Why cybersecurity begins with users – Route Fifty

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The public sector—government, education and law enforcement—is the backbone of society. In return for the services of local governments, police departments and public schools, residents entrust them with vast quantities of personal information. Truthfully, the public sector has become a data-gathering machine. 

Public institutions, though, in particular are poorly equipped to handle the digital responsibility that comes with managing such a vast amount of personal data. Unlike private enterprises, the public sector typically doesn’t have appropriate funding or staffing or just hasn’t been able to make cybersecurity the priority it should be. 

Indeed, recent cyberattacks against the public sector paint a dire picture. In 2023, the Medusa ransomware group attacked the Minneapolis Public School system, demanding a $1 million ransom. When the ransom was not paid, a trove of sensitive files was leaked. These included documents about abuse, sexual assault, student psychiatric health, medical records and those little bits of gold called Social Security numbers. 

This is only one example.

How are the threat actors doing it?

Social engineering remains the most common attack vector for cybercriminals. Accounting for 70-90% of all breaches, phishing and its variants like business email compromise continue to snare public sector employees. Hackers use these entry points to trick well-meaning public employees into clicking a malicious link and, as a result, exposing their institution and the data they intend to protect.

In addition, a new tool has emerged to the delight of cybercriminals: generative artificial intelligence. GenAI can not only develop new malware, but it can also help bad actors craft more sophisticated social engineering attacks. Cybercriminals no longer need to be experts in hacking or proficient in English; now, artificial intelligence can do the work for them. 

What can the public sector do about it?

The reality is that people who are the least aware of security threats often present the biggest risk. Employees lacking awareness of threats, protocols and response procedures, are the most likely victims of social engineering attacks. For this reason, security awareness training is paramount. To strengthen that spotty layer of human cyber defense, agencies can implement a variety of awareness training campaigns. This training can take many forms such as case studies, games, phishing simulations and more. The goal is to educate the vulnerable workforce, especially those who don’t think they’re part of the problem.

Employees don’t like being told they’re doing something wrong or that they need to do something differently. They ask why they should spend precious time following cybersecurity procedures and taking pains to pay attention to every possibly suspicious email link when they feel they’d never fall for a social engineering ploy. They may think it’s a waste of their time when it’s the organization that will be impacted, not them. 

But the fact of the matter is that employees of breached organizations are at personal risk too.

One of the more effective ways to get staff to pay attention and follow security policies is to help them understand what they risk both in their work and personal lives. For example, if the office suffers a cyberattack and HR records are stolen, employees’ personal information could be used by bad actors to apply for credit cards and rack up huge charges.

Highlighting past cyberattacks, especially those having successfully targeted tech savvy or astute individuals, can also help change employees’ thinking that social engineering doesn’t work on intelligent people.  Unfortunately, doctors, lawyers, educators and many other shrewd people fall prey to social engineering attacks. It’s a myth that some people are too smart to be tricked. 

Employees will begin to understand exactly how vulnerable they are and how insidious these attacks can be if they participate in simulated social engineering attacks. Additionally, agency leaders who talk about the risks and support the training can be more powerful than a message coming from the IT department. When leaders demonstrate proper behaviors, it helps motivate others to do the same, eventually strengthening the security culture of the organization. 

Some organizations have had great success with turning phishing education and practice into games. Phishing derbies can be a fun way to gamify learning by assigning points for each correctly reported simulated phishing email and tracking scores across the organization. Some organizations will pick a period of time (October is great since it’s cybersecurity awareness month) and eliminate the negative consequences, such as additional training on a failure, while greatly increasing the number of simulated phishing emails, allowing the employees more chances to boost their scores. 

This competition could be conducted at the individual, department or even branch level with simple prizes ranging from a pizza party to a special parking spot or even a fun trophy to show off. By eliminating negative consequences and providing a prize, many employees actually look forward to getting simulated messages to improve their score and standing, and the organization benefits by providing a lot of practice in quickly spotting and reporting what could be a significant threat.   

Reframing the cybersecurity culture within an organization is difficult—even more so in under-resourced government agencies. However, at-risk organizations must recognize that security training and education is a good investment. Protecting residents’ data is worth the work of rolling out training modules and overhauling protocols, even if it is difficult in the short-term. 

It’s easy to think, “Oh, we haven’t ever been hacked, so we don’t need to worry,” but this is short-sighted. With cybercriminal groups public sector organizations are at even greater risk of being breached. 

Prevent this by prioritizing awareness, building a positive security culture and promoting shared responsibility. 

Erich Kron is a Security Awareness Advocate at KnowBe4. He is a veteran information security professional with over 25 years’ experience.

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