How a fast-growing town moved from ad hoc to strategic cybersecurity
Security operations center as a service gives Gilbert, Arizona, a single pane of glass for support, services and collaboration.
While the town of Gilbert, Arizona, has its eye on becoming the “city of the future,” its chief information security officer, Tony Bryson, has his eye on protecting its data.
“In the past, we had done things … from an ad hoc perspective as opposed to having an overarching strategy or governance,” Bryson said. “It was more: ‘We’ve got problem X, let’s go out and look for a product that solves problem X,’ as opposed to recognizing that we’ve got problem X [and] how does that apply to the entirety of the organization? Where does that plug into a security program? Can we leverage the tools that maybe one vendor has that can expand the efficacy of what we can do from a security perspective?”
The town’s approach has changed since Bryson took on the CISO role in 2020, setting governance and baseline policies or standards to build a foundation for information security. “Now we’re at the point of looking at the thickness of the stack, recognizing that there’s a number of products that we have in play that we can probably go and do things a little bit differently, save a lot of money and actually probably be that much more efficient when it comes to information security,” he said.
One way the town – the largest in the country – is doing this is by using a security operations center (SOC) as a service. The technology is provided by Secureworks, which is majority-owned by Dell Technologies, through a subscription model.
“We get intelligence, we get experience from other market verticals that we would never get as a traditional government agency,” Bryson said.
To do that without a SOC-as-a-service, he added, the town would have to hire eight to 10 workers, some of whom would need to work round the clock. A more likely scenario: Gilbert would have contracted with an information-sharing service to get information on threats.
“Sometimes those particular services, information doesn’t come as quickly, so if there’s a zero day out there, we may not hear from one of the information-sharing services for a couple of days,” Bryson said. “With Secureworks, they’re handling that right away because they hear about it with market verticals across all industries and across the world.”
For example, when Russia attacked Ukraine in February, the number of security incidents worldwide and across industries jumped 2,700%. Gilbert experienced an increase of about 42%, but because of the SOC-as-a-service, the number of security and correlated events (those in which an attack vector is identified) fell by about a quarter.
More recently, the town saw the number of incoming emails fall by 23%, but the number of threatening messages increased by 30% and phishing rose 65%.
The threats will only increase as the town continues to grow, Bryson said. It had a population of about 20,000 in the 1970s, but today it’s home to 260,000 residents.
“We’re continuing to see the town just explode in size,” he said. “We’re drawing in a lot more businesses coming into our community so we’re expected to see our services increase. It means we’re going to become that much more of a target.”
It also means resiliency is as important as protection. For help, the town uses Dell’s PowerProtect Cyber Recovery vault, air-gapped storage that isolates critical data and ensures that when data needs to be recovered, it’s safe.
By working with several Dell products, the town has gone from that ad hoc approach to having a single pane of glass for support, services and collaboration.
“When you’re a small enterprise growing into a larger enterprise, many times you have to implement and integrate technologies that may be [beyond] the skill level you have in-house. It’s extremely important you have business partners that can help you do those implementations, help you do those integrations and most importantly help get your people up to speed in how those technologies work,” Bryson said, adding that the town also works with Microsoft, VMware and Cisco.
To determine how to prioritize its implementations, the town consults its residents. It starts with a budgetary process in which everyone brings their budget packages to the table and the town votes on the projects, Bryson said. Popular programs go to the project management office, which ranks them according to importance.
The town also adopted what Bryson calls a “cloud-appropriate” strategy. “We like to go and leverage cloud services when we can but only if it makes sense, only if it meets the very specific business needs and also meets the very specific security needs,” he said. “If those two marry up, that makes it cloud-appropriate.”
IDC Government Insights recognized the town’s modernization efforts when it named Gilbert a finalist for a Smart Cities North America Award this year. The town ranked ninth among U.S. cities in its size range in the 2020 Digital Cities Survey of the Center for Digital Government.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.
Editor's note: This article was changed Sept. 14 to clarify the town's budget process.
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