Why Your Local or State Government Agency Needs a Cybersecurity Playbook and What It Should Include
The digital infrastructures of local and state government agencies are enticing targets for cybercriminals. Take a ransomware attack, for example.1 On one hand, the agency faces internal pressure from within its own ranks to get things back up and running. But on top of that, stakeholders also have to answer to their constituents, whose lives are interrupted by the attack. Regardless of the attack, the impact radius of a cyber assault on a government agency is often far wider than it would be for a private organization.
Stopping these criminals not only keeps everything running smoothly but also satisfies your most important customer: the general public. The most effective anti-cybercrime machine has to be built on a cybersecurity playbook. This gives you a systematic, dependable, scalable solution. Here are more details about what a cybersecurity playbook is and what it should include.
Challenges Faced by Local and State Government Agencies Regarding Cybersecurity
Local and state governments face growing cyber threats, making it necessary to create the most effective security systems possible. For example, cybercriminals constantly launch new kinds of malware across the internet. Many of these are designed to take advantage of older operating systems, hardware, and software that government agencies have grown used to. Often, these systems depend on outdated firmware and programming that hackers have already found ways to penetrate.
Combatting these threats is especially difficult in light of the limited resources government agencies have to work with. Funding has to move through strict, often complex channels before decision-makers can apply it to cybersecurity. In many cases, government agencies have only enough staff to manage the status quo, and combatting new threats can be overwhelming for an already overworked staff.
Then there’s the evolving tech landscape, especially when it comes to cyber threats. For instance, over the last couple of years, ransomware-as-a-service attacks have risen to the fore. This involves inexperienced cyber attackers getting fully developed ransomware tools to launch attacks.1 They then split the proceeds with the ransomware developer. This makes ransomware easier than ever to deploy.
Further complicating the way government agencies manage these threats are compliance and regulatory hurdles. How an organization stores and transmits data, for example, are often dictated by strict regulations. In some industries, an organization has to report considerable cybersecurity data to remain compliant. For instance, the new SEC cybersecurity rules require many financial organizations to report when they get attacked, as well as the tools and strategies they have in place to mitigate threats. Without a cybersecurity playbook, it’s easy for a reporting mechanism to fall short, failing to report important information.
Benefits of a Comprehensive Cybersecurity Playbook
A comprehensive cybersecurity playbook helps government agencies prepare for, mitigate, and prevent cyber attacks. It can also foster greater trust among stakeholders and the public. For example, with the right playbook, you get:
- Proactive threat mitigation. Your playbook outlines who’s responsible for monitoring and responding to threats, as well as what to do in different scenarios.
- Streamlined cybersecurity response during incidents. Instead of wondering what to do, a staff member with your playbook in hand can simply refer to the section that applies to the kind of threat they’re dealing with. This saves time and reduces confusion.
- Enhanced compliance and reporting. You can incorporate compliance standards in your playbook so everything done in connection with cybersecurity aligns with regulations. Returning to the SEC example above, an investment company’s playbook can include exactly when to report incidents.
- Improved stakeholder and public confidence. By letting the public know you have a cybersecurity playbook, you can imbue the kind of confidence that builds a stronger, more trusting relationship. Having a playbook unequivocally says, “We’re ready, and we take the protection of your infrastructure seriously.”
Tool and Strategies for Developing a Cybersecurity Playbook
Your playbook should consist of all the following items because they enable a comprehensive threat mitigation solution.
Threat Assessment Tools
Threat assessment tools ensure you know the kinds of threats that impact your company. By incorporating these into your playbook, you help your entire team follow the principle of “know thine enemy.” They understand who may be targeting your digital ecosystem, as well as the tools they tend to use. This puts your staff in a better position to focus their efforts on preventing specific kinds of attacks.
For example, antivirus tools often double as threat assessment mechanisms. You can run reports about the kinds of attacks that the antivirus system has stopped over a certain period of time. This gives you insight into what criminals have tried.
Also, by having malware detection systems installed on your devices, you gain visibility into the methods that cyber-thugs have levied against your organization. By pulling open the veil of secrecy criminals drape over their tactics, you gain valuable cyber intelligence.
