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Public sector cyber security needs to fight back

Getting security wrong during the transition from paper to digital could mean a loss of public confidence in new services, argues Graeme Stewart, director of public sector at Fortinet UK&I.

From ransomware attacks against the NHS, to cyber-attacks on parliamentary email accounts, it’s safe to say that it’s been a bad year for cyber security in the public sector. Technology may be one of the UK’s fastest-growing industries, but the public sector is still faced with risks that arise during the transition from paper to digital.

Public sector organisations across every service stand to lose valuable data which is vulnerable to criminals. This can range from high-value research from universities to patient records and even sensitive information shared by government officials. So why is the public sector struggling to prevent cyber-attacks?

Budget constraints are universal across all public sector services, and IT managers are increasingly finding themselves tasked to do more with less. As a result, basic security hygiene has always been an Achilles heel for public sector organisations. The most high-profile example of this is the recent WannaCry attack, which crippled the NHS and was able to spread due to a failure to patch a known exploit. Security is unfortunately not seen as an enabler to business operations, so even basic security practices can fall by the wayside. Fostering a culture of security amongst employees at every level is key to putting a stop to preventable cyber-attacks and must be factored into any cyber security program. This means encouraging employees to update systems regularly and to be wary of suspicious emails and links.

The rapid transition from paper to digital means that the public sector is also faced with a widening cyber security skills gap, with industry estimates suggesting that there could be up to three million unfilled jobs in the cyber security industry by 2021.

The issue is compounded by few graduates with the necessary skills. The government has started to take action with initiatives such as the Cyber Schools Programme, which aims to provide young people aged 14-18 with cyber skills by 2021. A complete overhaul in how cyber security talent is developed should play a key part in defending the public sector from cyber-attacks.

Another issue holding back public sector cyber security efforts is that many organisations see cyber security spend as an unnecessary cost of business, with minimal ROI. This is a damaging misconception, especially for public sector organisations looking to minimise costs. When you consider that a medical record is worth 10 times as much as a credit card number on the black market, it’s no surprise that research shows 34.4% of all breaches worldwide are hitting the healthcare industry. There is a cost associated with breaches but, aside from the financial impact, breaches can bring about lawsuits and regulatory penalties and compromise not only patient data but patient care. As we saw with WannaCry, when malware prevents NHS staff from accessing systems, the ability to deliver care is affected.

With research from Vanson Bourne showing that the NHS alone is projected to save £15m a year by investing in cyber security, it should be viewed as an enabler to allow operations to not only become more agile, but to also save money. In order to unlock the potential of digitisation, public sector organisations must prioritise cyber security, which will in turn improve quality of patient care and levels of patient trust.

Whilst the UK government has pledged to bolster the public sector’s cyber security systems with a £21m investment, it is pivotal that escalating issues such as the skills gap, legacy systems and employee education are addressed. At a time when public sector budgets are already being cut, getting security wrong during the transition from paper to digital could mean a loss of public confidence in new services. Not only this, but with the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018, public sector bodies must ensure that they avoid fines. However, loss of public confidence in services could be much more damaging in the long term. It’s vital that organisations prioritise educating employees about the dangers of phishing and social engineering.



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