I recently got a call from another state technology leader who wanted a listening ear and some advice for the future. He’d just been interviewed by a local news reporter who asked him several questions on cybersecurity.

The reporter was friendly and helpful, but he was seeking reassurance that the state’s citizen data was being safely and adequately protected. He was looking for a feel-good story with the basic message “everything is fine here.” Since this was shortly after South Carolina’s data breach of more than 3.6 million records, my friend was especially concerned with his answer to one simple question: “Has our state experienced a data breach?”

Feeling caught off guard on this question, he said, “I am not at liberty to discuss this topic.” The truth is that his government had experienced a (very small) security breach in one department several months earlier, but he certainly didn’t want to talk about it to the press. No one wants to be in the headlines for an accidental news story that reflects badly on his/her government.

Since most states have breach notification laws, the reporter was clearly expecting a transparent yes or no answer — followed by a discussion of any relevant “yes” details. Since this reporter was trying to write a supportive story, he was surprised by the answer. Needless to say, the reporter’s reaction spooked my friend, leading to the phone call to me.

Can Data Breaches Be Minor?

In reality, I think this situation is a fairly common dilemma that government technology professionals face. Of course, no one, including my friend, wants to lie. Furthermore, very few can say an unequivocal “no breaches,” without adding some caveat, such as “that I am aware of” or more likely “we’ve had no major breaches.” Still, who wants to explain the difference between major and minor breaches?

Digging even deeper, answering the breach question often gets somewhat complicated. Explaining a “minor breach” is a bit like telling your spouse you have easily treatable cancer. No one likes hearing the word “cancer” — even if the odds are good for a full recovery. Allow me to explain with a “very minor breach” story from Michigan government.

A few years back, we had a vendor who won a small contract award. The award announcement was supposed to be placed on a purchasing Web page in a secured area where only authorized vendors can gain access. However, the award announcement was mistakenly placed on a public-facing website. Since this contract was awarded to a sole proprietor, the company identification number listed was also that person’s Social Security number. Bottom line: This sensitive data was temporarily available to the public for more than 24 hours until the error was discovered and fixed.

In simple terms, we experienced a (very minor) data breach of one person’s sensitive information. In keeping with Michigan notification laws and internal government processes, the person was notified and the appropriate follow-up actions, such as issuing free identity theft protection, were taken. 

While this type of internal error leading to a breach is rare, I believe that very small data breaches do occur in state, local and federal government offices more often than people realize. In the vast majority of cases, appropriate actions are taken to safeguard consumers and lessons are learned by staff regarding how to prevent future mistakes.

Are Minor Breaches Inevitable?

So are some data breaches inevitable? Probably. But we can certainly reduce the risk of breaches through in-depth training and cyberdefense.

Of course, minor breaches regarding a few sensitive records are very different than major data breaches involving thousands or even millions of records. Nevertheless, in the black-and-white world of the reporter’s simple question, I would need to acknowledge that Michigan did experience a minor data breach of sensitive data for one individual.

So what did I tell my friend? How would I answer that reporter’s question?

“Yes, we have had a very minor data breach in Michigan that was the result of internal administrative errors. Nevertheless, we’ve never experienced anything close to the scale of Utah or South Carolina so far.”

I would explain our cybersecurity plans, our data encryption, our actions to date and how seriously we take cybersecurity.

And, hopefully, my words don’t make the headlines.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Maksim Kabakou

Dan Lohrmann Dan Lohrmann  |  Contributing Writer

Daniel J. Lohrmann became Michigan's first chief security officer (CSO) and deputy director for cybersecurity and infrastructure protection in October 2011. Lohrmann is leading Michigan's development and implementation of a comprehensive security strategy for all of the state’s resources and infrastructure. His organization is providing Michigan with a single entity charged with the oversight of risk management and security issues associated with Michigan assets, property, systems and networks.

Lohrmann is a globally recognized author and blogger on technology and security topics. His keynote speeches have been heard at worldwide events, such as GovTech in South Africa, IDC Security Roadshow in Moscow, and the RSA Conference in San Francisco. He has been honored with numerous cybersecurity and technology leadership awards, including “CSO of the Year” by SC Magazine and “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine.

His Michigan government security team’s mission is to:

  • establish Michigan as a global leader in cyberawareness, training and citizen safety;
  • provide state agencies and their employees with a single entity charged with the oversight of risk management and security issues associated with state of Michigan assets, property, systems and networks;
  • develop and implement a comprehensive security strategy (Michigan Cyber Initiative) for all Michigan resources and infrastructure;
  • improve efficiency within the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget; and
  • provide combined focus on emergency management efforts.

He currently represents the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) on the IT Government Coordinating Council that’s led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He also serves as an adviser on TechAmerica's Cloud Commission and the Global Cyber Roundtable.

From January 2009 until October 2011, Lohrmann served as Michigan's chief technology officer and director of infrastructure services administration. He led more than 750 technology staff and contractors in administering functions, such as technical architecture, project management, data center operations, systems integration, customer service (call) center support, PC and server administration, office automation and field services support.

Under Lohrmann’s leadership, Michigan established the award-winning Mi-Cloud data storage and hosting service, and his infrastructure team was recognized by NASCIO and others for best practices and for leading state and local governments in effective technology service delivery.

Earlier in his career, Lohrmann served as the state of Michigan's first chief information security officer (CISO) from May 2002 until January 2009. He directed Michigan's award-winning Office of Enterprise Security for almost seven years.

Lohrmann's first book, Virtual Integrity: Faithfully Navigating the Brave New Web, was published in November 2008.  Lohrmann was also the chairman of the board for 2008-2009 and past president (2006-2007) of the Michigan InfraGard Member's Alliance.

Prior to becoming Michigan's CISO, Lohrmann served as the senior technology executive for e-Michigan, where he published an award-winning academic paper titled The Michigan.gov Story — Reinventing State Government Online. He also served as director of IT and CIO for the Michigan Department of Management and Budget in the late 1990s.

Lohrmann has more than 26 years of experience in the computer industry, beginning his career with the National Security Agency. He worked for three years in England as a senior network engineer for Lockheed Martin (formerly Loral Aerospace) and for four years as a technical director for ManTech International in a U.S./UK military facility.

Lohrmann is a distinguished guest lecturer for Norwich University in the field of information assurance. He also has been a keynote speaker at IT events around the world, including numerous SecureWorld and ITEC conferences in addition to online webinars and podcasts. He has been featured in numerous daily newspapers, radio programs and magazines. Lohrmann writes a bimonthly column for Public CIO magazine on cybersecurity. He's published articles on security, technology management, cross-boundary integration, building e-government applications, cloud computing, virtualization and securing portals.

He holds a master’s degree in computer science from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Valparaiso University in Indiana.

NOTE: The columns here are Dan Lohrmann's own views. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the state of Michigan's official positions.

Recent Awards:
2011 Technology Leadership Award: InfoWorld
Premier 100 IT Leader for 2010: Computerworld magazine
2009 Top Doers, Dreamers and Drivers: Government Technology magazine
Public Official of the Year: Governing magazine — November 2008
CSO of the Year: SC Magazine — April 2008
Top 25 in Security Industry: Security magazine — December 2007
Compass Award: CSO Magazine — March 2007
Information Security Executive of the Year: Central Award 2006