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Cybersecurity Challenges for the Public Sector

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Chloe Kirby
August 19, 2021

News reports of cyber attacks and data breaches have almost become commonplace. While the big hacks at large corporations make the biggest headlines, the public sector seems to be an increasingly popular target for cybercrime. The attacks can cover everything from healthcare and education to law enforcement and local governments.

Due to the critical roles these organizations play in society and the sensitive information they often have access to, this trend is particularly alarming. While many of these organizations are already using antivirus software, firewalls and security DevOps practices, some of these threats still persist.

Public sector entities need to be aware of the cyber threats they face and must be proactive regarding prevention. This post will cover some of the common cyber threats that target the public sector and some of the steps that can be taken to protect against these threats.

Common Threats Facing the Public Sector

Government organizations are targeted for many reasons. Usually, they are targeted for financial gain. The criminals want to sell personal data for the purposes of identity theft or they want to extort a payment from the organization. In some cases, a foreign government or activists might target government agencies for political purposes. Regardless of the reason behind the attack, it can be particularly damaging for the agency and citizens.

Phishing is a common type of attack the public sector faces. With this type of attack, the criminal sends fraudulent messages to people at the targeted agency with the aim of tricking them into revealing sensitive information. Or the attacker might try to get them to install malicious software on a computer system.

Another type of attack that is on the rise is ransomware. With a ransomware attack, a type of malware is used to block access to a computer system or its files. The criminals then demand a payment in exchange for restoring access to legitimate users. In many cases, the agency finds it necessary to pay the ransom.

While less common, you also have the potential for cyber crimes committed by insiders. An insider might use their legitimate access to the system to steal data or commit other crimes. There have also been cases that involve insiders accidentally leaking data by losing a device with access or by using the device on public Wi-Fi.

Educate the Workforce

Many cybersecurity failures are the result of employees who do not have the training they need. In one survey from 2020, only 54% of public sector employees said they received adequate training to deal with a cyber attack. Organizations need to provide the necessary training if they are going to prevent attacks.

Public sector entities need to teach employees about the threats that exist and best practices for guarding against them. Teach employees to identify phishing attacks and what they should do if they believe they have been subject to an attack. Furthermore, organizations should educate employees about responsible device ownership and use.

Develop a Response Plan

Even with the best IT security and employee training, attacks are still possible. In the event of an attack, the organization should have a response plan in place. A good response plan can be vital for preventing additional damage and it can also ensure that the organization is ready to deal with any fallout.

Response plans will vary depending on the organization. One helpful step is to have a plan for containing the system in the event of an attack. You may also need to account for any information that may have been leaked and review logs to check for the activity that led to the attack.

Create Cybersecurity Policies

Every organization should have policies that outline the standards for cybersecurity. This will include things like the training for employees, policies regarding access to different systems, the technologies that will be used to detect and protect against attacks and the practices that will go into protecting different assets.

Another helpful step is to get cybersecurity insurance. Along with being smart risk management for mitigating any financial damage that may come from a cyber attack, the insurer may require certain policies and practices as a condition of the coverage. These policies can be a good baseline for setting cybersecurity policies at the organization.

The effects of an attack can be overwhelming. The obvious financial cost can be great, but you also have to think about the reputational damage. By taking the time to learn about threats before they happen, you can protect against many of them and limit the damage if one does happen to occur.


Author: Chloe Kirby is a writer and digital marketing professional. She earned her Bachelor of Arts Degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and her Master’s Degree at Goldsmiths University in London, England. Chloe has professional experience in e-commerce, digital marketing, and copywriting. For the last year she has been working in New York City

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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