How Federal Agencies Can Best Secure Sensitive Data

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Over the past two years, cyberattacks against government institutions have soared exponentially. In an attempt to better secure our nation’s digital infrastructure, what can agencies do today to ensure security in an increasingly hybrid environment?

For federal agencies, the recent cybersecurity executive order is a much-needed refresh to data security strategies. However, with varying levels of data maturity and network readiness across the federal landscape, agencies face significant challenges as they try to adopt the cloud-based security solutions highlighted in the order.

A shift away from perimeter-focused security is one of those hurdles, says David Ortega, principal solutions architect at Thales

“In the prior model of defense-in-depth, it was really about network segmentation, and so if you could protect the perimeter, you had fewer concerns about the data that was on the inside,” he said. “But in the cloud, you lose that perimeter boundary, so you really have to put in place a zero-trust environment.”

Now, agencies will need to learn new processes, best practices and applied controls around implementing zero trust, Ortega added.

Protecting Federal Data in the Cloud, On-Prem and Wherever it Lives

Protecting data in the cloud and on-premise is, without a doubt, a complex and arduous process. Agencies looking to secure their data need to recognize what type of solution they’re bringing into their organization, and if it's interoperable. Otherwise, they risk spending more money on additional security solutions.

In addition to helping agencies cut costs, interoperability can help guarantee there are sufficient controls within both environments, ensuring data is secure, Ortega says.

“We have to know that there are adequate controls in both environments, not just in the cloud … [the ability to find data, classify and then encrypt tokenized sensitive data] reduces the likelihood that if the data were to get into an unauthorized party’s hands that something bad would happen with it,” he adds.

Examples of adequate controls include zero trust solutions (like multifactor authentication) and high-speed network encryptors for data-in-transit.

Zero trust solutions enable agencies to conduct fine-grain audits and logging within cloud environments, while high-speed network encryptors make it easier for agencies to safely and securely share information.

“Sometimes, folks don’t know … that our high-speed networking encryptor completely encrypts traffic between two endpoints, but it does so without deteriorating the speed of the line,” Ortega says. “So many solutions such as point-to-point [virtual private networks] or firewalls with encryption turned on can actually deteriorate or reduce considerably the speed of traffic.”

Addressing the Problem of Data Governance

Zero trust security and data encryption — mentioned in sections 3(a) and 4(e) of the cybersecurity executive order — offer agencies enhanced security. However, before agencies begin to implement zero trust solutions or high-speed encryptors, they must first address the problem of data governance.

“Addressing data governance within Federal agencies is essential to be a responsible steward for the data the agency oversees. Data governance puts in place operational and technical controls that mitigate agency risks while managing costs. While it is not uncommon for agencies to have new complexities when operating in a hybrid or multi-cloud environment, data governance gives the agency the applied controls to discover and classify sensitive data, protect the data using encryption, and control access to the data. Through the use of data governance, agencies will find they are in a defensible legal position and have actionable and rehearsed plans to address a possible data breach and to successfully support agency audit and compliance activities,” said Ortega.

Varying levels of data maturity and network readiness create issues in adopting these new controls. Fortunately, the Federal Data Strategy offers recommendations to agencies on how to improve upon data governance standards, including actions like data documentation and inventory management.

But what about agencies that have yet to implement a solid data governance plan? The Data Governance Playbook can help. It lays out critical first steps for agencies, beginning with the recommendation to set up a data governance body and establish a vision for their data within the organization. Although both are relatively simple actions, they require significant forethought and planning.

A data governance body within the organization should “comprise of agency leadership and senior staffers from each program.” It should seek to inform leaders via regular updates on vision progress, the impact of the data governance policy upon the organization as a whole, and how data maturity efforts within the organization are proceeding.

In terms of how data and infrastructure maturity efforts are proceeding, councils are responsible for conducting regular assessments with the intent of establishing architecture guidance. By participating in regular assessments, data governance bodies help boost overall visibility into the scope of data located in the network, where it resides, and by proxy, the tools employees need to secure federal data in accordance with the cybersecurity executive order.

“The most important element is to really get a strategy in place and … implement or update your governance documents and [then] empower the individuals who are going to be responsible for adhering to the order,” Ortega says.

Click to learn more about how Thales can help your agency implement cybersecurity controls like zero trust and end-to-end encryption.

This content is made possible by our sponsor Thales; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of GovExec's editorial staff. 

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