Over the past few years, cybersecurity has grown into a major concern for federal government and law enforcement. Two-thirds of federal CIOs and CISOs place cybersecurity as one of their top priorities, and FEMA listed it among its five core capabilities in the organization’s latest preparedness report. Although high-profile data breaches involve larger organizations, there is growing concern that smaller agencies will be targeted with greater frequency in the future.

Old tech is resilient
Effective cybersecurity defense begins by protecting critical functions specifically hardened against cyber attacks. Small police departments, sheriff’s offices, firehouses, hospitals and other public safety centers may not be able to afford technology upgrades, but older tech lacks the information robustness that would be attractive to a cyber thief. Cybersecurity risks are mitigated by the fact that it is such a low-bandwith communication

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“From a technology point of view, emergency services are in the Dark Ages,” says David Wild, a certified EMT and professor of Informatics at Indiana University, “but from a resilience point of view, they are ahead of everyone else.”

New technology isn’t always built with security as a priority. Von Welch, Deputy Director of the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University, says this is a byproduct of fast-paced software development that lacks maturity. He compares it to building bridges and homes during the Gold Rush, when the need was so great, there was no time to stop and get the structures inspected.

“We don’t have equivalent expectations for software,” says Welch. “We have a bunch of people building sheds, and then we stack them on top of each other and call them a skyscraper.”

Preparedness cannot guarantee security
Small agencies struggle to bring security expertise in-house. Funding and recruiting both become more difficult at the local level.

“There is no way we could hire someone to do a primary task of cybersecurity,” says Joel Bomgardner, Deputy Chief of the Bloomington Township Department of Fire & Emergency Services. “However, it’s possible that we could develop an additional job responsibility for that.”

Whether a large federal agency or a small local sheriff’s office, however, the weakest link is often a single person making a mistake. According to Verizon, 58 percent of cybersecurity incidents in the public sector were caused by employees mishandling data or through unapproved use.

CACR adopts a risk-based approach, counseling organizations to prioritize their cybersecurity plans around mitigating failure in their mission-critical functions. The expectation that something will go wrong is in the DNA of all first responders.

“You can do all of the planning and scrutiny in the world, of course, and it won’t guarantee you that you won’t have a cybersecurity problem,” warns Welch. “There is no magic bullet that will ever prevent you from having to implement a Plan B.”

Read the full article and other cybersecurity topics in the October-November issues of Homeland Security Today Magazine.

Additional Resources

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