Implementing an effective Public Sector Cyber Security Program

Peter Ambs, CIO, City of Albuquerque

Peter Ambs, CIO, City of AlbuquerquePeter Ambs, CIO, City of Albuquerque

It’s not easy being today’s CIO or CISO in a government organization. While budgets shrink, we are tasked with being relevant and innovative while ensuring we have dependable technology services that provide optimized public services, and all online and mobile. Central to this is digital and infrastructure asset protection. Our first priority is to ensure we have deliberately and pragmatically secured digital assets through a comprehensive and holistic cyber security program.

“It’s not if a cyber breach will occur, but when and how significant the breach will be”

Each day we learn of successful cyber-attacks or organizational data breaches. The need to stay vigilant and follow best practice cyber process and policies that mitigate the dynamic threat landscape has never been more important. The ‘new normal’ is cyber security first, ever thing else is secondary. Cyber planning, budgets, resources, and executive sponsorship all have to be in place to make a difference in what boils down to persistent and evolving cyber warfare scenarios.

You are not alone if you inherited an imbroglio of disparate, legacy systems that were not built with security as primary design criteria. Certainly it’s not practical to immediately forklift upgrade enterprise, legacy systems and rewire them with cyber defenses. To compound matters, perhaps your network is expansive, flat, and designed with ease of use instead of being partitioned by function and hardened with air gaps and micro-segmentation.

Given that we are all just one incident away from being the target of a cyber-attack, whether it’s DDOS, Phishing/Spear Phishing, Whaling, Ransomware, or Data Breach event, what can we do?

Begin by assessing where your organization currently is on the Cyber Security program maturity model continuum. For example, you can use the NIST Cybersecurity assessment tool to measure the effectiveness of your Cyber Security program. From there, plan to fill the gaps in the People, Process, and Tools pyramid. Plan the roadmap to a mature and robust program that is effective.

Now is always the best time to strengthen and build upon appropriate security measures. Perform an organizational Cyber Security Posture assessment performed to determine the risk and vulnerability posture. Prioritize the vulnerabilities by impact and create a remediation plan. Shore up your environment.

You cannot wait for an event to occur to determine what to do. Have an incident response plan in place. Practicing good cyber hygiene and being prepared (incident response, SLAs and partnerships in place), is key to asset protection before, during, and after an event.

Disaster Recovery/Business Continuity planning and capabilities go hand-in-hand with your Cyber Security plans. A solid and tested DR plan (with good backup/restore capabilities) will go a long way in ensuring cyber resiliency in the environment.

I’d like to share the practices and steps to build a ‘reasonable’ local government cyber security program, broken out into People, Process, and Tools.


Engage with cyber partners for knowledge share. The Multi-State Information Sharing & Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) is a must to partner with. The mission of the MS-ISAC is to improve the overall cybersecurity posture of state, local, tribal and territorial governments. Collaboration and information sharing among members, private sector partners and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are the keys to success. Additionally, the public/private InfraGard FBI partnership is dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the US, to include Cyber. Partner with a trusted cyber security firm to provide security posture assessments, pen-testing, application and port scanning.

Have a CISO and dedicated staff working on Cyber Security.

Ensure you have a cyber awareness program in place to educate the workforce. Continually test staff and workforce with mock Phishing exercises and training.


Become familiar and use the NIST Cyber Security Framework for Network and Application security. Offense informs defense. By continuous monitoring and proactive measures, you can determine the right amount of defense mechanisms that need to be in place.

Determine need and levels for Cyber Insurance.

Starts with the basics, making sure your data backup and restore capabilities are sound and match the data retention polices for tiered data classifications.

Disaster and Business Continuity plans are current and tested to ensure that fault tolerance and resiliency is built in. Data recovery capability is sound through backups and recovery.

Reduce your attack surface. Collapse networks and build partitions and micro-segments so that viruses, malware, and bad actors cannot traverse your network.

Patch program needs to be automated and monitored to ensure all critical systems are patched to latest versions.

Secure configurations are set for firewalls, routers, and switches.

Implement Data at Rest and Data in Transit protection, encrypt sensitive and PII data.

Provide for system hardening by protect credentials. Implement dual factor authentication.

Understand threat vectors and defenses in place to mitigate.

Threat vectors:

Social Engineering, Phishing. Spear-phishing. Whaling emails. SQL Injection. Cross-site scripting (XSS) vulnerabilities. DDOS attacks. Server vulnerabilities. Ransomware Malware.

Defense, basic measures:

Application Whitelisting. Patching. Restrict Admin privileges. Firewalls. Pen Testing and vulnerability scans. Dual factor authentication. Virus Protection


Layer with Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) cyber products. Provide for boundary defense and perimeter filtering by having IDS/IDP in place. Application Whitelisting in place. Centralize logging of critical systems and events. Managed DNS considered. DDOS scrubbing in place. Inventory for all devices and software. Know your environment and risk posture. Email and web browser monitoring and filtering. Virus Protection-end-point and server. Ensure all software and applications, especially content management software, are fully patched.

In closing, Enterprises face cyber threats and attacks every day. It’s not if a cyber breach will occur, but when and how significant the breach will be. A single cyber security breach can materially affect the operational and financial capabilities of any organization or cause a significant service level disruptions. Governance and oversight over the cyber security posture of an organization is priority one. 

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