The government is very hackable, and they have your data

Sure, adversaries want government secrets, but they can also get your personal information.

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Data breaches and security failures happen everyday. There’s little we can do about that if we want to participate in modern society, except maybe switch out the companies we interact with for their competitors if we presume one to be more secure. There’s one service that we don’t have a choice on whether to interact with, no matter how high profile its security incidents become: the federal government.

A breach of the Office of Personnel Management announced in 2015 it had leaked background investigation records, impacting 21.5 million individuals, according to the agency. The highly publicized Solarwinds hack discovered in 2020 exposed government and business records to Russian insiders. Earlier this year, the US Marshals Service division of the Department of Justice became a target, when hackers stole personal information about investigation targets, personnel and more.

The attacks were targeted, usually seeking out some type of sensitive state information. But we all have sensitive information stored throughout federal agencies like our social security numbers or home addresses. Probably even more information is at stake if you utilize federal services like Medicare, student loans or SNAP benefits. We have no choice but to give the federal government access to our personal information in exchange for certain services, unless you’re reading this while living off grid.

“If we want to live in the information age, and we're using some of these systems, we are inherently giving up control,” Kevin Cleary, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems at University at Buffalo, told Engadget. “You have to trust that agency has put forward all the best controls and practices.”

In response, the federal government has developed agencies like the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to lead better security initiatives across departments. In part, this is intended to help you feel a little bit better about storing your data within federal servers by setting higher standards for how it safeguards your data. According to Michael Duffy, associate director of the cybersecurity division at CISA, since the agency’s establishment in 2018, it’s spearheaded the most progress he’s seen in his federal cybersecurity career.

So, things are improving, and you can probably trust the federal government to keep your data safe in the same way you trust the companies you interact with everyday. What makes the government so different, though, is that it’s a high profile target. Adversarial countries want in on state secrets while, at the same time, it’s hard to prioritize spending on security measures. Getting tax-payer funds to fill a pothole on your local highway is hard enough when the damage is tangible and obvious, while security is hard to quantify the benefits of until an attack occurs. In other words, the value of security investments aren’t proven until it’s already too late.

This has gotten better. Security investments in the federal government largely trend upwards. Still, it’s not enough. “Sometimes their budgets don't allow them to take every step or to everything that they would like to do, because you just simply don't have the money,” Marisol Cruz Cain, director of information technology and cybersecurity at GAO, said.

But the reason why the federal government may appear less secure is because of its obligation for transparency. There’s a responsibility to share lessons learned after an incident, and make sure citizens know what happened. That’s actually a big part of CISA’s job. “We are really looking at ways that we are making it more acceptable to raise the hand and say this is the way that we were attacked or an incident occurred,” Duffy said.

The government also interacts with a ton of outside businesses. So, say a government contractor experiences a breach or security incident, that means that data held in federal tech could be exposed. This opens up a slew of new attack vectors, and possibilities for malpractice.

You can actually see how secure certain agencies are thanks to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and legislation like the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. The latter documents tech modernization efforts across major agencies, including cyber readiness. GAO, for its part, audits cybersecurity efforts and develops privacy impact assessments that are publicly available descriptions about what information the agency collects, how they use it and more.

But with all these audits come a relatively bleak conclusion. Agencies aren’t evaluating their policies and procedures to make sure that high profile incidents don’t happen on a regular basis, Cruz Cain said. Your information will be on those servers whether you like it or not.