States turning to insurance for cyber attacks

DES MOINES ? Cyber attacks on government agencies ? like the recent event where hackers gained access to Iowa?s public employee pension accounts, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars ? have become increasingly common.

In response, more states are purchasing insurance plans specifically tailored to protect the state from potential cyber attacks.

No Iowa agencies have cyber attack insurance, but the topic has been discussed among state leaders.

?It?s a huge discussion,? said Robert von Wolffradt, Iowa?s chief information officer.

Earlier this month, hackers were able to gain access to more than 100 accounts in Iowa?s public employee pension system and steal hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to state officials.

Officials do not believe the hackers gained direct access to the state system, but rather obtained identifying information ? Social Security numbers and birth dates, for example ? through other means and used that to access the system.

However, the event served as a reminder that government agencies in recent years have increasingly become the target of cyber attacks.

In 2016, government tied finance as the most-targeted sector for cyber attacks worldwide, according to an annual global threat intelligence report from Dimension Data, a South Africa-based information technology services company.

When hackers attack a financial institution, they are looking for money.

When hackers attack a governmental agency, they are looking for sensitive ? and thus valuable ? information, experts said.

?The biggest threat is the government is the one that has all our data,? said Doug Jacobson, an Iowa State University professor of computer and electrical engineering. ?They?re the ones that have all our Social Security numbers, they have our addresses. They have everything about us. That?s the biggest thing (governments) have to try to protect.?

Or, von Wolffradt said, hackers are simply ?trying to subvert government and just make government look bad.?

In order to protect themselves from cyber attacks, more states are purchasing cyber insurance.

More than a dozen states have cyber insurance policies, according to a report from the Pew Charitable Trust?s ?Stateline.?

Cyber insurance policies generally cover costs related to data theft or corruption, the unauthorized sharing of data, and legal costs, according to a report on cyber insurance policies from PNC Financial Services.

Such policies can be expensive. Montana has a $2 million policy that covers all agencies and the state?s public university system; Utah bought a policy in 2015 after a data breach on its health department servers, according to the Pew report.

?It?s expensive. It?s a big budget item for us. But it?s absolutely worth it,? Michael Hussey, Utah?s chief information officer, said in the Pew Report. ?You?re seeing breaches now that cost companies and states millions and millions of dollars.?

Would a cyber insurance policy benefit Iowa?s state government agencies?

That discussion is taking place, von Wolffradt said. He called it ?a very complex issue? that is being considered by the state budget department.

Iowa government is currently self-insured, von Wolffradt said.

?I think the issue is, if you?re self-insured, how much does this (cyber insurance) cost and how much protection does it afford you and what do you use it for,? von Wolffradt said.

In addition to coming at a high price tag, cyber insurance policies typically require the customer ? state government, in this case ? have certain levels of protections already in place.

?Insurance companies are smart. They?re not going to go into something blind. So they require the agencies to do certain things, have certain protections and certain reasonable responses in place,? von Wolffradt said. ?And then that will change the rates that (agencies) are getting charged for insurance.?

Von Wolffradt said he has recommended the state budget department consider a cyber insurance policy.

?We?ve recommended looking at it because we think that as the industry grows ? and it?s relatively new ? as the insurance matures a little bit, there may be some opportunities there,? von Wolffradt said.


Jacobson said Iowa state government has been proactive on cyber security for the past decade.


In December 2015, then-Gov. Terry Branstad issued an executive order for the creation of a state cyber security initiative. A state cyber security strategy was published in July of 2016; Jacobson said other states look to the Iowa plan as a model.


The state also in October opened its new cyber security operations center, which enables state security officials to monitor systems and respond to incidents almost immediately, according to state officials.


The chief information office said it responded to nearly 1,900 incidents in the state budget year that ended June 30. The most common incident is a malware attack that attempts to extract data, von Wolffradt said.


?Everybody?s trying to do the best they can,? Jacobson said. ?It?s a rigged game. The attackers only have to be right once, and we have to be perfect. That?s not very fair. But that?s the game we?re being forced to play.?