Last updated: July 8, 2024

Addressing Cybersecurity Challenges for Local Government

Explore how local governments can enhance cybersecurity measures to counter threats and protect sensitive data from increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks.
Posted by Riley Rhodes
Cybersecurity Challenges For Local Government

Cyberattacks are a significant threat to all levels of government; between 2016 and 2022, government agencies reported an average of over 30,000 cybersecurity incidents annually.

Federal agencies typically have higher levels of digital maturity, which means they tend to fare better in the face of cyberattacks compared to local governments. As local governments become more digitized, their vulnerability to cyberattacks increases, and they may struggle to recover due to limited resources and expertise.

This article explores cybersecurity challenges and strategies for local governments to enhance cybersecurity measures, counter security threats, and protect sensitive data.

Understanding the Cybersecurity Landscape

Local governments face the challenge of combating increasingly sophisticated cyberattacks. The most common attacks include:

  • Malware: Malicious software is used to access, damage, or disrupt government systems.
  • Ransomware: Malicious actors gain access to and encrypt data on government systems, demanding a ransom for the decryption key.
  • Misuse: Cybercriminals use existing tools within local government systems to take control without deploying their own malware.

Local government systems support critical services in a locality, such as public safety and tax collection. When cyberattacks are successful, these essential services can be halted, and sensitive citizen information may be compromised.

To prevent such incidents, governments need modern systems equipped with multi-layer protection and compliance with cybersecurity regulations like SOC 2. However, many local governments still rely on legacy systems with inadequate security protocols, creating numerous entry points for cyber threats.

Key Cybersecurity Challenges for Local Governments

Although local governments are making significant strides in cybersecurity, they continue to face the following significant challenges.

Intrusion Into Critical Infrastructure

Critical infrastructure, such as water management systems and electricity grids, is vital for the daily functioning of communities. Unfortunately, their essential and ubiquitous nature makes them prime targets for attacks. Tampering with these systems can have far-reaching effects, including widespread service disruptions, financial losses, and severe threats to public health and safety.

Many of these critical systems are built on outdated technology with minimal security features and no provisions for advanced monitoring. Failure to use modern software to address these vulnerabilities can have drastic consequences.

Ransomware Attacks

Ransomware is one of the most persistent cybersecurity challenges, making up the majority of annually reported cyberattacks. It is also highly profitable for attackers; in 2023, ransomware payments exceeded $1 billion, the highest amount ever recorded. Attackers often target organizations with substantial funds, critical operational data, and relatively weak security.

Many ransomware attacks on local governments occur when employees fall victim to techniques such as phishing or clicking on infected attachments, files, or links.

A notable example of ransomware is an incident that occurred in Atlanta in March 2018. Cybercriminals infiltrated the City’s systems via a brute-force attack, encrypted files, and demanded $51,000 in Bitcoin. Prior to the attack, an audit found 1,500 to 2,000 security flaws in the City’s systems.

This case highlights the danger of complacency in governments’ defense against potential cybersecurity threats.

Data Breaches & Espionage

A data breach is any security incident that results in unauthorized access to confidential information. In local government, data breaches can expose sensitive data such as citizens’ health records, financial records, and law enforcement data. Leaks of this information can jeopardize government operations, such as criminal investigations, and can negatively impact residents’ lives through identity theft and other forms of misuse.

Espionage, on the other hand, involves secretly monitoring government activities and gathering confidential information for strategic advantage. Attackers can use this information to sway public opinion, commit fraud, gain unfair business advantages, and more.

Supply Chain Vulnerabilities

Local governments keep a network of suppliers and vendors that provide software, hardware, and services to them. While convenient and cost-effective, the use of third-party vendors introduces a new front for attackers to exploit in a bid to access government data.

Even when a government system is well-protected, data breaches can occur through attacks on third-party vendor systems. For example, Wellington Village in Florida recently experienced a data breach where citizens’ payment information was stolen via their third-party billing vendor. The 2020 SolarWinds breach is another example of the damage that can result from an attack on a single vendor. Hackers compromised a software update, which was then pushed live by SolarWinds, giving them access to systems of numerous private and government entities.

In addition to exposing data, these attacks can seriously undermine public trust, affecting the success of future digital initiatives.

Insider Threats

Dealing with a known enemy is often easier than handling a secret adversary. This is why tackling insider threats is among the toughest cybersecurity challenges for local governments. Insider threats typically fall into two categories: malicious actors and negligent actors.

Malicious actors are government staff that intentionally cause harm to the system by stealing, damaging, or altering data. They may be driven by revenge, coercion, or the financial incentive of selling data to third parties. Negligent insiders are staff whose actions result in security breaches.

An example of malicious sabotage occurred in 2008 when a network administrator for San Francisco’s Department of Technology refused to disclose administrative passwords, locking staff out of the City’s network for 12 days and affecting critical government functions.

Shortage of Cybersecurity Professionals

As both public sector and private sector players realize the critical importance of cybersecurity, the demand for computer security professionals has skyrocketed. However, the available workforce does not even come close to meeting demand.

Local governments are at a disadvantage since top cybersecurity talent is often retained by large organizations offering attractive salaries and benefits packages.

Even with strong security policies, this talent shortage leaves government agencies vulnerable to cyberattacks. Without knowledgeable staff, it is difficult to build secure systems, ensure regulatory compliance, conduct regular assessments, and respond promptly to security incidents.

Strategies for Enhancing Local Government Cybersecurity

Although the challenges discussed above pose a significant threat to cybersecurity, local governments can adopt the following strategies to effectively address them.

  1. Upgrading infrastructure: Legacy government systems that run on outdated software are easy targets for exploitation. Upgrading hardware systems or fully migrating to the cloud makes it easy to implement a government-wide security framework.
  2. Establish clear policies and educate employees: Local governments should draft clear policies on security, covering areas like data handling, password management, and appropriate use of company resources. Additionally, agencies should provide general security awareness training to help employees recognize and respond to threats.
  3. Vendor security assessment: To reduce the risk of attacks through third-party service providers, local governments should establish security standards that vendors must meet before partnering with them, similar to the DOD’s Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC).
  4. Establish incident response plans: In a perfect world, attacks would never happen, but the reality is that they continue to occur more frequently. As such, local governments need to have a plan that enables them to swiftly detect, mitigate, and recover from attacks with minimal impact on internal operations and public service.
  5. Implement access controls: Controlling and monitoring access to different categories of data is helpful for reducing the occurrence of internal threats. Authentication methods, role-based access, and zero-trust frameworks can effectively secure data while ensuring smooth operations.
  6. Invest in workforce: Local governments should allocate more resources towards talent acquisition and development. Offering competitive salaries and benefits can make these positions more attractive to candidates. Agencies might also consider investing in upskilling programs for existing staff and partnering with educational institutions to gain access to top recruits.

Single Software Platform for a More Secure Local Government

Data has quickly become the most valuable resource for governments. The way data informs evidence-based decisions and drives better community services makes it a precious resource. However, the more valuable something is, the more eager threat actors are to exploit. Increasingly sophisticated methods like ransomware as a service (RaaS) and AI-powered attacks only make it harder to safeguard resident.

Partnering with software providers like GovOS, local governments can simplify their protection against such threats. With a unified, cloud-based platform agencies can bring multiple services under one umbrella, giving you a centralized place to ensure service continuity and data protection.

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Education & Inspiration

Resources for Local Government Officials