Saturday

19th Jan 2019

Opinion

Lessons for EU to protect against next cyber attack

As the latest ransomeware attack 'Bad Rabbit' spreads through Europe, it is again clear that there are few degrees of separation between malware targets and global information technology networks.

Initially aimed at Ukraine's Ministry of Infrastructure and Kiev's public transportation system, the current ransomware blitz has now spread to Turkey and Germany, compromising a growing list of international businesses, government interests and thousands of personal computers.

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The explosive growth of cloud-based and on-demand data systems has pushed vital sectors such as business, banking, and healthcare into risky relationships with IT infrastructure that exposes them to unexpected threats. But governments have even more at stake. Their need to house sensitive citizen data and protect national security has made them ideal targets for cyber-attacks.

Many countries are actively developing e-governance strategies — digital initiatives centred on citizen needs that are meant to promote service efficiency, productivity, transparency, and technological innovation. But these actions have also introduced a range of potential security risks, which need to be met with coordinated cybersecurity frameworks.

High-profile government hacking incidents, such as the 2015 breach of more than 22 million employee profiles in the US Office of Personnel Management database (including extensive security clearance files and personal backgrounds) are alarming examples of the holes being exploited by cyber criminals and state-sponsored hackers.

What can governments do to safeguard their data systems and citizens, and to reduce the spread of global 'e-pidemics'?

Three steps

First, they must shift to holistic approaches that progress beyond suites of technical tools such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems and spam filters. They must embrace organisational and behavioural change. By integrating a 'prevention is better than cure' strategy, governments can create interagency knowledge networks and focus on training computer users to be aware of cyber risks, how to avoid them, and how to be first responders when attacks strike.

One such example is the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) — a government "hub for private and public sector collaboration and information-sharing to combat cyber security threats". The centre aggregates cybersecurity and cyberdefence capabilities from a wide range of government departments, police units, crime commissions, the private sector, academia, local government, and international partners.

ACSC plays a pivotal role in raising awareness of cybersecurity issues, reporting incidents, analysing and investigating attacks and threats, and coordinating national security operations to respond to cyber-attacks.

Second, governments must have a clear cybersecurity strategy and make a deliberate investment in building capacity to deal with cybercrime. This begins with a broad assessment of government organisations to fully understand all aspects of their operations in cyberspace (e.g. open doors, levels of data-sensitivity, user authentication, encryption of sensitive data, etc.). Only then can comprehensive security policies and best practice guidelines be developed to ensure that overarching cybersecurity defences are effectively scaled to protect critical information and infrastructure.

But strategies must also be built on a reliable foundation of focal points in relevant government agencies, authorities and civil society. These human resources are crucial links to wider detection of, and recovery from, cyber-attacks.

Third, while the responsibility to develop strong legislation that discourages cyber-attacks falls on the shoulders of governments, they should look to impartial advisors and international organisations such as the United Nations, who are dedicated to enhancing cybersecurity culture and building awareness at policy levels.

UN research centres, like those of the United Nations University, are well positioned to bring partners to the table to find solutions. For example, development of an internet governance model and an international treaty harmonising national laws against cybercrime such as copyright infringement, fraud, child pornography, hate crimes, and cybersecurity breaches with supervision of related UN agencies would be welcome by member states.

Effective cybersecurity is a complex transnational challenge that requires strategy and cooperation at all levels and among states. There is a long way to go to build a coordinated response to computer crimes, but with new exploits being developed every day, there is no time to wait. Our short-term solutions must be devised as building blocks of a collaborative effort to fight global cyber-attacks.

Nuno Lopes and Jose Faria are researchers at the United Nations University operating unit on policy-driven electronic governance.

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