How safe is cybersecurity in the US?

Cybersecurity is a significant concern for the United States government. Many vital operations across the country are connected to online systems, including power grids and defense plans. Government databases also host a substantial amount of private identity information about U.S. citizens, government employees and communications. 

That's why the federal government is stepping up efforts to improve the cybersecurity methods of agencies across the country. According to Government Technology, President Obama's $19 billion cybersecurity budget plan will focus on upgrading systems to make them more secure and to better protect the American people. The plan includes modernizing the technology that is currently being used, increasing government cybersecurity staffs and increasing public awareness about how to stay safer online.

With all of these plans in place and the efforts that have been ongoing since the advent of the computer age, how exactly does the U.S.'s efforts stack up to the rest of the world?

"The U.S. falls outside of the top 10 most cybersecure countries."

The safest countries for cybersecurity
According to a study released by the University of Maryland and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, the U.S. falls outside of the top 10 most cybersecure countries.

The study examined 44 nations over the course of two years, mining more than 20 billion automated reports for information. The U.S. ranked 11th for the safest countries, while Denmark, Finland and Norway came out on top. Among the most vulnerable nations were China, India, Russia and South Korea. 

"Our goal was to characterize how vulnerable different countries were, identify their current cybersecurity policies and determine how those policies might need to change in response to this new information," said V.S. Subrahmanian, lead author of the study and a UMD professor of computer science. Subrahmanian also works with the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. 

The top weaknesses the team identified within the U.S.'s cybersecurity systems were Trojans, viruses and worms. These malicious programs pose risks to computers and other such technologies across the country. Though not a top threat, the study also noted that America's susceptibility to misleading software, such as fraudulent anti-virus programs, was significantly more prevalent in the U.S. than in comparable countries. 

How to reduce threats to cybersecurity
The study points out that one of the key steps to preventing these threats is to make sure that people are educated properly on the risks that make them vulnerable. Not clicking on unknown ads or emails, using vetted anti-virus programs and not connecting to unsecured public networks are all good starting points for helping to keep cybertechnology more secure. 

When it comes to securing larger-scale programs, like those of the federal government, there are many more steps that need to be taken to keep malware at bay. 

The U.S. government is no stranger to malicious cyberattacks. Mashable reports that there have been at least a dozen major security breaches since 2007. More than 21 million Americans had private data stolen by a data hack on the Office of Personnel Management. Data breaches have also impacted the Internal Revenue Service and the insurance marketplace.

To prevent further cyberattacks on sensitive data or critical systems in the U.S., the Department of Homeland Security has outlined several steps for government agencies of all functions and sizes to follow. 

Securing systems against a potential breach is imperative. The Network Security Deployment division of the Office of Cybersecurity and Communications can help establish new technologies to keep government systems updated and secure. Using outdated systems can leave agencies vulnerable, as hackers have more time to develop malware that targets those programs. Newer systems can help agencies stay ahead of the hackers with increased security options and valuable software upgrades that can help prevent new threats from getting in.

Hidden computer viruses are one of the top threats to U.S. cybersecurity. Hidden computer viruses are one of the top threats to U.S. cybersecurity.

Implementing new technologies and security programs
While the federal government is working hard to help all agencies across the country upgrade to newer, more secure machinery and software, there are many groups that need help improving their security systems now. Small to mid-sized agencies are likely to need to wait longer for direct federal intervention to their programs, and that lost time can leave them exposed to a number of cybersecurity risks. 

Using a private IT firm to help upgrade and develop stronger security measures can greatly help these agencies get better protections up and running. These firms know how to assess for potential weaknesses that in-house security teams may not be able to identify on their own. It is simply harder for people to catch missing pieces of programs that they developed themselves, because they will subconsciously fill in those blanks when they look over their systems. 

Outside help can find areas of improvement and help agencies of all sizes implement the changes that will keep them safer.