Connecting state and local government leaders
It’s a daunting era for state and local government cybersecurity, but agencies have some simple, and even free, options to protect their computer networks from threats.
High profile hacking incidents in recent months, as well as ransomware attacks targeting cities and other public sector entities over the past couple of years, serve as a reminder of the cybersecurity risks that state and local governments have to contend with.
For smaller-sized localities and agencies, in particular, tackling these sorts of threats can be a challenge given limited staff and tight funding. But there are some low-cost and relatively straightforward steps that state and local governments can take to protect themselves.
Last week, Brendan Montagne, a senior program specialist with the Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or MS-ISAC, outlined some of these measures during an online session held as part of Govapalooza, an event for local government leaders.
The MS-ISAC is designated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide cybersecurity support and services to state, local and tribal governments. The center currently works with all 50 states and has over 10,000 local government members.
Membership is free and joining unlocks a host of no-cost services.
Montagne stressed that one key step governments can take to protect their networks is to frequently “patch” software and operating systems with updates meant to eliminate security gaps. "If you do this, you'll avoid so many incidents before they're even possible,” he said.
Making sure that firewalls are up to date and that antivirus software is installed and running is also a must, Montagne explained. So is adopting strong password standards and potentially considering two-factor authentication, even though it can slow down computer logins.
Backing up data is another important, basic step that agencies should be taking. Montagne recommended three different types of backups—one onsite and online, one onsite and offline and another offsite and not connected to the internet.
He also warned that the MS-ISAC has seen situations where agencies thought that they had backups, only to find out after a cybersecurity incident that these, too, were corrupted, or didn’t work for some other reason. This is a worst-case scenario when recovering from a breach.
“You potentially lose so much data,” Montagne said.
Testing back ups regularly can help to eliminate this problem.
Montagne said that the MS-ISAC already this year has added over 300 government entities to its ranks.
One main benefit members get is access to the MS-ISAC security operations center. The operations center offers 24/7 support for reporting, or getting assistance with, cybersecurity issues. Staff there also conduct a variety of research and analysis and write-up information distributed to members.
The MS-ISAC also has monitoring services that can detect potential risks to computer networks. And it regularly issues email alerts and newsletters, as well as reports, to keep members updated on threats they should be aware of.
Montagne described how one school district that implemented a “malicious domain blocking and reporting” service that the MS-ISAC provides—for free—blocked 30 instances of potentially illicit activity in the first three hours and discovered a virus on its network.
“They were able to mitigate that risk before it became a really big issue,” he said.
One of the reasons it can make sense for state and local governments to get more proactive sharing information about cybersecurity is that the problems they encounter are often not unique.
"Incidents happen every day,” Montagne noted. “The stuff that you're seeing on your network, probably happened in another state.”
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.