Informing government decision makers through research & industry insights.

You May Be the Weak Link in Federal Cybersecurity

Wikimedia Commons user Albaniaman (Creative Commons)

The federal government’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities have been highlighted once again by revelations that hackers successfully breached Nuclear Regulatory Commission computers. Their cyber weapon of choice? Phishing emails - one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Phishing, or impersonating legitimate sources to bait people into giving away sensitive information, first caught on as a profitable hacking technique in the mid-1990s when scammers began baiting AOL users to reveal their passwords. Since then, phishing has become a mainstay of hacking techniques. In fact, it has become even more prominent in the last couple of years. Verizon’s 2014 Data Breach Investigations Report notes phishing rose from the ninth most common type of attack in 2012 to the third most common type last year, and the Anti-Phishing Working Group documented a 10.7 percent increase in the number of phishing sites in the first quarter of 2014 over the fourth quarter of 2013.

The phishing threat is especially concerning for federal agencies. In a recent survey by Government Business Council and Dell Software, senior federal employees familiar with cybersecurity indicated that phishing is the most significant cyber threat to their agencies. Sixty-six percent of the 424 respondents selected phishing/spear phishing as one of the top three cyber threats, more than any other option.

The top two cyber threats to agencies, phishing and email embedded with malware, suggests that the most glaring federal cybersecurity weakness may lie with agency personnel. It seems the intermittent cyber hygiene refresher courses employees receive are not getting through. When asked which areas of cybersecurity need the most improvement, survey respondents’ top choice was workforce education (52 percent). The only other area identified as needing significant improvement by a majority of respondents was risk management (51 percent), bolstering the argument that people and processes, not necessarily technology, form the crux of the federal cybersecurity problem.

At a recent Nextgov event on the future of federal cybersecurity, government and industry leaders suggested a way forward that prioritizes people and processes over advanced technologies. Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Cybersecurity Bobbie Stempfley said that cybersecurity is an unbounded problem, but the greatest need is in developing a workforce with the right expertise.  Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation CIO Barry West argued that organizations can’t look at cybersecurity as just another issue they deal with; they must internalize it as an integral element of nearly all business functions. Kaspersky Government Security Solutions, Inc. President and General Manager Adam Firestone added that the acquisition community, in particular, needs greater cybersecurity expertise to ensure security is not just a “tail-end” concern when procuring products and systems.

Even as cyber threats continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, agencies’ best defense remains a cyber-wary workforce.

For more from GBC on federal cybersecurity check out our new research:

Survey report: “Achieving Holistic Federal Cybersecurity”

Issue brief: “The Human Factor at the Core of Federal Cybersecurity”

Infographic: “Inside Federal Cybersecurity”


This post is written by Government Business Council; it is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Government Executive Media Group's editorial staff. For more information, see our advertising guidelines.


Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Federal IT Applications: Assessing Government's Core Drivers

    In order to better understand the current state of external and internal-facing agency workplace applications, Government Business Council (GBC) and Riverbed undertook an in-depth research study of federal employees. Overall, survey findings indicate that federal IT applications still face a gamut of challenges with regard to quality, reliability, and performance management.

  • PIV- I And Multifactor Authentication: The Best Defense for Federal Government Contractors

    This white paper explores NIST SP 800-171 and why compliance is critical to federal government contractors, especially those that work with the Department of Defense, as well as how leveraging PIV-I credentialing with multifactor authentication can be used as a defense against cyberattacks

  • Toward A More Innovative Government

    This research study aims to understand how state and local leaders regard their agency’s innovation efforts and what they are doing to overcome the challenges they face in successfully implementing these efforts.

  • From Volume to Value: UK’s NHS Digital Provides U.S. Healthcare Agencies A Roadmap For Value-Based Payment Models

    The U.S. healthcare industry is rapidly moving away from traditional fee-for-service models and towards value-based purchasing that reimburses physicians for quality of care in place of frequency of care.

  • GBC Flash Poll: Is Your Agency Safe?

    Federal leaders weigh in on the state of information security


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.