Daily Federal IT systems process mass amounts of files from government employees, civilians and other stakeholders. As digital content has become a popular vector for cyber attacks, the high volume of content transfers across federal IT systems could inadvertently disguise the spread of malware. This risk is further amplified when these content transfers occur on financial systems and involve sensitive financial data, services and transactions.
Making matters worse, many agencies remain on the defensive as they struggle to fight these relentless threats with dated cybersecurity tools that focus on detection rather than prevention. With this in mind, federal IT agencies should look to embrace a more proactive cybersecurity approach in the form of Zero Trust architectures specifically designed to protect against content-based threats.
Federal IT Systems are Vulnerable at the Content Layer
From web browsing and email, to file uploads and social media, digital content running on federal systems is routinely embedded with known, zero-day, and even completely undetectable threats concealed in everyday files and images. These attacks are all the more devastating when they involve financial systems and activities – environments rife with opportunities to exfiltrate or sabotage sensitive financial and personal data, or even initiate illicit financial transactions.
The problem is far from hypothetical. The number of cyberattacks against government systems grew 95 percent globally in the second half of 2022, with the US ranking among the hardest hit nations. In particular, ransomware and even ransomware-as-a-service offerings increased significantly, raising troubling implications for content security since such attacks often embed malicious code within commonly used office file types such as .doc, .pdf or .jpg files.
Federal financial agencies like the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rely heavily on portals and submission boxes to confirm user identity, often utilizing sandbox solutions and other makeshift security measures to ensure files are malware-free. But these solutions are imperfect, as are many federal IT firewalls that control the flow of information but may not always check the nature of the content – thereby allowing malicious code to easily slip through.
Bringing Zero Trust Protection to Federal Content Transfers
To mitigate malicious code from file transfers, federal agencies should leverage a Zero Trust Content Disarm and Reconstruction (ZT CDR) solution. Applying zero trust principles to a CDR solution delivers a “trust no file” approach at the content layer, allowing organizations to pivot from detection to prevention, so they can proactively mitigate the threat of even the most advanced malware attacks and exploits.
A Zero Trust CDR solution allows organizations to pivot from detection to prevention, so they can proactively mitigate the threat of even the most advanced malware attacks and exploits. The “trust no content” standard of ZT CDR assumes no content file is safe, intercepting all uploads to extract only the valid business information from a file while either discarding or storing the originals, verifying the extracted information is well-structured, and then building a fresh, pixel-perfect and fully revisable file to carry the information to its destination.
Optimizing Zero Trust CDR for Enhanced Security
To ensure comprehensive coverage, Federal agencies can also configure a Zero Trust CDR solution to protect the full range of content-focused business applications and processes. This includes protecting email and web services by embedding Zero Trust CDR security into both email gateways and perimeter web defense gateways and firewalls.
Ultimately, the best ZT CDR solutions recognize the federal need for simplicity and scalability and allow agencies to stand up ZT CDR protections easily, with zero maintenance and no patches or upgrades to keep track of. The result is a seamless and secure flow of information across a federal agency’s entire financial IT landscape, contributing to stronger operational performance and more robust cybersecurity posture for all agency stakeholders and constituents.
The author, Audra Simons, is Senior Director of Global Products, Global Governments and Critical Infrastructure at Forcepoint.