How States and Cities Can Secure the Internet of Things

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Connecting state and local government leaders

As we connect more and more devices, governments must keep an active watch on their network.

For all the interesting talk of sensors, machine learning, threat intelligence and moving to the cloud, a more fundamental issue that should be discussed among state and local government agencies is whether they can see all of the devices connecting to their network. And, do they know which of these devices pose security risks?

This year there has been no shortage of headlines reporting large-scale breaches and threats, such as the Internet of Things (IoT) botnet “Reaper,” a reminder of just how costly a lack of total visibility can become: it only takes one blind spot to lead to a compromise. This lesson is particularly important for state and local governments who are rapidly deploying IoT devices on their networks to provide important citizen services, including traffic management, weather alerts and public safety updates on the spread of floods or wildfires.

The data breach at credit bureau Equifax resulted from an intruder compromising systems through an unpatched vulnerability. The company was aware of the vulnerability when it was announced and took action to patch its systems. However, according to Equifax’s disclosure, it likely missed one or more instances, showing effective processes for updating and patching systems offer little value if poor visibility prevents threats from being mitigated.

While most state and local government IT environments are very different from Equifax’s, the stakes of visibility are much the same. Public sector agencies must keep on top of their traditional PC, server and mobile assets; in addition, newer IoT-enabled equipment is growing in the era of smart cities, connected campuses, modern medicine and on-demand data gathering from connected equipment.

Like an overlooked or unpatched server, unseen Internet-connected cameras, sensors and vehicles can introduce cyber risks that let attackers springboard to valuable data and networks. Combined, the legacy and IoT security challenge can feel overwhelming, with fears of a very public breach or hack around every corner.

Fortunately, states and cities’ peers in the federal government face similar challenges and have undertaken an initiative to comprehensively manage connected devices’ security, eliminating blind spots and establishing a strong foundation for their network security. The progress and benefits of this approach offer useful lessons and inspiration for state and local authorities.

It All Begins With Visibility

The Department of Homeland Security’s Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program, which is open to federal, state, local and tribal government entities, is taking a phased approach to securing government networks by first building a comprehensive inventory of all the hardware and software on their networks and then monitoring these networks continuously to assess new devices and software, as equipment arrives, connects and evolves.

This total, real-time awareness of devices and their posture makes it possible to have a more complete understanding of organizations’ risks. Gaining visibility into federal IT environments has been one of the early successes of the CDM program as agencies have found an average of 44 percent more uncatalogued and unmanaged devices connected to their networks, and at times several hundred percent more devices, than previously reported.

CDM is changing the game in Federal agencies by turning the security of legacy and IoT systems from an “auditing” or “compliance-driven” effort to a continuous and dynamic risk-based approach that’s better able to yield actionable data and scale to larger IoT footprints. Whether state and local agencies use CDM or another solution, a foundation of visibility pays future dividends as it is applied to new capabilities as an organization matures.

Flexibility and Control Rein-in Risk

No two agencies in a state, city or town have the same roles, assets or security requirements. The IoT’s reach on a university campus has different consequences compared to health care or first-responder contexts. This makes it inherently difficult, if not impossible, to architect “safe” IoT templates for agencies.

Therefore, the most important applicable lesson for states and localities is how CDM is improving security for federal agencies simply by staking out visibility and classification of network traffic as objectives—leading to flexible, tailored outcomes. The ability to accurately peer into traffic and devices means every agency gains a stronger vantage point on their compliance and security postures. Different departments should choose different paths according to their risk tolerance and resources, but keeping a premium on visibility makes it dramatically easier to shift defenses over time.

High-profile breaches understandably tilt security conversations to fear and frustration, often compounded when security teams and government officials realize they have ever more connected devices to confront with limited resources. However, as early returns of the federal CDM program and similar approaches show, sometimes the best way to adapt to mounting security stakes and scale is to change processes and thinking. In an increasingly IoT-driven world, setting what-if adversary and intrusion scenarios aside and turning instead to study what connected “things” look like and how they behave may be the most logical path to protection and peace of mind.

Erik Floden supports state and local programs on the public sector team at ForeScout Technologies, Inc.

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