Cybersecurity High-Risk Series: Challenges in Protecting Cyber Critical Infrastructure

Federal systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks. High Risk report identified 10 critical actions for addressing federal cybersecurity challenges.

In this report, the third in a series of four, GAO covers the action related to protecting cyber critical infrastructure—specifically, strengthening the federal role in cybersecurity for critical infrastructure. For example, the Department of Energy needs to address cybersecurity risks to the U.S. power grid.

The GAO made 106 public recommendations in this area since 2010. Nearly 57% of those recommendations had not been implemented as of December 2022.

Strengthen the Federal Role in Protecting Cyber Critical Infrastructure

The U.S. grid’s distribution systems—which carry electricity from transmission systems to consumers and are regulated primarily by states—are increasingly at risk from cyberattacks. Distribution systems are growing more vulnerable, in part because of industrial control systems’ increasing connectivity. As a result, threat actors can use multiple techniques to access those systems and potentially disrupt operations.

Examples of Techniques for Gaining Initial Access to Industrial Control Systems

GAO reported in March 2021 that DOE, as the lead federal agency for the energy sector, developed plans to help combat these threats and implement the national cybersecurity strategy for the grid. However, DOE’s plans do not address distribution systems’ vulnerabilities related to supply chains. By not having plans that address the improvement to grid distribution systems’ cybersecurity, DOE’s plans will likely be of limited use in prioritizing federal support to states and industry.

➢ GAO recommended that, in developing plans to implement the national cybersecurity strategy for the grid, DOE coordinate with DHS, states, and industry to more fully address risks to the grid’s distribution systems from cyberattacks.

The communications sector is an integral component of the U.S. economy and faces serious physical, cyber-related, and human threats that could affect the operations of local, regional, and national level networks, according to CISA and sector stakeholders. In addition to managing federal coordination during incidents impacting the communications sector, CISA shares information with sector stakeholders to enhance their cybersecurity and improve interoperability, situational awareness, and preparedness for responding to and managing incidents.

Examples of Potential Security Threats to the Communications Sector

In November 2021, we reported that CISA had not assessed the effectiveness of its programs and services supporting the security and resilience of the communications sector. By completing such an assessment, CISA would be better positioned to determine which programs and services are most useful or relevant in supporting the sector’s security and resilience. We also reported that CISA had not updated its 2015 Communications Sector-Specific Plan. Developing and issuing a revised plan would help CISA to address emerging threats and risks to the communications sector.

➢ GAO recommended that CISA assess the effectiveness of its programs and services to support the communications sector and, in coordination with public and private communications sector stakeholders, produce a revised Communications Sector-Specific Plan.

Ransomware is a form of malicious software that threat actors use in a multistage attack to encrypt files on a device and render data and systems unusable. These threat actors then demand ransom payments in exchange for restoring access to the locked data and systems.

Four Stages of a Common Ransomware Attack

In September 2022, we reported that CISA, FBI, and Secret Service provide assistance in preventing and responding to ransomware attacks on tribal, state, local, and territorial government organizations. However, the agencies could improve their efforts by fully addressing six of seven key practices for interagency collaboration in their ransomware assistance to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. For instance, existing interagency collaboration on ransomware assistance to tribal, state, local, and territorial governments was informal and lacked detailed procedures.

➢ GAO recommendeds that DHS and the Department of Justice address identified challenges and incorporate key collaboration practices in delivering services to state, local, tribal, and territorial governments.

GAO have made 106 recommendations in public reports since 2010 with respect to protecting cyber critical infrastructure. Until these are fully implemented, federal agencies will be more limited in their ability to protect private and sensitive data entrusted to them. For more information on this report, visit

Volatile Geopolitics Shake the Trends of the 2022 Cybersecurity Threat Landscape

With the geopolitical context giving rise to cyberwarfare and hacktivism, alarming cyber operations and malignant cyberattacks have altered the trends of the 10th edition of the Threat Landscape report released by the European Union Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA).

