WASHINGTON (AP) — Leaders from across the District of Columbia municipal government gathered last April for a summit on cybersecurity, where they agreed in writing on the need to improve computer safety training for its workers. Yet nearly a year later, no organized, across-the-board training is offered for employees even though electronic data theft from governments is on the rise.
Information technology experts see training as a vital component of cybersecurity and D.C. officials acknowledge their own employees should be better educated on computer use, especially as governments face increasingly sophisticated cyber-threats and as human errors have contributed to widespread data breaches.
But officials say they've put plans for such training on the back-burner while they continue efforts to improve network security, including through new tools and products as well as additional levels of monitoring and inspection. Those improvements are more efficient and longer-lasting than educating thousands of workers who may not be in their jobs permanently, contends Rob Mancini, the District's chief technology officer
"You don't start talking about what people should do unless you know you've got protections in place to help," Mancini said in an interview. "You don't go educating users until you've got something behind it."
The federal government has identified cybersecurity as a critical priority, unveiling new efforts to fight the theft of trade secrets and discourage intellectual property theft. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass legislation to help protect computer networks from attack and warned that American enemies are exploring ways to sabotage the power grid, financial institutions and air traffic control system. Companies including Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple have been recently hacked, as have financial services companies that maintain credit card account information.
State governments, repositories of personnel information, financial data, emergency operations plans, health care records and other documents, are particularly vulnerable targets. A 2012 study by the Deloitte consulting firm and the National Association of State Chief Information Officers found that less than a quarter of the state information security chiefs felt confident in their state's ability to protect data from an outside threat.
D.C. officials, recognizing the problem, organized an exercise last April to gauge the government's cyber-attack readiness.
A section of the after-action report, obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request and marked "exercise sensitive," identified as a primary area for improvement "cyber-security training for District employees at the awareness, performance, and management levels" and said participants had agreed on the need to raise employee workforce education efforts. But in responding to follow-up requests for written cybersecurity training materials that are provided to employees, neither the office of chief technology officer nor the homeland security agency said they had documents to produce.
D.C. Homeland Security Director Chris Geldart said D.C. was studying other jurisdictions' best practices, acknowledging, "We need to improve on this."
Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety, said he believes some employees have received some type of training and that notices and alerts about cybersecurity are distributed on occasion within the government. But he said he's not convinced training is the most efficient safeguard, in part because of employee turnover, and that he'd prefer a system-wide approach that lessens the chance of an employee error opening the door to a cyber-attack. He declined to elaborate on the record.
Though there's no guarantee a tech-savvy workforce can thwart an Internet attack, experts say cybersecurity education is increasingly important as adept hackers, capable of preying on a computer user's mistake, judgment lapse or open social media account, develop more tools to penetrate government websites.
When it comes to cybersecurity, "the weakest link can impact an entire network," said Eric Chapman, deputy director of the Maryland Cybersecurity Center at the University of Maryland.
"If you have one user who's fundamentally unaware of what a spear-phishing email looks like, the entire enterprise is vulnerable," he added, referring to a ploy in which computer uses receive legitimate-looking emails that offer plausible explanations for requesting personal data, along with a link. Hackers can gain access to sensitive data once the recipient clicks on the link.
Breaches frequently involve a degree of human error.
Personal data of 6.4 million South Carolina residents and businesses was stolen from the state's tax collection agency last year, apparently after a hacker sent emails containing malicious software to multiple Department of Revenue employees, including at least one who clicked on a link and unwittingly became compromised. Cybersecurity training was offered to employees after the massive breach. Kentucky officials in December notified roughly 1,100 Medicaid clients of a data breach that began after an employee of a subcontractor fell for a telephone computer scam that enabled a hacker to gain remote access to the worker's laptop.
Information technology offices in many states either require cybersecurity training or have erected websites with safety pointers, such as how to create strong passwords, protecting and storing personal information — even links to quizzes on computer safety.
New York State employees with access to potentially sensitive information must receive cybersecurity training and refresher courses. Virginia requires agencies to train employees, and access can be terminated for employees who don't comply, said the commonwealth's chief information officer Samuel Nixon, who said there were nearly 118 million attack attempts last year on executive branch computer networks.
The D.C. government administers Medicaid and other benefits in a comparable fashion to a state government, making it an obvious target too.
"If our system is breached or interrupted, can you imagine the trouble or the chaos and inconvenience, and the fact that people may not be able to receive benefits?" Quander asked.
Mancini, in DC, said he hasn't organized training yet because his more immediate goal has been to strengthen the network to withstand threats and survive the mistakes or carelessness of an individual employee. The system's strengths include multiple levels of protection of applications, routine testing for network vulnerability, 24-7 monitoring of the network for possible intrusions and specialized security equipment, he said.
He said his office has made more progress in meeting other goals that emerged from the summit, such as integrating cyber-security analysis into citywide threat assessments and better sharing among agencies.
The agency does send out occasional security bulletins and spam alerts and may ultimately develop a "library-type website" like the ones seen in other states, he said.
"We have been very focused on making security as good as we can make it in order to service the enterprise effectively. The time for awareness and informing folks of the things that we might need them to know is something that would come as a natural extension of our improved preparedness," Mancini said in an email.
Follow Eric Tucker on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/etuckerAP