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New York’s Efforts to Counter Cyberattacks

Cybercrimes, such as those involving phishing and ransomware, are on the rise. These attacks can have a significant impact on the public when they target public authorities and local governments that oversee a variety of services the public depends on, including water systems utilities, airports, schools, and health care facilities.

In a report, the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) cannot assure that its Cyber Incident Response Team (CIRT) is meeting the needs of its customers. Cyberattacks have already hit New York state agencies, 911 systems, cities, towns and school districts and pose a significant risk to critical infrastructure.

Cyberattack complaints increased from 114,702 in 2019 to 241,342 in 2020, according to the FBI. The financial impact of these attacks is not insignificant. After a 2019 ransomware cyberattack, the city of Albany, for example, spent $300,000 to replace destroyed servers, upgrade user security software, purchase firewall insurance and harden the city’s systems.

New York’s Cyber Incident Response Team plays a vital role in safeguarding our infrastructure and critical data against cybersecurity threats. There is a lack of forward-thinking strategies, widespread training, and specific and measurable objectives that are critical in assessing progress. Additionally, the agency needs to be more proactive. As cybersecurity attacks continue to rise, I encourage the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services to take quick action on this urgent issue.

– Thomas DiNapoli, New York State Comptroller

Between May 2018 and December 2020, CIRT responded to 122 cyberattacks statewide, including 39 phishing incidents, 23 ransomware attacks and incidents of compromised accounts. But CIRT’s activities have only reached a fraction of the 2,800 entities it is responsible for.

The report also said that CIRT is not doing enough to proactively evaluate the cybersecurity needs of the agencies it assists and measure its progress in improving security. It conducted 11 risk assessments at the request of counties, local government and a non-executive agency, but most of CIRT’s activity is on a by-request basis or when areas of need are identified. Only five training sessions on phishing emails were conducted between July 2020 and March 2021, despite the risks of ransomware-infected emails.

The audit said without clear goals and documentation of security needs and progress officials cannot be assured their work is achieving the desired outcomes if it is focused on where public entities most need help, and if its limited resources are being used to the greatest benefit of the entities it was created to support.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help local governments fund modernize and protect their networks against future cyberattacks, but in the meantime, DiNapoli recommended the DHSES develop specific, measurable objectives and goals so that CIRT can evaluate if it is achieving its mission. He also called on CIRT to identify the cybersecurity needs of the entities it is charged with supporting.

As reported by OpenGov Asia, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has published a fact sheet to help public- and private-sector organisations prevent and respond to ransomware attackers threatening to release sensitive information if a victim does not pay the ransom demanded.

Malicious actors increasingly exfiltrate data and then threaten to sell or leak it—including sensitive or personal information—if the ransom is not paid. These data breaches can cause financial loss to the victim organisation and erode customer trust.

Internet-facing vulnerabilities must be addressed, software updated, devices properly configured and remote-desktop services should be regularly audited. Spam filters and cybersecurity-awareness training will help reduce the risk of successful phishing attacks, and carefully managing privileged accounts and employing multifactor authentication will increase cyber hygiene.

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