The ENISA Threat Landscape 2022 (ETL) report is the annual report of the EU Agency for Cybersecurity on the state of the cybersecurity threat landscape. The 10th edition covers a period of reporting starting from July 2021 up to July 2022.

With more than 10 terabytes of data stolen monthly, ransomware still fares as one of the prime threats in the new report with phishing now identified as the most common initial vector of such attacks. The other threats to rank highest along ransomware are attacks against availability also called Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

However, the geopolitical situations particularly the Russian invasion of Ukraine have acted as a game changer over the reporting period for the global cyber domain. While we still observe an increase of the number of threats, we also see a wider range of vectors emerge such as zero-day exploits and AI-enabled disinformation and deepfakes. As a result, more malicious and widespread attacks emerge having more damaging impact.

EU Agency for Cybersecurity Executive Director, Juhan Lepassaar stated that “Today's global context is inevitably driving major changes in the cybersecurity threat landscape. The new paradigm is shaped by the growing range of threat actors. We enter a phase which will need appropriate mitigation strategies to protect all our critical sectors, our industry partners and therefore all EU citizens."

Prominent threat actors remain the same

State sponsored, cybercrime, hacker-for-hire actors and hacktivists remain the prominent threat actors during the reporting period of July 2021 to July 2022.

Based on the analysis of the proximity of cyber threats in relation to the European Union (EU), the number of incidents remains high over the reporting period in the NEAR category. This category includes affected networks, systems, controlled and assured within EU borders. It also covers the affected population within the borders of the EU.

Threat analysis across sectors

Added last year, the threat distribution across sectors is an important aspect of the report as it gives context to the threats identified. This analysis shows that no sector is spared. It also reveals nearly 50% of threats target the following categories; public administration and governments (24%), digital service providers (13%) and the general public (12%) while the other half is shared by all other sectors of the economy.

Top threats still standing their grounds

ENISA sorted threats into 8 groups. Frequency and impact determine how prominent all of these threats still are.

- 60% of affected organisations may have paid ransom demands
- 66 disclosures of zero-day vulnerabilities observed in 2021
Social engineering:
- Phishing remains a popular technique but we see new forms of phishing arising such as spear-phishing, whaling, smishing and vishing
Threats against data:
- Increasing in proportionally to the total of data produced
Threats against availability:
- Largest Denial of Service (DDoS) attack ever was launched in Europe in July 2022;
- Internet: destruction of infrastructure, outages and rerouting of internet traffic.
Disinformation – misinformation:
- Escalating AI-enabled disinformation, deepfakes and disinformation-as-a-service
Supply chain targeting:
- Third-party incidents account for 17% of the intrusions in 2021 compared to less than 1% in 2020

Contextual trends emerging

- Zero-day exploits are the new resource used by cunning threat actors to achieve their goals;
- A new wave of hacktivism has been observed since the Russia-Ukraine war.
- DDoS attacks are getting larger and more complex moving towards mobile networks and Internet of Things (IoT) which are now being used in cyberwarfare.
- AI-enabled disinformation and deepfakes. The proliferation of bots modelling personas can easily disrupt the “notice-and-comment” rulemaking process, as well as the community interaction, by flooding government agencies with fake contents and comments.

Shifting motivation and digital impact are driving new trends

An impact assessment of threats reveals 5 types of impact; damages of reputational, digital, economical, physical or social nature. Although for most incidents the impact really remains unknown because victims fail to disclose information or the information remains incomplete.

Prime threats were analysed in terms of motivation. The study reveals that ransomware is purely motivated by financial gains. However, motivation for state sponsored groups can be drawn from geopolitics with threats such as espionage and disruptions. Ideology may also be the motor behind cyber operations by hacktivists.

CISA Call with Critical Infrastructure Partners on Potential Russian Cyberattacks Against the US

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency convened a three-hour call with over 13,000 industry stakeholders to provide an update on the potential for Russian cyberattacks against the U.S. homeland and answer questions from a range of stakeholders across the nation.

