Military, government, and law enforcement cybersecurity means a strong defense is critical
Government institutions, law enforcement agencies, and military organizations face an ever-evolving battleground of potential cybersecurity threats. While not prime targets for data theft, they are firmly in the firing line of nation-state bad actors, often referred to as Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) – cybercriminals sponsored or sanctioned by a government entity with the aim of conducting cyber operations against specific targets. These groups are typically well-resourced, highly skilled, and patient, capable of launching sophisticated and sustained cyberattacks. Their motivations are varied and can range from political, such as influencing another country’s elections or undermining its institutions, to economic, like stealing intellectual property or disrupting critical infrastructure. Other motivations might include espionage, as these actors often seek to collect strategic intelligence that can benefit their own nation’s interests, and/or broad disruption. In all instances, their primary objective is usually to advance their sponsoring nation’s global position and power.
The complexity and sophistication of these threats are escalating, necessitating robust, adaptable, and proactive defense strategies. We take a pause to delve into some of the primary cybersecurity challenges government, military, and law enforcement agencies are likely to confront in the coming years and explore some potential solutions for keeping this sector safe and maintaining national security.
Cyber threats to critical infrastructure
As our society becomes more intertwined with technology, the potential vulnerability of our critical infrastructure to cyberattacks intensifies. Essential systems such as power grids, water supply networks, transportation systems, and other crucial services have become targets. Any disruption to these infrastructures could pose significant risks to national security and public safety, making them an enticing target for cybercriminals.
The rise of sophisticated cyberattacks
As cybersecurity defenses advance, so do the methods employed by cybercriminals. These threat actors use increasingly sophisticated techniques like social engineering, ransomware, and advanced persistent threats (APTs) to infiltrate sensitive systems and exfiltrate valuable information. AI and quantum computing in the hands of well-funded nation-state attackers makes for an uncertain future. This cyber arms race demands constant vigilance and innovation from cybersecurity professionals.
The persistent threat from within
Insider threats remain a significant concern within government, military, and law enforcement agencies. These threats can come from malicious insiders who intentionally compromise systems or leak sensitive information. Equally dangerous are well-meaning insiders who unintentionally create vulnerabilities through poor cyber hygiene or from falling victim to social engineering attacks. Siloing individuals, and limiting their access, is an obvious and essential remedy to this problem – and “never trust, always verify” should be the manta of any agency security team.
The vulnerability of the supply chain
As organizations increasingly interconnect and rely on third-party vendors, the security of their supply chains has become a pressing issue. Cyber adversaries often exploit these third-party relationships, targeting suppliers to gain access to sensitive information or propagate malware through shared systems.
Agencies and government departments can avoid supply chain cybersecurity vulnerabilities by adopting a proactive and comprehensive approach. This includes conducting thorough security assessments of all third-party vendors, ensuring they adhere to the same stringent cybersecurity standards as the agency itself.
The safeguarding of Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) has been a key focus, especially for the Department of Defense (DoD), and The White House issued the Executive Order on Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity in May 2021, which outlines a comprehensive strategy to enhance the cybersecurity of the United States. Recognizing the growing threat of cyber-attacks, the order emphasizes the need for a collaborative approach involving both the public and private sectors to secure the nation’s digital infrastructure.
Key elements of the order include:
- Removal of barriers to threat information sharing between government and the private sector: The order mandates IT service providers to share certain breach information that could impact government networks.
- Modernizing and implementing stronger cybersecurity standards in the federal government: The order encourages a shift towards secure cloud services and a zero-trust architecture, and mandates deployment of multifactor authentication and encryption within a certain time period.
- Enhancing software supply chain security: The order outlines measures to develop standards for securing software used by the federal government, including establishing a software bill of materials.
- Establishing a Cybersecurity Safety Review Board: This board will be co-chaired by government and private sector leads, resembling the National Transportation Safety Board’s procedure following an airplane crash.
- Creating a standard playbook for responding to cyber incidents: This playbook will be used by federal departments and agencies for planning and conducting a coordinated response to cyber threats. Improving detection of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and incidents on federal government networks: The order calls for improving the ability to detect malicious cyber activity on federal networks by enabling a government-wide endpoint detection and response system.
- Improving investigative and remediation capabilities: The order requires recommendations for improving federal agencies’ abilities to detect, investigate, and remediate cyber incidents.
The order highlights the fact that traditional security models, based on the notion of a trusted internal network perimeter and an untrusted external one, are no longer adequate, given the sophistication of modern cyber threats. In Section 3, titled “Modernizing Federal Government Cybersecurity,” the order outlines the policy of adopting security best practices, including moving to secure cloud services and adopting zero trust architecture, as rapidly as possible. This is further underlined by the requirement for all federal agencies to develop a plan to implement zero trust architecture. Continual monitoring and auditing of third-party access to systems and data are also crucial, alongside implementing robust controls over data sharing, and consistently verifying each access request, regardless of its origin within the supply chain. Regularly updating and patching all systems can also prevent the exploitation of software vulnerabilities.
The order signifies a bold step towards reinforcing the nation’s defenses against increasingly severe and disruptive cyber threats.
Misinformation and disinformation campaigns
In our information-driven world, misinformation and disinformation campaigns pose a unique challenge. Spread via social media and other digital platforms, these campaigns can create social discord, manipulate public opinion, and undermine the credibility of governmental institutions.
Government agencies will need take a proactive and pre-emptive approach by implementing robust cybersecurity measures to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data and systems, which can be exploited to fuel these campaigns. Where appropriate, tech companies and social media platforms should eb encouraged to detect and remove false information rapidly. Public education is also key – by providing clear, accurate information and promoting digital literacy, agencies can equip citizens to better recognize and resist disinformation. Additionally, collaboration with international partners can help to identify and respond to disinformation campaigns. Ultimately, a multi-faceted approach that combines technology, education, and cooperation is the most effective defense.
Navigating a cybersecurity minefield: Solutions and strategies
To counter these emerging threats, organizations must continually evolve their cybersecurity strategies and invest in innovative technologies and comprehensive training programs.
Implementing best practices such as zero trust and controlling lateral movement is critical. The zero-trust model operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify,” reducing the attack surface and potential for lateral movement within a network. Benchmarking normal activity, shutting down compromised credentials, preventing access to service accounts, and blocking unusual command line arguments at execution time, are an essential part of cybersecurity defense.
Emphasizing continuous training and education can help organizations stay abreast of the latest threats and defense strategies. This includes not only technical training for IT and cybersecurity staff but also awareness training for all personnel to mitigate the risk of insider threats. The responsibility is a shared one. Every individual within an organization, regardless of rank and without exception, stands at the potential risk of cyber threats. It doesn’t matter how vigilant or well-versed in current cybersecurity issues one might be; the risk persists for all.
Adopting advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can enhance threat detection and response capabilities. These technologies can help organizations predict, identify, and neutralize threats more quickly and accurately.
Finally, fostering collaboration and information sharing among different agencies and international partners is crucial for a unified and effective response to cyber threats. By working together, organizations can pool their resources and knowledge to better anticipate and combat emerging threats.
The road of cybersecurity challenges facing government, military, and law enforcement agencies is a winding one – dynamic and complex. By staying adaptable, investing in advanced preemptive cyber defense technologies, fostering collaboration, and striving to meet recognized standards, organizations can navigate these challenges and safeguard their critical systems and information for an uncertain future.