Cybersecurity Checkup

Research by two USF political scientists found a need for preventive measures and dialogue when it comes to cybersecurity.


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (Nov. 14, 2011) – Cyber warfare, website attacks, hacker pranks – minor and major - internet thieves and their ilk give the strong impression that personal data is at risk on the internet. Should we worry when such information is in the possession of local governments?


Kiki Caruson and Susan A. MacManus, two professors in the Department of Government and International Affairs have found that, based on their research, there’s good reason to be concerned.


The two political scientists developed an e-survey to canvass the state of cyber security policy at the local level. Among their findings is that it will probably take a serious incident before cash-strapped municipalities redirect scarce resources to secure their digital networks. 


Working in partnership with the Florida Association of Counties (FAC) and local government IT professionals, they sent out over 450 surveys to local officials including county leaders, first responders and IT professionals. Considering the sensitive nature of the subject matter, the researchers consider their 24 percent response rate a good rate of return and similar to that of previous surveys they’ve conducted concerning homeland security and emergency management preparedness at the local level.


The survey asked respondents about the status of cybersecurity efforts in their local government agencies and organizations, their planning activities, their policy priorities, barriers to planning and the types of threats or security breaches they have either experienced or are most concerned about. 


“Within the same survey we also asked respondents about the pressures they are facing in meeting the demands of greater transparency in e-government and considerations of privacy, or the confidentiality of sensitive information associated with individuals and businesses,” Caruson said. 


The results of the survey are being shared in a refereed article in the Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. One particularly important finding was that, “The biggest roadblock among Florida’s local government to proactive cybersecurity policy is money,” said MacManus, a Distinguished Professor who teaches courses in state and local government and politics and is a sought-after political expert. “Without the funds or the political will to invest in costly technology and expensive trained personnel, until there is a sense of urgency regarding cybersecurity brought on by a major breach, we probably won’t see any improvements at the local level.” 


But Caruson and MacManus suggest even then it will take breaking down the knowledge and language barriers between officials and IT professionals to help safeguard confidential data.


“There is a noticeable knowledge gap between IT professionals and their more generalist counterparts, such as county managers and leaders,” said Caruson. “The subject matter of cybersecurity is complicated and technical and there is often no common language in a field where technical jargon dominates the discussion.”


MacManus went on to say, “We make the argument that cybersecurity is such a critical policy issue that it is imperative that policymakers work to bridge the divide between IT professionals and generalists. We argue that the consequences of adopting an attitude that cybersecurity belongs to IT professionals is too risky. Cybersecurity is not simply the job of IT specialists… but of all government employees.”


The two USF professors recommend a more proactive and engaged outlook from non-IT local leaders. They also advocate for more public/private industry dialogue on the issue of cybersecurity.


“The consequences of a cyber-attack on a private utility or telecommunications company can be dire and can threaten the safety and privacy rights of citizens as well as the local economy,” MacManus pointed out. 


Caruson added, “Local governments are valiantly trying to meet the dual demands of greater transparency in government to interact with citizens, but at the same time they must assure citizens and businesses that private or sensitive information will be protected. The balancing act between transparency and privacy is a real challenge for localities as we move increasingly in the digital world.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.