As President Biden noted, evolving intelligence indicates that the Russian Government is exploring options to conduct potential cyberattacks against the United States. CISA echoed the President’s warning on the call and reinforced the urgent need for all organizations, large and small, to act now to protect themselves against malicious cyber activity.

On the three-hour call, CISA Director Jen Easterly, Deputy Executive Assistant Director for Cybersecurity Matt Hartman, and Tonya Ugoretz, Deputy Assistant Director for the FBI’s cyber division, encouraged organizations of all sizes to have their Shields Up to cyber threats and take proactive measures now to mitigate risk to their networks. They encouraged those on the line to visit to take action to protect their organizations and themselves and urged all critical infrastructure providers to implement the mitigation guidelines enumerated on, including:

- Mandate the use of multi-factor authentication on your systems to make it harder for attackers to get onto your system;
- Update the software on your computers and devices to continuously look for and mitigate threats;
- Back up your data and ensure you have offline backups beyond the reach of malicious actors;
- Run exercises and drill your emergency plans so that you are prepared to respond quickly to minimize the impact of any attack;
- Encrypt your data;
- Sign up for CISA’s free cyber hygiene services; and
- Educate your employees to common tactics that attackers will use over email or through websites, and encourage them to report if their computers or phones have shown unusual behavior, such as unusual crashes or operating very slowly.

Director Easterly urged all organizations, regardless of size, to contact CISA immediately if they believe they may have been impacted by a cyber incident. When cyber incidents are reported quickly, CISA can use the information to render assistance and help prevent other organizations and entities from falling victim to a similar attack.

The event built on a series of briefings that CISA has been convening since late 2021 with U.S. Government and private sector stakeholders at both classified and unclassified levels. This outreach was provided to Federal Civilian Executive Branch Agencies, Sector Risk Management Agencies, private sector partners, state, local, tribal, and territorial (SLTT) governments, and international partners. To date, CISA has hosted or participated in more than 90 engagements reaching tens of thousands of partners.

IOCTA 2021 unveils the most recent cyber threat (r)evolutions

The accelerated digitalisation related to the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly influenced the development of a number of cyber threats, according to the new edition of Europol’s Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment. Criminals have been quick to abuse the current circumstances to increase profits, spreading their tentacles to various areas and exposing vulnerabilities, connected to systems, hospitals or individuals. While ransomware groups have taken advantage of widespread teleworking, scammers have abused COVID-19 fears and the fruitless search for cures online to defraud victims or gain access to their bank accounts. The increase of online shopping in general has attracted more fraudsters. With children spending a lot more time online, especially during lockdowns, grooming and dissemination of self-produced explicit material have increased significantly. Grey infrastructure, including services offering end-to-end encryption, VPNs and cryptocurrencies continue to be abused for the facilitation and proliferation of a large range of criminal activities. This has resulted in significant challenges for the investigation of criminal activities and the protection of victims of crime.

In addition to expanding the efforts to tackle these threats from a law enforcement perspective, it is crucial to add another level of protection in terms of cybersecurity. The implementation of measures such as multi-factor authentication and vulnerability management are of utmost importance to decrease the possible exposure to cyber threats. Awareness raising and prevention are key components in reducing the effectiveness of cyberattacks and other cyber enabled criminal activities.

The key threats:

- Ransomware affiliate programs enable a larger group of criminals to attack big corporations and public institutions by threatening them with multi-layered extortion methods such as DDoS attacks.
- Mobile malware evolves with criminals trying to circumvent additional security measures such as two-factor authentication.
- Online shopping has led to a steep increase in online fraud.
- Explicit self-generated material is an increasing concern and is also distributed for profit.
- Criminals continue to abuse legitimate services such as VPNs, encrypted communication services and cryptocurrencies.

The new edition of Europol’s Internet Organised Crime Threat Assessment, launched today, looks into the (r)evolutionary development of these trends, catalysed by the expanded digitalisation of recent years. The report was presented during the Europol-INTERPOL Cybercrime Conference. The conference gathered about 100 experts together to share their insights into the latest cybercrime trends and threats and to discuss how innovation is essential in countering cybercrime acceleration.

UK and US cyber security leaders meet to discuss shared threats and opportunities

National Cyber Security Centre CEO and Director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency met in London.

Top cyber security officials from the UK and US affirmed their commitment to tackling ransomware in their first official face-to-face engagement.

Lindy Cameron, CEO of the National Cyber Security Centre – a part of GCHQ – met with Jen Easterly, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency to discuss their organisations’ priorities, including combatting ransomware.

During their bi-lateral meeting in London they reflected on the impact of ransomware attacks this year and the need for industry collaboration to complement government’s operational efforts against ransomware.

NCSC Chief Executive Lindy Cameron said:

“It was a pleasure to host Director Easterly for our first in-person bi-lateral meeting to discuss the critical issues in cyber security today.

“Ransomware is a serious and growing security threat that cuts across borders, and it is important for us to maintain a continuing dialogue with our closest ally to tackle it.”

The issue of gender diversity was also on the agenda, with both agreeing that more needed to be done to remove barriers to entry into the profession for women and girls.

They discussed the NCSC’s CyberFirst Girls Competition, which aims to get more girls interested in cyber through fun but challenging team events for teenagers, and CISA’s ongoing commitment to expanding opportunities for young women and girls to pursue careers in cyber security and technology and closing the gender gap that exists in these fields.

The two leaders also discussed government collaboration with industry, including the NCSC’s Industry 100 scheme and CISA’s Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative.

The Industry 100 scheme has integrated public and private sector talent in the UK to pool their knowledge to tackle key cyber security issues. The Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative has similarly bought American public and private sector entities together to unify crisis action planning and defend against threats to U.S. critical infrastructure.

Countries ramp up cybersecurity strategies

ITU releases fourth edition of the Global Cybersecurity Index; key 2020 data points to increased commitment
​​​​The latest Global Cybersecurity Index (GCI) from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows a growing commitment around the world to tackle and reduce cybersecurity threats.
Countries are working to improve their cyber safety despite the challenges of COVID-19 and the rapid shift of everyday activities and socio-economic services into the digital sphere, the newly released 2020 index confirms.
According to GCI 2020, around half of countries globally say they have formed a national computer incident response team (CIRT), indicating an 11 per cent increase since 2018. Rapid uptake of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during the COVID-19 pandemic has put cybersecurity at the forefront.
“In these challenging times, the unprecedented reliance on ICTs to drive society, economy and industry, makes it more important than ever before to secure cyberspace and build confidence among users," affirmed ITU Secretary General Houlin Zhao. “Governments and industry need to work together to make ICTs consistently safe and trustworthy for all. The Global Cybersecurity Index is a key element, offering a snapshot of the opportunities and gaps that can be addressed to strengthen every country's digital ecosystem."
Some 64 per cent of countries had adopted a national cybersecurity strategy (NCS) by year-end, while more than 70 per cent conducted cybersecurity awareness campaigns in 2020, compared to 58 per cent and 66 per cent, respectively, in 2018.
Addressing the cyber gap
Many countries and regions lag in key areas. These include:
- ​Cybersecurity skills training, which must be tailored to the needs of citizens, micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs);
Finance, healthcare, energy, and other key sectors, which require dedicated measures to close cybersecurity gaps;
- Critical infrastructure protection, which requires enhancement to meet new and evolving cyber threats;
- Individual data protection, which requires continual reinforcement as online activity expands.
Growing reliance on digital solutions necessitates ever stronger, yet also accessible and user-friendly, data protection measures.

NSA Funds Development, Release of D3FEND

D3FEND, a framework for cybersecurity professionals to tailor defenses against specific cyber threats is now available through MITRE.  NSA funded MITRE’s research for D3FEND to improve the cybersecurity of National Security Systems, the Department of Defense, and the Defense Industrial Base. The D3FEND technical knowledge base of defensive countermeasures for common offensive techniques is complementary to MITRE’s ATT&CK, a knowledge base of cyber adversary behavior.
D3FEND establishes terminology of computer network defensive techniques and illuminates previously-unspecified relationships between defensive and offensive methods. This framework illustrates the complex interplay between computer network architectures, threats, and cyber countermeasures.
MITRE released D3FEND as a complement to its existing ATT&CK framework, a free, globally-accessible knowledge base of cyber adversary tactics and techniques based on real-world observations. Industry and government use ATT&CK as a foundation to develop specific cyber threat models and methodologies.
Complementary to the threat-based ATT&CK model, D3FEND provides a model of ways to counter common offensive techniques, enumerating how defensive techniques impact an actor’s ability to succeed. By framing computer network defender complexity of countermeasure functions and techniques as granularly as ATT&CK frames computer network attacker techniques, D3FEND enables cybersecurity professionals to tailor defenses against specific cyber threats, thereby reducing a system’s potential attack surface. As a result, D3FEND will drive more effective design, deployment, and defense of networked systems writ large.
Frameworks such as ATT&CK and D3FEND provide mission-agnostic tools for industry and government to conduct analyses and communicate findings. Whether categorizing adversary behavior or detailing how defensive capabilities mitigate threats, frameworks provide common descriptions that empower information sharing and operational collaboration for an ever-evolving cyber landscape.

The Bahamas strengthens its cybersecurity capacity

The Bahamas has launched a project with ITU to set up a national Computer Incident Response Team (CIRT) to help protect the small island country’s critical digital infrastructure and data.
The National Cybersecurity Project, started in January and officially launched in February at national level, aims to help assess current Bahamian capabilities in this rapidly evolving field, as well as develop its National Cybersecurity Strategy.
The national CIRT will also support the government in building national cybersecurity expertise, closing human resource gaps, and supporting the elaboration of a cybersecurity framework and policies. Bahamian officials must do all they can “to put mechanisms in place to protect the government’s systems and citizens’ data from exposure to [cyber] attacks,” said the State Minister for Finance, Kwasi Thompson.
Digitizing hundreds of government services
The government’s recent decision to digitize more than 200 public administration services over the next five years has heightened the country’s need for a well-equipped cybersecurity team that can identify, defend, manage, and respond to cyber threats, Thompson added.
“The creation of this National Cybersecurity Strategy will help with review and further implementation of cyber legislation for the protection of citizens and clients,” he said.
Rapid growth in online business transactions – among both government entities and the private sector – makes cybersecurity enhancements paramount. The Bahamas, like other small island developing states in the Caribbean, needs to provide a safe online environment that minimizes any risks associated with online service provision.
The project will also support the development of related national cybersecurity platforms, including a national public key infrastructure (PKI), e-government services (including national identity services), and an access management framework.
ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau Director, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, highlighted the project’s region-wide significance. Projects like this one on the Bahamas will strengthen the Caribbean “cybersecurity supply chain” and reinforce international cooperation to combat cyber threats, she said, thanking the Bahamian government for seeking ITU support and expertise.
Building skills and updating tools
Key project objectives include a National CIRT Readiness Assessment, a Cybersecurity Capacity Maturity Model (CMM), a National Cybersecurity Strategy and Action Plan, and all necessary capacity building and service upgrades to activate the national CIRT, said Bruno Ramos, ITU Regional Director for the Americas.
The project is set for full implementation by the end of 2022, with interim steps including six months of ITU support help the CIRT reach maturity.
The national CIRT’s skills and tools will need constant updating, Ramos added. “It is vital to equip the response team with new technologies, deploy additional services, provide technical training, and coordinate and collaborate with other international organizations.”