UK councils have been subjected to over 98 million cyber attacks in the past five years, an investigation by privacy campaigner Big Brother Watch has revealed. The report exposes the extraordinary extent of cyber security threats faced by local authorities – amounting to 37 cyber attacks every minute – while criminals are accumulating “growing troves” of sensitive and personal information about citizens.
Big Brother Watch’s report uncovers an “overwhelming failure” of councils to report losses and breaches of data, as well as shortcomings in staff training. The investigation reveals that 25 councils experienced a loss or breach of data, but more than half of these episodes went unreported. Although human error is the main factor in making a hacking attempt successful, the investigation found that three in four local authorities don’t provide mandatory cyber security training for staff.
These findings raise concerns about the ability and commitment of local authorities to defend themselves against cyber attacks. The report comes at a time when local authorities are collecting more personal information about citizens than ever before, making them a growing target for cyber attacks.
Key findings of the research
114 (29%) councils experienced at least one cyber security incident – that is, an actual security breach – between 2013 and 2017. There were 376 cyber security incidents in total. 25 councils experienced one or more cyber security incidents that resulted in the loss (or breaches) of data.
More than half of councils (56%) who experienced a loss or breach of data didn’t report this. 297 authorities (75%) don’t provide mandatory training in cyber security, while 62 (16%) councils don’t provide any cyber security training at all.
Jennifer Krueckeberg, lead researcher at Big Brother Watch, said: “With councils hit by over 19 million cyber attacks every year, one would assume that they would be doing their utmost to protect citizens’ sensitive information. We’re shocked to discover that the majority of councils’ data breaches go unreported and that staff often lack basic training in cyber security. Local authorities need to take urgent action and make sure they fulfil their responsibilities to protect citizens.”
Pat Walshe, director of data protection consultancy Privacy Matters, added: “The Big Brother Watch report reveals inconsistent approaches towards safeguarding personal and sensitive data held by local authorities. It highlights the pressures faced by local authorities in a world of diminishing resources, but increasing demands. It will be important that local authorities receive appropriate support moving forward.”
Painting a bleak picture
Chris Ross, senior vice-president of international sales at Barracuda Networks, commented: “We’re interested to see this report from Big Brother Watch, which paints a fairly bleak picture of UK councils’ approach to cyber security. This mirrors the findings from our own Freedom of Information report, conducted last year, which found that more than a quarter (27%) of UK councils have fallen victim to a ransomware attack in particular.”
Ross went on to state: “As the UK’s public sector continues its cost-saving push towards bringing more and more services online, an inevitable consequence is that the volume of data on offer to hackers has increased. From our research, we were encouraged to learn that the majority of councils affected were able to minimise the impact due to having a back-up system in place, but it’s disappointing that so many of them fell victim in the first place. The public sector needs to ensure it employs a comprehensive cyber security strategy that protects all attack vectors and surfaces in order to keep citizens’ data safe and avoid potential fines for data breaches.”
*The 66-page Big Brother Watch report entitled ‘Cyber Attacks in Local Authorities’ can be accessed online here