Will We Ever See Federal Data Breaches End Entirely?
April MillerApril Miller

Will We Ever See Federal Data Breaches End Entirely?

Government cybersecurity may get worse before it gets better.

By April Miller, Managing Editor, ReHack Magazine

Data breaches are a problem in virtually every industry. However, they carry extra weight when they happen to federal agencies. Cyberattacks on government organizations can cause widespread damage — even endangering public safety — and they remain dangerously common.

The federal government is no stranger to cybersecurity best practices. There’s an entire agency devoted to it, and many of the strictest security laws apply specifically to government bodies. Yet, with all this attention, federal data breaches still happen. Here’s a closer look at why that is. Will they ever end?

The State of Federal Cybersecurity Today

U.S. government agencies experienced more than 32,000 cybersecurity incidents in 2021. In response, the Government Accountability Office recommended over 4,000 changes for federal organizations to become more secure. By the end of 2022, though, the government had yet to implement nearly 900 of these.

On the positive side, that trend means federal agencies have implemented thousands of security improvements since 2021. The government has also proposed a $12.72 billion cybersecurity budget for 2024, over $1 billion more than 2023’s spending.

Much of the government’s recent security action has focused on increasing the cybersecurity workforce. Other changes — like the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification — hold government contractors to a higher standard to minimize third-party breaches. Federal agencies have also encouraged more public-private collaboration to improve security standings and recommended higher employee education and threat monitoring standards.

Despite these changes, government cybersecurity still has much room to improve. 2023 saw an uptick in government breaches after three years of decline. The number of records exposed in these events also quadrupled between 2022 and 2023. These figures are still below all-time highs, but they don’t instill much confidence.

Why Government Breaches Still Happen

Part of this recent uptick in government data breaches stems from a rise in cybercrime as a whole. As the world relies more on data and digital systems, cybercriminals stand to gain more from their attacks, encouraging more crime. Tools like ransomware-as-a-service have also lowered cybercrime’s bar for entry, furthering this growth.

Government organizations often have highly sensitive data, making them more valuable targets. Consequently, federal agencies experience a disproportionate amount of this growing cybercrime. Education is the only industry to suffer more cyberattacks than the government.

Of course, the government must also meet higher cybersecurity standards than many private businesses. While that should counteract some of the sector’s high attack volumes, it’s important to recognize that not all vulnerabilities are technical. Federal organizations may have advanced security software, but their employees are still vulnerable to social engineering and similar threats.

Because the government experiences many attacks, its employees are more likely to feel cybersecurity fatigue — a feeling of being overwhelmed by security threats, leading to mistakes or complacency. More than half of all security professionals experience it, and frequently targeted sectors like the government are more vulnerable.

Ironically, high cybersecurity standards may compound these workforce-related risks. Working through all the red tape of government security may make workers feel stressed or frustrated. As a result, they’re more likely to make security-endangering mistakes or fall for phishing attempts.

The Future of Government Cybersecurity

In response to these trends, 93% of federal agencies are increasing their IT security spending. Money alone won’t stop data breaches, but it can enable some important changes.

As artificial intelligence (AI) has become more prominent, AI threats and protections have come into the spotlight. Machine learning can reduce alert fatigue and improve response times in government agencies through automated monitoring and breach containment. However, cybercriminals can use similar tools to deliver more dangerous attacks.

Thankfully, the government is aware of this threat. A late 2023 executive order has called for AI-focused security standards and is establishing a program to develop AI-assisted security software. These steps will help protect federal agencies from AI attacks and more conventional incidents.

More young professionals will likely enter the security workforce as cybersecurity awareness grows. Government incentive programs will ensure federal agencies benefit from this growth. While this shift will take time, it will lessen security teams’ workloads, enabling faster responses and reducing burnout.

Of course, cybercrime will grow and evolve, too. Consequently, government breaches may worsen before they improve, as cybercriminals can adopt new tools and strategies faster than highly regulated organizations. In the long term, though, AI and a larger security workforce will improve federal cybersecurity standings.

Data Breach Prevention Is a Never-Ending Task

Cybersecurity is an ongoing battle as each side adapts to the other’s new technologies and techniques. As a result, the federal government will likely never eliminate data breaches entirely. However, these incidents will become less frequent if agencies can implement their current goals effectively.

Government security affects everyone, not just federal employees. Businesses and consumers must pay close attention to these trends to understand the risks facing their data and the systems they rely on. Government processes are becoming more secure, but there will be some bumps along the way.

About the Author

Will We Ever See Federal Data Breaches End Entirely?April Miller is the Managing Editor of ReHack Magazine. She is particularly passionate about sharing her technology expertise, helping readers implement technology into their professional lives to increase their productivity, efficiency and personal enjoyment of their work.

April can be reached online on Twitter, LinkedIn and at our company website https://rehack.com/.

May 16, 2024

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