackFog.