If government, education, non-profit, health care and other public-sector organizations hadn’t embraced the digital revolution before, they certainly have now. There’s some fantastic reporting out there about how the global pandemic has catalyzed digital transformation in the public sector on a massive scale. Seemingly overnight, the public sector has embraced the cloud as a way to spin up innovative services quickly and safely.
Attention has now shifted to the government’s efforts to provide quick and safe access to these services, both for citizens, as well as between entities at a national and local level. Almost all applications (83%) require some form of authentication to verify user credentials. Where this involves end-users in the private sector stratosphere, such as online banking or retail, it’s called Customer Identity and Access Management (CIAM). In government, the “customer” is the citizen, which is why the use case is called government-to-citizen (G2C).
Despite the widely-reported move to digital services, the perception of identity management in government remains that of a login box. As a result, many digital teams are building identity themselves, and few are equipped to handle new credential-based technologies and threats. Moreover, this narrow view is causing the public sector to miss out on opportunities to reduce cost, create efficiencies and deliver innovative services to citizens.
‘Identity is everything’ for cyber defense, says CISA
The SolarWinds breach cast identity management into the spotlight across the public and private sectors as mission-critical for the security of digital apps and services. Few, if any, of the SolarWinds targets were set up to spot suspicious login activity, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency.
It’s hardly the first time identity has been an attack vector. Stolen credentials are used in 80% of web application breaches, according to Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report. Credentials that have been breached in one attack can be used to break into other sites, especially when people reuse their passwords. A so-called “credential stuffing attack” usually works by downloading a freely available list of stolen credentials and using automation to try them across the web.
With the traditional perimeter gone, identity management is the new boundary. The public sector is using G2C identity solutions to centralize citizen identity data so that it can be used to better monitor and respond to cyberattacks, including:
- Monitoring for known breached passwords or bad IP addresses.
- Identifying patterns in login behavior that could signal an attack.
- Prompting for additional verification when impossible travel or a new device is detected.
Moreover, we’re seeing organizations in places like Germany and Japan using identity to simplify compliance. A centralized identity system makes it easier to comply with audits and honor a citizen’s right to be forgotten under the General Data Protection Regulation.
Governments are really just scratching the surface of identity as a cyber defense system. We’re seeing some of the more advanced organizations treating identity data as a tool for threat monitoring. But by and large, a shortage of developer talent and the proclivity to build solutions in-house has left most organizations with only the bare minimum in identity security.
Identity drives innovation for government digital services
The public sector wants to digitize, whether that’s to continue providing vital citizen services during the pandemic, cut cost and increase efficiency, or deliver on the promise of new digital initiatives. Unfortunately, how they’ve handled identity has at least partially blocked them from doing so. Most commonly, governments are using limited identity functionality as part of another piece of software, or they’ve built and maintained an identity system themselves. In both scenarios, the login flow and management of user identities are tied to singular applications, making it difficult to launch new ones or provide a consistent experience. Developers that should be focused on innovation are instead asked to maintain the system. Hiring and retaining technical talent in government is difficult enough as it is, without dedicating entire teams to retrofitting identity systems for new authentication technologies, cyber defenses, and privacy regulations.
Governments have an opportunity to think about identity management as a strategy, not just for one application, but across their entire network. Not only does this free up technical resources for innovation, it helps close security gaps created by multiple identity systems as well.
Secure access for everyone, but not just anyone
Governments are having to rethink identity management as a major attack vector, the point of compliance and consent, and the front door of digital services. It’s encouraging to read about public sector organizations who’ve embraced this expanded definition of identity, but we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. Securing and easing the digital journey will continue to be one of the most important challenges facing governments in this decade and beyond.
Dean Scontras Sr. is the director public sector at Auth0.