Government CIOs and CISOs under siege by insider threats

As the Office of Management and Budget rolls out a framework to help agencies advance their cybersecurity posture, a new report highlights pervasive vulnerabilities from insiders.

When the Office of Management and Budget rolled out its far-reaching blueprint for federal agencies to improve their cybersecurity posture, it identified a number of areas where government CIOs and CISOs can improve, including rapid detection and response to incidents and the need to recruit and retain top security talent.

The Cybersecurity Strategy and Implementation Plan (PDF available here) also highlights the need for agencies to take steps to mitigate one of the more pervasive -- and overlooked -- security risks: insider threats.

[ Related: Insider threats force balance between security and access ]

The OMB's plan calls for agencies to embrace stronger identity and access management, including the use of Personal Identity Verification (PIV) cards, and to bolster employee training on security issues, among other initiatives.

That framework follows a stark reminder of the vulnerabilities agencies face from insiders -- employees or contractors -- who routinely break agency protocols and gain access to information that they are not authorized to view.

In a recent survey of federal IT managers sponsored by the security-software vendor Symantec, 45 percent of respondents say that they have been targeted by an insider threat in the past year, and 29 percent report that their agency has lost data as a result.

"Those numbers are high, but I wouldn't be shocked if they're actually greater," Ken Durbin, unified security practice manager with Symantec's public sector division, writes in an email.

[ Related: How to identify and thwart insider threats ]

Combating insider threats with training and awareness

But it's not all bad news. The Symantec survey, published by the government IT consortium MeriTalk, indicates that agencies generally are warming up to the threats posed by insiders, many of which carry no malicious intent, but simply result from weak access controls and a lack of employee awareness.

Some 76 percent of respondents say that they are more focused on combating insider threats today than they were a year ago, and 55 percent say that their agency has a formal program in place to address the issue.

"Managers need to keep it simple and provide training for all employees," Durbin says.

"Training is most effective to better understand and prevent unintentional threat risks -- from top to bottom. Every user is a critical part of an agency's cyber defense. In many ways, they are on the front line," he adds. "The more often agencies remind their employees to update passwords, and other protocols to prevent breaches, the more likely they will be to comply and be willing to help defend the network. This is just as important for leadership as it is for lower-level employees -- creating a culture of security awareness can have a significant impact."

The OMB's new plan is the product of an intensive 30-day review of agencies' security posture that the White House mandated earlier this year. That exercise, dubbed the "cybersecurity sprint," tasked agencies with identifying their critical digital assets and evaluating their permission systems governing employee access to various segments of the network.

In particular, the cybersecurity sprint directed agencies to patch critical vulnerabilities, to "review and tightly limit the number of privileged users with access to authorized systems," and to "dramatically accelerate" the use of strong authentication systems such as PIV cards, according to U.S. CIO Tony Scott.

Durbin points to the results of the cybersecurity sprint and the massive data breach at the Office of Personnel Management as strong evidence that simply tightening privilege access isn't enough, that agencies need to adopt multifactor authentication and applications like endpoint and email encryption.

The findings of the Symantec/MeriTalk report indicate that agencies are still playing catch-up in those areas, and significant minorities of respondents say that they cannot tell if or how documents are inappropriately shared or what data gets lost. And fewer than 20 percent of the IT managers polled say they plan to roll out technologies like loss prevention, encryption and digital signatures in the near future.

[ Related: CIOs vastly underestimate extent of shadow IT ]

"The report showed that very few agencies plan to implement critical technologies over the next two years," Durbin says. "Two years to deploy critical technologies is a luxury they don't have. We must also enhance the use of cyberthreat intelligence and implementing data loss prevention strategies."

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