4 Major Cybersecurity Threats to the Public Sector Today

Published September 5, 2023
by Jordan Hickam

The public sector’s information systems, technology, and virtual services continue to grow, accumulating massive amounts of personal data, sensitive information, and other assets that malicious cybercriminals go to great lengths to obtain. As a result, the volume, variety, and types of cybersecurity threats have grown in numbers and strength. This post details four of the public sector’s most significant cybersecurity threats today.

Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs)

As the name implies, APTs are sophisticated long-term cyber attacks targeting a specific government agency or organization. APT attacks are often carried out by well-funded and highly skilled cybercriminal operatives or nation-state-sponsored hacking groups seeking political, economic, or military advantages. They typically try to gain unauthorized access to sensitive information, disrupt essential services or operations, locate other system weaknesses and vulnerabilities, or introduce new threats to an organization’s finances, defense systems, infrastructure, or overall security.

APTs utilize various high-level hacking and infiltration techniques, including social engineering, spear phishing, and zero-day exploits, making them challenging to detect and mitigate. Elaborate espionage tactics, including firewall breaches, may take months for cybercriminals to execute. Well-orchestrated (and often well-funded) APT cyber attackers target specific public-sector agencies seeking certain targets rather than randomly blanketing a range of organizations and hoping to find one with weaker security. 

While most cyber attacks get in and out of a system quickly, APTs access and remain inside systems for a prolonged period, gradually extracting information within an agency’s IT infrastructure. While hiding within an unsuspecting agency’s systems and systematically preparing for the perfect moment to strike, APT cyber attackers may be able to study an agency’s security protocol systems to make adjustments to their tactics or targets.


Ransomware attacks are a significant threat to public-sector agencies, which are attractive targets due to the sensitive information they manage and the essential services they provide. Ransomware is a specific form of malware designed to hijack a system and encrypt an organization’s critical data, blocking users’ ability to access the system unless the organization pays ransom to the cybercriminals orchestrating the plot. 

The public sector tends to be particularly vulnerable to ransomware attacks due to many agencies’ budget constraints or patchwork of outdated technologies and common operating systems across local governments, education, and healthcare.

A ransomware attack can disrupt public agencies’ essential safety and healthcare services, compromise citizens’ private data and personal information, and result in significant financial losses—including but not limited to any ransom payment. Attackers may also threaten to release sensitive information publicly or sell it to the highest bidder on the dark web, leading to further and potentially irreversible reputational damage.

Federal government agencies, including the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), caution ransomware victims against instantly agreeing to pay a cybercriminal’s ransom. There’s simply no guarantee the culprits will restore the encrypted data after payment. Bending to their wishes can embolden cybercriminals to target an organization’s systems again, demand additional payment, or encourage future attacks.

Supply Chain Attacks

Public-sector organizations rely on third-party vendors and suppliers for various services and software. Supply chain attacks involve compromising these trusted sources to gain unauthorized access to public sector networks or introduce malicious code into systems, potentially leading to data breaches or system compromises. Examples of recent attacks on third-party suppliers include the following: 

  • Accellion, a file transfer appliance provider, experienced a series of attacks in 2020 and 2021. The attackers exploited vulnerabilities in Accellion’s legacy FTA software, compromising the systems of multiple organizations, including government entities. This supply chain attack resulted in data breaches and the exposure of sensitive information belonging to government agencies.
  • In early 2021, Microsoft disclosed vulnerabilities in its on-premises Exchange Server software. Threat actors leveraged these vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to Exchange Server installations worldwide. This supply chain attack impacted numerous organizations, including public-sector entities, leading to data breaches and unauthorized access to sensitive information.
  • Codecov, a provider of software testing tools, experienced a supply chain attack in 2021. Attackers gained unauthorized access to Codecov’s Bash Uploader script and modified it to exfiltrate sensitive information, including credentials and tokens. This attack impacted various organizations, including government agencies, by potentially exposing their sensitive data.

Supply chain attacks underscore the importance of thorough security assessments, regular patching and updates, vendor risk management, and effective incident response plans to mitigate the risks associated with supply chain attacks.

Internal Personnel Threats

Agency insiders with authorized access to secure systems and sensitive information can be some of an organization’s largest looming threats. Whether they’re undertrained and genuinely don’t know any better, are unwittingly manipulated, or are disgruntled and acting maliciously, internal personnel pose a significant threat due to their access to large amounts of confidential data that could be compromised to damaging consequences. 

All it takes is one unsuspecting user clicking a covertly malicious link to download a ransomware file that can run wild throughout an agency’s computers and devices. Similar irresponsible acts, other human errors, and additional complications arising from employees working from home or on personal devices can pose significant cybersecurity threats. 

These internal threats can result in major data breaches, unauthorized disclosures, or outright sabotage of critical systems. Detecting and mitigating threats within public sector agencies requires robust access controls, multi-factor authentication, monitoring mechanisms, off-site backups, and comprehensive employee cybersecurity awareness programs. 

Thorough employee education plays a crucial role in organizations’ essential cybersecurity, and all users should be trained to understand the basics of encryption, password protection, and secure system access best practices. 

Any organization’s cybersecurity defense should include an understanding of cybercriminals’ tactics and how their attacks or other threats work. Increasing the global cybersecurity posture of public-sector agencies through providers and partners in the private sector is the unifying mission of RAMPxchange. Contact us today to learn more about our innovative, collaborative marketplace and how you can grow the coalition of cybersecurity stakeholders.