Modernizing Federal Cybersecurity Must Go Beyond Nation-State Defense

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Insider risk can’t be overlooked. 

For almost a year, Navy engineer Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana sold information known as restricted data concerning the design of nuclear-powered warships to a person they believed was a representative of a foreign power. In actuality, it was an undercover FBI agent. Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted the couple for one count of conspiracy to communicate restricted data and two counts of communication of restricted data. 

These types of federal insider risk cases are not standalone issues. A Department of Homeland Security technology manager, Sonal Patel, also pleaded guilty to a similar scheme. And of course, everyone remembers Edward Snowden—arguably our nation’s most infamous and polarizing insider threat case. 

Following the aftermath of the SolarWinds attack, there’s a spotlight on security within the federal government. The focus right now is on external threats caused by nation-state actors, but we need to give the same attention to risk from insiders. Insider threats, such as Snowden’s data leak, cause federal crises and sow distrust amongst U.S. citizens. Insider risk can’t be overlooked. 

Workplace Modernization Brings Insider Risk to the Forefront 

Like any other industry, the federal government has undergone significant digital transformation. COVID-19 accelerated the shift, forcing employees to work remotely. To accommodate this shift, federal agencies adopted cloud-based collaboration platforms, introducing a myriad of new data security risks. Gone are the days where security teams had to monitor only a few vectors for file exfiltration. That simply isn’t the case today, and the federal government needs to consider this as part of its modernization efforts.

These platforms and technologies accelerate project completion and allow federal employees to seamlessly access files and collaborate in real-time. However, they also make it easier for employees to intentionally, or unintentionally, exfiltrate data. A Code42 report found that employees are 85% more likely today to leak files than they were pre-COVID, largely due to the ease of sharing files across cloud storage and collaboration platforms. Often, employees unintentionally put data at risk just by trying to get their jobs done. These same tools also make it easy for those with malicious intent to exfiltrate data. There are far more vectors right at users’ fingertips. 

The Contractor Conundrum

Workplace modernization may be the latest federal risk, but risk associated with contract employees has plagued the sector for decades. In 2019, there were 4 million contractors working for the federal government. Contractors provide significant benefits for resource-strapped agencies, but they form a revolving door of access to federal data. Service agreements end daily, projects wrap up, and contractors stay on projects after owners change. This means it’s increasingly complex to monitor data movement and file and application access.

When a contractor leaves or decides to take product plans, customer information or personnel records, who is in charge of protecting data, eliminating access or mitigating risks of exposure? In most cases, the exposure isn’t identified until it’s too late. News of the leak makes it to the press without the ability to stop it from happening. 

Reprioritize the Insider 

Defending against nation-state activity should continue to be a top priority for the federal government. But it’s imperative that federal agencies also address the sleeper risk from within. As the government undergoes workplace modernization and becomes more distributed, strengthening the solutions that defend against internal and external risks will create a well-rounded solution and enhance data protection as a whole. If not prioritized, we risk more classified information becoming public, PII making its way to malicious actors and greater damage to the federal government’s security reputation. 

Jason Greenwood is vice president of security solutions at Code42.

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