Securing the public sector

Issue 9 2020 Cyber Security

Cybercrime is not a threat exclusive to the private sector and the enterprise. The public sector is under constant pressure to protect systems, resources and data from organised cybercrime and potential threats. In 2019, local authorities in the United Kingdom were hit by up to 800 cyberattacks an hour and experienced more than 263 million incidents over a six-month period of the same year.


Sinamava Hina-Mvoko.

The US government’s cyberattack bill exceeded $13,7 billion in 2019, and South African public sector agencies experienced targeted attacks designed to hold the government to ransom. According to Sinamava Hina-Mvoko at BCX, the government has become a hot target for cybercrime because it holds a significant percentage of personal information and highly relevant data.

“There is immense pressure on the public sector to manage security controls and minimise risk, but the risks are constantly evolving and adapting,” she adds. “The 2020 pandemic has seen a significant rise in attacks on remote workers, preying on human and system vulnerabilities. This has been further complicated by the fact that the cybercriminals themselves have become increasingly astute and focused – their tenacity and capabilities has made the cyber-frontier into a virtual war zone.”

As the public sector sent its people home, ready to continue their roles in safe environments to protect their health, it also opened new vectors for attack. Many vulnerabilities, previously unseen or untested within the standard operating environments, suddenly came to light and put the data at risk. In addition, many employees were wrestling with entirely new work parameters and regulations which made them increasingly likely to make a simple mistake and unleash a virus.

Awareness and education required

“The problem is that security is more than just building complex technology defences, it needs to be a holistic approach that blends physical security with cybersecurity and with a robust security culture,” says Mvoko. “Employees need to understand how attackers work and the methods they use to gain access to systems and exploit vulnerabilities. They need training and they need this training to be aligned with the risks posed by remote working and the current security landscape.”

The Mimecast ‘State of Email Security 2020’ report for South Africa found that there was a 53% increase in phishing attacks while 45% had experienced the impact of a ransomware attack over the past year. Security service and solution providers like Kaspersky have underscored the urgent need for public sector employees and leaders to embed security into the very foundations of behaviour to ensure that they mitigate the growing risk. Training is one way of providing essential support. Employees need to know that phishing scams are not always badly spelled and obviously fake emails or websites anymore. The most common vector of attack is emotion – usually a negative one.

“All it takes is for one person to fall for a phishing email and enter their credentials into a fake website or system,” says Mvoko. “Then the hackers are in and the data is at risk. Often these hacks remain undetected for months while the criminals harvest the data. Ransomware is equally dangerous and increasingly difficult to contain. A person gets an email claiming to be from a trusted source such as Netflix or the bank, they believe the content – usually that their account has been hacked or cancelled – and panic. Then the ransomware penetrates the system for several months before it’s activated.”

This means that, in many cases, the ransomware has entered into the backups so that it gets encrypted and locked and held for ransom as well. The impact this has on the private sector is vast and expensive; for the public sector it is even worse. Critical systems and services can be shut down until vast sums of money are paid – the recent hack of City of Joburg being a case in point. The last thing the public sector needs right now is to have essential services frozen by criminals.

“The solution to the insidious growth of cybercrime is to look to the development of public-private partnerships that allow for richer security best practice and investment,” concludes Mvoko. “The public sector needs to work with companies that understand the risks and have the solutions and tools that can help them to overcome, and manage, these risks.”




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