5 Cyber Risks in the Public Sector

Posted by

Vivek Dodd

on 02 May 2024

The threat of cyberattacks is prevalent across all industries. We unpack specific cyber risks the public sector needs to be aware of.

cyber risks

Cyber risks pose a significant threat to governmental operations and public trust. With critical infrastructure, sensitive data, and essential services all reliant on digital systems, any breach or attack can have far-reaching consequences.

From compromising citizen privacy to disrupting government functions, cyber threats can disrupt the fabric of society and undermine confidence in governance. The interconnected nature of government networks also means that a single vulnerability can have cascading effects, amplifying the potential damage.

Robust cybersecurity measures are essential to safeguarding not only government assets but also the stability and integrity of democratic institutions.

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The impact of cyber risks on the public sector

In the wake of the recent cyber breach targeting Leicester City Council, where confidential documents, including rent statements and passport information, were exposed due to a ransomware attack by the group INC Ransom, it's become increasingly evident that public bodies are prime targets for cybercriminals.

This incident echoes similar attacks on institutions like NHS Dumfries and Galloway, signalling a concerning trend that demands immediate attention.

Richard Sword, Leicester City Council's strategic director, minced no words in condemning the breach, emphasising its serious implications. Despite the UK Government's firm stance against negotiating with ransomware actors, it's clear that the motives behind such attacks may not always be financial.

This is a warning that perpetrators may now seek to exert power through widespread disruption rather than solely focusing on financial gains.

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Understanding cyber risks in the public sector

While basic cybersecurity measures like staff training on avoiding weak passwords and suspicious links are essential, public bodies must address less obvious errors that can have far-reaching consequences. We unpack five crucial cyber errors every public body should be aware of:

1. Granting excessive access permissions

Allowing users unrestricted access to resources beyond their role's requirements increases the risk of insider threats and worsens the impact of a security breach. Access permissions should be granted on a needs-only basis.

2. Neglecting network segmentation

Failing to segment the network into smaller, isolated segments with separate access controls leaves it vulnerable to malware spread and unauthorised access, amplifying damage during a breach.

3. Neglecting incident response preparedness

Inadequate incident response protocols hinder the ability to respond swiftly and effectively to security incidents, prolonging downtime and worsening operational impact.

4. Skipping red team exercises

Forgoing regular simulated cyber attack scenarios deprives organisations of the opportunity to identify cybersecurity weaknesses and enhance incident response capabilities through real-world simulations.

5. Disregarding a zero trust architecture

Not adopting a zero-trust approach to security exposes organisations to increased risks of insider threats and unauthorised access, compromising system and data integrity.

The Leicester City Council breach is a stark reminder that cybersecurity is not just a technological issue but a fundamental aspect of public service delivery. It is important to consider cyber risks that impact the public sector. 

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Reasons the public sector is a target

  • Rich data repositories: Public sector organisations often hold vast amounts of sensitive data, including citizens' personal information, government secrets, financial records, etc. This data is highly valuable to cybercriminals for various malicious purposes such as identity theft, financial fraud, or espionage.
  • Critical infrastructure: Many public sector entities manage crucial infrastructure such as power grids, water supplies, transportation systems, and healthcare facilities. Disrupting or damaging these systems through cyber attacks can cause widespread chaos, disruption of essential services, and even threaten national security.
  • Political motives: Public sector organisations represent government institutions, which can make them targets for politically motivated cyber attacks. Hacktivist groups or state-sponsored actors may target government agencies to disrupt operations, spread propaganda, or steal sensitive information for political leverage.
  • Budgetary constraints: Public sector organisations often operate with limited budgets allocated for cybersecurity measures compared to their private sector counterparts. This can result in outdated or insufficient cybersecurity infrastructure, making them more vulnerable to attacks.

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