Capitol building showing government cyber security challenges

Prioritizing and Mitigating the Cybersecurity Challenges Facing State and Local Governments

In an era dominated by technical advancements and the accompanying hackers seeking to exploit them, the threat of cyberattacks has reached unprecedented levels. State and local governments, with their vast security needs yet often over-stretched resources, have become prime targets for recurring attacks due to their frequent use of outdated legacy systems and infrastructure. From tax information to social security numbers and mounds of additional personal data, the sensitive information that state and local entities store is extremely appealing as a target for crooks – and a successful cyberattack against any agency can have far-reaching consequences that can lead to identity theft, financial fraud and threaten public trust.

The threat landscape not only involves domestic hackers but also foreign entities seeking to compromise national security and gain unauthorized access to valuable data. Cybercriminals are well aware that smaller scale government entities are often not operating on the latest systems. With this fact comes a heightened exposure to exploitable vulnerabilities that are easily taken advantage of in today’s fast-evolving threatscape. Add bureaucratic red tape and ongoing budget constraints to the picture and it can be quite challenging for agencies and small municipalities to properly maintain core cybersecurity tasks.

The challenge of resource allocation for cybersecurity measures is frequently overlooked or underestimated, leaving critical systems inadequately protected. This creates a vicious cycle where the lack of resources hampers the ability to implement robust cybersecurity measures, leaving government entities exposed to cyber threats. Traditional security controls are also no longer sufficient in protecting against major security breaches. They tend to be based solely on compliance requirements and are not responsive enough to anticipate, evolve and adapt to threat actors’ activities and behaviors.

Managing cyber risk should be a priority for the highest levels of a government entity. A recent study released by Sophos found that ransomware attacks at the state and local government levels increased from 58% in 2022 to 69% in 2023, the highest it has been in three years. The consequences of an attack – including those related to election integrity and national security- could be disastrous. As a result, it is even more imperative for government entities to supplement these controls with modern approaches that leverage threat intelligence, vulnerability management and invest in increased cyber awareness training for personnel.

The weakest link in the cybersecurity chain is often the human aspect, the employees. Phishing attacks, improper use of sensitive documents, social engineering and installing unauthorized software are all common occurrences that lead to devastating consequences. Employees that use government issued devices on unsecured Wi-Fi, open phishing emails and click links or even unintentionally share sensitive data over the wrong platform can place the organization at huge risk of falling victim to malicious exploitation.  But by building a culture of cybersecurity awareness through basic threat detection skills among staff, leadership and interns, cyber risk can not only be decreased but it can also provide additional watchdog assistance to understaffed IT teams.

Ensuring robust security awareness training can also check the boxes for organizations needing to meet compliance requirements such as NIST, FISMA and FEDRAMP. But reducing in-office vulnerabilities and further mitigating the severity of attacks is multi-layered and requires not only powerful multi-factor authentication systems and password management, but it also must include consistent patching schedules.

In a highly vulnerable environment that battles both internal and external threats, a reliable patching schedule can be the difference between a costly breach and a devastating exploitation of data. Patching usually presents several challenges to IT teams and threatens daily business operations due to necessary downtime and scheduled maintenance windows. Because of this, patching security vulnerabilities often gets delayed by weeks or even months as tight budgets and overworked IT departments struggle to keep up with the demands.  Meanwhile, cybercriminals are given an all-access pass to wreak havoc and cost millions of dollars in recovery and unforeseen downtime that not only harms operations but hurts the trust of the public.

Improving this vital process by automating the process can improve vulnerability management and greatly reduce risk for three distinct reasons.

  • Restarts and reboots can be risky and highly disruptive to an organization’s business operations. Having a system in place that applies automatic patches can greatly reduce downtime.
  • It eliminates the need to wait for maintenance windows in which systems can be rebooted or serviced. Limiting the high-risk window when a critical vulnerability is found, it lowers the chances that an organization will fall victim to an exploited and unpatched vulnerability resulting in a ransomware attack, data breach or both.
  • Labor cost savings can be substantial. Dedicated security teams often give up valuable time and heavy labor to plan and execute maintenance windows when those needed resources can be reallocated to tasks that are more strategic to the business.

Addressing automation through a powerful patch management system and streamlining device control can allow IT teams to consistently and more cost-effectively monitor gaps in security as well as proactively enhance enterprise security measures. Furthermore, establishing a clear incident response plan through cyber awareness training and regularly conducting simulated exercises can bolster a team’s readiness to handle potential breaches and prevent possible vulnerabilities. State and local government entities will always remain a tantalizing target for data hungry hackers, but by staying one step ahead of known risks and taking on a multi-layered defense strategy, municipalities can more confidently defend against an aggressive threat landscape for years to come.