8 Steps to Enhance Government Agencies' Security Posture

Given the heterogeneous architectures of critical state and local systems, it's imperative we learn from the security exposures of other critical infrastructure and pledge to be better

Tom Kellermann, Head of Cybersecurity Strategy, VMware

April 22, 2020

4 Min Read

Today's world is dramatically different than one of just five years ago. Ransomware attacks used to make global headlines. Now, they are commonplace. Cybercriminals have historically targeted large enterprises but now, almost every day, we learn that a new city, county, or state government entity has been attacked. In fact, VMware Carbon Black's recent 2020 Cybersecurity Outlook Report found a resurgence in ransomware attacks against the public sector, citing 113 individual attacks against state and municipal governments and agencies in 2019 alone.

With more ransomware attacks targeting energy and utility entities and government agencies, it's imperative that these organizations pay special attention to their security practices now more than ever. Just recently, the Internal Revenue Service urged taxpayers to be on the lookout for a surge of calls and email phishing attempts about COVID-19 as cybercriminals are likely to take advantage of the crisis to target financial information. And earlier this year, the Defense Information Systems Agency, which handles the secure communications for top government officials, said Social Security numbers and other personal data in its network may have been compromised in 2019.

Given the heterogeneous architectures of critical state and local systems it is imperative that we learn from the security exposures of other critical infrastructure and pledge to be better. To help kickstart, I've put together the eight best cybersecurity practices for government entities.

  1. 1. It is imperative to get a baseline on understanding where vulnerabilities lie. A baseline "Red Team" or "Purple Team" (using third party plus in-house security experts) audit and/or cyber-hunt exercise can help expose where systems are vulnerable and where increased controls need to be applied. Pen tests and general audits are also recommended.

  1. 2. Multi-factor authentication with "just in time" administration should be deployed to Web servers, and servers holding key data. Websites that are accessible to the general public should be reviewed for accuracy continuously. 

  1. 3. Deploy application control ("whitelisting") on critical servers and ensure they do not touch the public Internet. Place them in high enforcement and only allow approved programs to run. Stop all unauthorized file or memory modifications.

  1. 4. Create a comprehensive micro-segmentation strategy for your network and then execute it. Flat networks are much more easily hacked and more of your critical network will be exposed during that attack. If you don't have the expertise in-house for this task, an external consultant will be well worth the extra expense.

  1. 5. Deploy endpoint detection and response (EDR) technology as well as non-signature based next-generation antivirus (NGAV) that uses unfiltered data to detect and remediate advanced attacks. Remember, the endpoint is the easiest attack surface for hackers

  1. 6. Continually work to attract, hire, and retain the best security talent in order to ensure you are not only protected but also know how to remediate if an attack happens.

  1. 7. Stay up to date on the latest attack methodologies as well as attack vehicles. Do this by attending conferences (even digitally) and webinars, as well as networking with other government security teams.

  1. 8. Educate! Make sure that everyone in your network, your administration and your leadership team understands the importance of cybersecurity, how not to fall for phishing attacks, and how to maintain a secure environment.

If 2019 offered any indication of what 2020 and beyond holds, it's that attackers will continue to evolve their behaviors as demonstrated early this year. As defenders, specifically those in charge of keeping citizens safe, we must shift not only our thinking but also our people, processes, and technologies to account for new attacker behaviors. Finally, we must use prior attacks as a reminder that it is time security becomes intrinsic to how we build, deploy, and maintain technology for all.

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About the Author(s)

Tom Kellermann

Head of Cybersecurity Strategy, VMware

Tom Kellermann is the Head of Cybersecurity Strategy for VMware Inc. Previously, Tom held the position of Chief Cybersecurity Officer for Carbon Black Inc. In 2020, he was appointed to the Cyber Investigations Advisory Board for the United States Secret Service and previously served as the commissioner on the Commission on Cyber Security for the 44th President of the United States. In 2003, he co-authored the book Electronic Safety and Soundness: Securing Finance in a New Age.

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