Connecting state and local government leaders
The new federal initiative is in its early stages, with questions about how the money will be spent and how much control localities, versus states, will have over it.
State and local governments are preparing to use $1 billion from the federal infrastructure law to improve cybersecurity. It marks the most significant federal support yet for protecting the computer networks and data of smaller governments.
But many crucial details about the State and Local Cybersecurity Grant Program are still in flux, raising questions about who will decide how the money is spent and what their priorities will be.
“The fact that $1 billion was awarded over a period of four years is very significant,” said Rita Reynolds, the chief information officer for the National Association of Counties, one of the groups that pushed to include the grants in the infrastructure law.
The money will not only help counties and other local governments deal with growing demand for security measures, it could also signal a longer-term interest on the issue from Capitol Hill, she said. “It does set a precedent. We hope and trust that it won’t be just for four years that the funding will continue,” she said.
Congress specified that 80% of the money for the cybersecurity grants should support local governments. At least a quarter of the money reserved for local governments must be directed to rural areas.
The money, however, won’t go straight to local governments. It will be sent to states and left up to them to decide how to distribute the federal dollars. The states must convene a cybersecurity planning committee, develop a statewide plan and assess the state’s cybersecurity needs.
States can decide to give money to local governments or to provide services that the local governments can use instead. If a state decides to dole out money to the local level, local governments would have to apply to the state for funding.
Reynolds said counties appreciate the efficiencies a state could provide by offering statewide solutions that local governments could take advantage of. But there is a trade-off, she said, because localities might already have the service the state wants to provide and instead need to shore up other aspects of their security.
“Counties would prefer to get the dollars directly,” she said.
The federal government specified that top priorities for the money should include:
- Implementing multi-factor authentication.
- Rolling out enhanced logging of suspicious activity.
- Encrypting data that is being transferred and data that is being stored.
- Ending the use of unsupported or end-of-life software and hardware that are accessible from the internet.
- Prohibiting the use of known, fixed or default passwords and credentials.
- Ensuring the ability to restore systems from backups.
- Migrating government websites to “.gov” addresses.
“As we build a better America, we’re ensuring that our infrastructure is more modern and digitally connected. But along the way, we must also take proactive steps to increase our resilience to the increasing threat of cyberattacks,” said Mitch Landrieu, the White House infrastructure coordinator in September, when the Biden administration released its notice of funding opportunity for the program.
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers has been especially vocal about local government moving websites to “.gov” domains, which they’ve been able to do for 20 years. But only 10% of local governments currently use those addresses, making it difficult to know whether to trust government sites, the group noted.
NASCIO said local governments should have to use “.gov” addresses to qualify for the new grant money.
“With rampant misinformation and disinformation campaigns from issues ranging from election security to COVID-19, it is paramount that citizens receive accurate and trusted information from government websites,” NASCIO argued.
Reynolds, from the counties group, also stressed the need for local governments to roll out multi-factor authentication, which requires, for example, users to input a username and password, along with a code sent to their mobile device.
Information technology specialists have been pushing that technology for years, but it has become more widespread as data breaches and so-called phishing attacks have made usernames and passwords “pretty easy to acquire,” she said.
Multi-factor authentication decreases the number of hacking attacks and is increasingly becoming a requirement for local governments to obtain cyber insurance coverage, Reynolds said.
While adding the extra security measure can be straightforward for some software packages, it could be expensive for local governments if they use other products.
NASCIO said the federal grants should be a reminder to states to dedicate money in their own budgets for cybersecurity. Fewer than half of state governments have a specific line in their budgets for cybersecurity, the group noted, while the federal government and private companies devote significant resources to keeping their data safe.
“State governments must realize cybersecurity cannot be solved with a one-time appropriation; inclusion of a cybersecurity line item is the minimum states should do to meet the seriousness and sophistication of the current threat environment,” NASCIO wrote.
While states develop their cybersecurity plans, Reynolds encourages counties and other local governments to prepare for the grants. That means developing a strategic approach to cyber defenses and identifying the locality’s top needs in the next one to three years. Some counties will have to assess their own capabilities and weaknesses before they do that, she said.
She also noted that county IT leaders can join an online portal run by the National Association of Counties, where participants often exchange ideas about the grants and other cybersecurity concerns.