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Building a Cyber-Strong Public Sector: 5 Best Practices for Radical Resilience

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In today’s increasingly interconnected and data-driven world, where technology infiltrates every facet of our lives, the public sector sits at the forefront of critical services and the safeguarding of national security.

Although digital innovations and technologies have modernized and advanced government institutions, they have simultaneously made them potential prime targets for cyberattacks, particularly since they are entrusted with vast amounts of sensitive information, ranging from personal citizen data to confidential national security information.

Cybercriminals are driven by various motives to stage an attack and seek to infiltrate sensitive information for financial gain, commit identity theft, and espionage, disrupt critical infrastructure, and even pursue political or ideological motives.

With an immense amount of data residing in the cloud environment, concerns have been raised about its protection. The rate of cyberattacks has escalated over the past few years, with 76% of organizations falling prey to ransomware attacks in 2021, and the number escalating to over 85% a year later, according to the Veeam Data Protection Trends Report 2023.

Considering the frequent increase in attacks on the public sector and the enormous volume of data at the disposal of government institutions, one can’t help but contemplate the devastating effects that this information may bring about should it fall into the wrong hands.

Furthermore, should a public sector institution be attacked, and its data collection compromised, it may be very likely forced to pay a ransom for the safe return of its data. It will also be in breach of the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) and may face significant repercussions as a result.

There are several ongoing challenges facing the public sector’s data defenses, including improper usage and internal breaches, phishing attacks, hacktivists attacking systems to further social or political causes, and ransomware.

The impact of ransomware, in particular, is a growing concern, with insights presented in the Veeam Ransomware Trends Report 2023 revealing that, while all survey respondents claim that the issue of ransomware is highly challenging, there is a consensus that cyber and backup teams are often misaligned.

About 60% believe that significant improvement or a complete overhaul in the way these teams collaborate is needed. The sad reality is that it is no longer about whether a ransomware attack will occur but rather how frequently. For the public sector to stave off the potentially damaging effects of an attack, cooperation, and strong cybersecurity strategies have become non-negotiables.

For public sector institutions to effectively protect cloud-hosted data and the associated web-based software, they need to know their opposition, implement a strong and resilient backup strategy and infrastructure, and deploy regularly tested recovery processes to deal with the aftermath of a successful attack.

Radical resilience is just as important as having a good defense. To ensure optimal protection in cyberspace, there are five best practices that particularly public sector institutions should employ. These include:

1. Regular updates and maintenance: Falling behind on cybersecurity updates and technology can often be the golden opportunity that hackers are looking for.

2. Identify and assess threats regularly: You can’t defend against something you don’t know about. Awareness is the key to a strong defense.

3. Implement end-to-end security and multi-factor authentication: Coordinate with partners and clients to broaden your net and increase the chances of detecting threats. The use of multiple forms of authentication can also lower the chance of successful attacks.

4. Employee education and ongoing training: Teaching your staff about the different risk factors can help reduce the number of attacks that are facilitated through human error alone. Employees need to be aware of and understand the different types of attacks, their gateways as well as the risks and penalties that come with them.

5. Radical resilience through immutable backups: Secure and clean backup copies that are regularly tested and data that is survivable against attacks and does not contain any malicious code, and recurring verification to ensure that secure and clean backups are recoverable, are the two most common playbook elements in preparation against an attack.

Bolstering cybersecurity and building radical resilience in the public sector is paramount. It is the foundation upon which public services and citizens rely, and negating it is not an option if we are to safeguard our nation’s future and the well-being of the public domain.

Remember, in the world of cybersecurity, being proactive and prepared is like wearing a digital seatbelt. While it may not make you invincible, it significantly reduces your chances of being badly hurt in a cyber crash.

By Ian Engelbrecht, System Engineering Manager at Veeam Software

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