The incident response element of your playbook should incorporate the following:
- A data backup and recovery system. With data backup and recovery, a cyber incident can’t hold your operations hostage. You simply revert to your backup and get back on track.
- Incident reporting. Those involved should know who to report to, when, and which details to include.
- A compliance assurance mechanism. You can build your playbook around the reporting, protection, and mitigation requirements of compliance regulations. For example, you can set up checks and balances to make sure you encrypt sensitive data for HIPAA, GDPR, or SOX compliance.
- Containment protocols. When a hacker hits your network, you should have measures in place to contain it. For example, you can disconnect workstations from a database that’s been compromised by a SQL injection attack.
Implementing these best practices involves everyone in your organization. For example, if someone in your support staff falls for a phishing attack, they should be able to refer to your incident reporting instructions, know who they should contact, how to contain the threat, and which data may have been impacted.
Steps to Implement a Cybersecurity Playbook
Implementing a cybersecurity playbook centers around:
- Performing an initial assessment. By assessing what you have in place currently, you can identify vulnerabilities and knowledge gaps your playbook can address.
- Goal identification. Your goals should be based on the external compliance and internal governance systems your organization has in place. For example, you can set a goal to establish and implement a system for encrypting all client payment information within the next four months.
- Tool and strategy selection. Your tools may include multi-factor authentication technology, firewalls, antivirus software, and threat detection and response systems. Your cybersecurity strategies include how people use these tools and in which situations.
- Employee training and preparation. Training your employees should involve assessing their knowledge gaps, teaching them what they need to know, and then assessing how well they apply their learning.
- Continuous monitoring and feedback. By monitoring your playbook and how people use it, you can gauge its effectiveness over time. You should also collect feedback about how easy the playbook is to use, things it may be missing, and whether everyone knows what they should do in different situations.
Case Studies: Real-World Playbook Implementations
Here are some examples of cybersecurity playbooks in action3:
A County in the U.S. Bolsters Cybersecurity and Avoids Disaster
During a cybersecurity exercise, an IT manager in a U.S. county discovered that they didn’t have a backup location for their security operations center (SOC) to use in the event of a natural disaster. The team then made a cybersecurity plan to shift their SOC to a different location if they got hit with an extreme weather event.
A year later, a category-five hurricane struck the area. Because they already had a backup solution in place, the team was able to smoothly shift the team to a different location.
A State Government Uses a Tabletop Exercise to Enable Better Coordination
A state government used a tabletop exercise to make sure all of its counties knew how to respond to an attack that began with credential harvesting. They had an ethical hacker use stolen credentials to access systems across the state. The organizers then shared what they learned from the attack, reporting to county leadership about their findings. By doing this across all jurisdictions, the state got all counties on the same page regarding the action steps they have to take when attacked.
A Fortune 500 Company Reveals Cybersecurity Soft Spots with an Exercise
A Fortune 500 company ran an exercise that involved a simulated ransomware attack on its enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. The attack also impacted the company’s email environment. As participants discussed what they learned after the simulation, some interesting revelations surfaced.
A public affairs official revealed that they didn’t have a plan for communicating when their email system had been compromised. Also, someone from the finance department reported that they didn’t know how one ERP server interacted with their operations.
By surfacing these knowledge gaps, the team was able to identify the kinds of employee training they needed going forward.
Start Developing Your Cybersecurity Playbook Now
A cybersecurity playbook gives your business a systematic way of preventing and addressing cyberattacks. In the future, as cybercriminals continue to engineer more advanced attacks, a cybersecurity playbook can be a valuable solution. It lets both security and regular staff know what to do to reduce your cyber risk across the board.
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1. Lyngaas, Sean (2023) Exclusive: U.S. government agencies hit in global cyberattack. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/15/politics/us-government-hit-cybeattack/index.html
2. What is ransomware-as-a-service (RaaS)? | IBM. (n.d.). https://www.ibm.com/topics/ransomware-as-a-service
3. Estey, M. (2023, September 5). Why cyber exercises work: Three Real-World examples. Motorola Solutions Blog. https://blog.motorolasolutions.com/en_us/why-cyber-security-exercises-work-three-real-world-examples/
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