Are states ill-equipped to manage cybersecurity?

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State governments have been under constant pressure to modernize their IT systems, improve service delivery and cut costs. Along the way, something is bound to break.

While the focus on cybersecurity and cybercrime in government has lately been focused on the federal side, much of the risk lives at the state and local level. That’s where the bad guys can find much of the personal information that makes cybercrime so lucrative, and where disruptive hacks can cause the most havoc.

At the end of 2015, the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy looked at cybersecurity in eight of the most populous states. While it noted that the states had begun to grapple with the issues, and several had made substantial progress, it concluded that “no state is cyber ready.”

More recently, the 2016 Deloitte-NASCIO Cybersecurity Study found that awareness of cybersecurity had finally begun to rise to the top of states’ executive branches. But the security professionals themselves were still struggling with “stubbornly persistent” issues.

Ironically, the study pointed out, the newer systems that states have been introducing to foster innovations in service delivery to better serve constituents -- technology that has been pushed as a critical need -- have only served to increase cyber risks. Securing sufficient resources -- both funding and talent -- also remained one of the top challenges.

The new-technology problem is one that could bedevil organizations for a long time. The legacy systems slated for replacement have their own problems when it comes to cybersecurity, such as old and hard-to-update operating systems, but the new technology introduces quite a bit of complexity into the equation.

It’s that complexity that long-time players in the cybersecurity field worry will continue to threaten organizations. Ron Ross, a fellow at the National Institute for Standards and Technology, thinks there are too many bases – the software, firmware and hardware that runs all of the critical infrastructure and technology we rely on today -- for cybersecurity professionals to realistically cover right now.

While many of the broad-ranging reports have some element of hope to them, at the operational level,  things don’t look so rosy. The state of Oregon, for instance, recently conducted an audit of 13 state agencies’ plans for information security and concluded that, overall, “planning efforts were often perfunctory, security staffing was generally insufficient, and critical security functions were not always performed.”

In particular, it said the Office of the State Chief Information Officer had “not yet provided state agencies with sufficient and appropriate information technology security standards and oversight.” It also didn’t have processes in place to ensure that agencies comply with statewide security standards or regulations imposed by federal requirements.

“These weaknesses continued because the state abandoned initial security plans, did not assign security roles and responsibilities, or provide sufficient security staff,” the report said. Even while the governor and CIO have taken first steps to fix the problems, “the solutions will take time, resources and cooperation from state agencies.”

While the Oregon governor’s office and state CIO said they largely agreed with the auditor’s report, they also claimed they were on track to fix many of the problems, tackling the risks according to perceived priorities. In other words, given limited resources, not everything can be fixed at once.

Sound familiar? State governments have been under constant pressure over the past decade or more to modernize their IT systems, improve service delivery to citizens and at the same time cut costs. Along the way, something is bound to break.

The Deloitte-NASCIO report pointed to the evolving complexity of the threat environment as the main challenge for organizations going forward. States “faced with a myriad of priorities and ongoing resource constraints may be hard-pressed to allocate sufficient funding to cybersecurity initiatives, [and] competition for top talent can make it difficult to attract the professionals needed to effectively combat constantly evolving threats.”

However, it said, chief information security officers have one thing in their favor:  State executives are starting to “pay more attention to the issue of cybersecurity.” That’s nice. Let’s hope that resolves into actual, better cybersecurity soon.

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