The depressing news made headlines in Washington State and nationwide last week – the Washington State Courts systems had been hacked, and about 160,000 social security numbers and the information from a million driver’s licenses was potentially exposed to hackers. This announcement was almost coincident with the news of $45 million stolen from the world’s cash machines, a problem with weak security in several private banks.
Plenty of similar news abounds – South Carolina’s Department of Revenue had a data breach which affected 6.4 million businesses and residents and has cost the state $25 million, so far. The State of Utah had the personal information (social security numbers, healthcare information, etc.) of 780,000 residents compromised in 2012. Indeed, 21 million people have had their health records lost or stolen or breached in the last three years, and millions more have been victims of identity theft, loss of credit card or personal financial information, and similar issues. Even law enforcement is not immune, as the Salt Lake City police department itself was hacked and information lost in early 2012, and the Honolulu Police Department revealed a breach this past week as well.
Believe me, these reports are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of lost or breached data in government and the private sector.
What’s a government to do?
I have several practical suggestions:
1. Hang together, don’t hang separately.
In every government, departments are silos. Each department wants to assert its independence from the others and manage its own data, technology and IT systems. At another level, there are three branches of government – judicial, legislative and executive. For the Federal government these are the federal courts (e.g. U.S. Supreme Court), Congress and the President. Each branch asserts its independence from the others. And, of course, cities are independent of their counties who are independent of their states and everyone mistrusts the Federal government.
When it comes to cybersecurity, this is bullshit.
The “bad guys” are incredibly well-organized. Bad actors could be a criminal syndicate, as in the ATM hack earlier this week, or Anonymous, or even nation-states. Several national governments – China, Israel and the United States – are widely cited as developing cyber weapons.
To respond to these threats, cyber defense teams have to work together, ignoring their organizational silos. There might be separate teams in separate branches or departments, but they need to support each other, probe vulnerabilities in each others’ systems, and actively share information. Every government should have cross-agency cyberincident response teams and forensic investigation teams which are activated at a moment’s notice whenever an incident – even a single infected computer – occurs.
2. Actively use private sector resources.
Many private companies will handle credit card processing, perform vulnerability scans, and do risk assessments. They’ll even manage a network on behalf of a government. No government should be doing its own credit card processing or holding/securing citizen credit card information. At the very least governments can contract with private companies to scan their networks and websites for vulnerabilities, do audits of internal systems, and similar work. Private companies will have much more expertise than most governments can hope to hire directly.
3. Consider the “cloud”.
Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and a number of other companies offer to store data or manage applications at their data centers and sites, in their “cloud”. These companies have teams of information security experts to protect this data. Governments should actively think about using such services. One problem is contractual – most cloud providers want to limit their liability in case a breach occurs. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of contract language with a cloud provider which would satisfy all of a government’s concerns about breaches and loss of personal information, and I encourage your comments about this.
However, another alternative is for one government to create and host cloud services for others, again using joint cyber protection and response teams. Such a technique might also address other concerns such as the need for backgrounding data center employees for CJIS or HIPPA compliance.
4. Use hackers.
Every state has a major university. A friend of mine, CISO at a university, has described the school as having “35,000 potential hackers”. Governments could create special relationships with their colleges and universities to employ students and student interns in a wide variety of tasks to manage, monitor and audit/probe their government systems. This technique has the added advantage of helping to train these students – give them practical skills necessary to solve the shortage of information security workers.
There are, undoubtedly, many other protection techniques governments should adopt. A major problem in my experience, however is complacency. “Our techniques are working.” “It can’t happen here.” “We passed a cyber security audit last year.” Again, such complacency is bullshit. Cyber attacks, vulnerability discovery and the application software we use changes too rapidly.
This underscores the most important of my suggestions – the first one – working together. Too often we government employees put our department first, or believe we “work for the xxx independent branch of government”, not the governor or mayor or legislature or (fill in the blank). Maybe we’re afraid of losing our jobs or fear what the results of an audit might disclose.
In the face of the attacks above, this attitude, this culture absolutely must change. We all work for the citizens of our city or our state, who entrust us with their sensitive data. And we absolutely must cooperate much more to safeguard that information.
After all these data breaches, have we learned our lessons?
Sadly, I doubt it. I expect that, over the next 12 months, I’ll be tweeting and reporting further breaches and potential losses of citizen information.
When will we really learn?
(Full disclosure: I now work for the State of Washington. However I have no “inside” knowledge of the breach at the State of Washington Courts.)