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Assessing the State of Cybersecurity in Government

In November 2015, Tenable released the inaugural Global Cybersecurity Assurance Report Card, with research conducted by the CyberEdge Group. The report asked over five hundred security professionals from around the world to grade their organizations’ ability to assess cybersecurity risks and to mitigate exploitative threats. The results of the survey were reported on our blog in summary and by industry. Today, we take a closer look at the results for governments and provide recommendations for improving the state of cybersecurity in government agencies around the globe.

First, a clarification. When the Global Cybersecurity Assurance Report Card report refers to “government,” it includes much more than the US federal government. This global report covers responses from governments worldwide, in any country, state, or local jurisdiction.

Government scores

Government agencies scored a very disappointing 66% or D

Unfortunately, government agencies scored a very disappointing 66% or D. With major attacks in the news, we had hoped that the government score would be higher. This is particularly disturbing when you compare that D to other industry sectors. Financial services and telecom graded their industries at a high 81% or B-. Even Retail and Healthcare, which have seen major breaches over the past two years, scored a passing C grade. Government ranks next to last in industry sector cybersecurity assurance, outscoring only Education's 64% D grade. And compared to the overall global cybersecurity readiness score of 76% or C for all respondents, government agencies have a lot of work to do to attain the confidence and abilities of organizations worldwide. But despite the overall D grade, there are some brighter spots in the report for government agencies.

They did feel more confident in assessing risks posed against the network perimeter and DMZ (C+) and the network infrastructure in general (C-)

Risk assessment represents an organization’s ability to assess cybersecurity risks across 10 different IT components. While government respondents scored an overall D in risk assessment capabilities, they did feel more confident in assessing risks posed against the network perimeter and DMZ (C+) and the network infrastructure in general (C-). They were least confident in assessing risks to cloud applications and infrastructure (F) and mobile devices (F). This is not entirely surprising, since assessing risk in long standing technologies scored better than the newer technologies. With the current general shortage of professionals with IT skills, government agencies may lack the knowledge and skills to assess the security risks in more modern technologies.

Confidence was expressed in the ability to detect internal threats (C+)

When it comes to mitigating threats against these risks, government staff scored a slightly higher 70%, but still an overall D grade. Confidence was expressed in the ability to detect internal threats (C+) and in conveying risk information to executives and board members (C). However, the mobile sector scored the lowest for detecting and mitigating threats (F). Clearly, government agencies must improve mobile and BYOD security to score better in future years.

2015 exposed one of the largest breaches in government history when the US OPM was attacked, exposing the personal information of millions of current and former government employees and contractors. The outcry by both employees and taxpayers demands significant and rapid security improvements.

Recommendations for improvements

There is always the opportunity to learn new technical skills

What can government agencies do to improve their cybersecurity posture? Ron Gula, CEO of Tenable, advises: “While we are seeing a shortage of good IT talent, there is always the opportunity to learn new technical skills. As government agencies move to the cloud, mobile, and hybrid environments, IT professionals must tackle next generation technologies.”

Ron also notes that the US federal IT security budget is sorely underfunded, allocating the equivalent of just 5% of the average private sector organization's cybersecurity budget – and that 5% must be shared among dozens of agencies in the US government. Underfunding is a common theme across government agencies worldwide, and while simply providing more money for the cause isn’t going to make a government more secure, a budget increase is one of the necessary steps to acquire the personnel and resources needed to improve their security posture.

Underfunding is a common theme across government agencies worldwide

Key recommendations that arose from the OPM attacks include:

  • Inventory all assets
  • Implement continuous patching and vulnerability scanning
  • Assure that users only have access to data that they require for their jobs
  • Watch network traffic in real time
  • Implement two-factor authentication
  • Implement encryption

More information

Download the 2016 Global Cybersecurity Assurance Report Card report and infographic to examine the data in more detail. You can also watch an on-demand webinar about the report findings for the US and CanadaEMEA, or APAC. And watch for the 2017 report in November 2016 for trending data; hopefully another year will provide government agencies with multiple opportunities to improve their security postures.