If your agency has done any research on cybersecurity lately, especially as remote work has become prevalent, you have probably seen people discussing the various pros and cons of using a VPN for government agencies and contractors. While a VPN has plenty of advantages, it can be difficult to understand exactly what a VPN can do and how it works to keep data safe.
We’ve broken it down here–including why you might use a VPN for government work, relevant cybersecurity regulations to keep in mind, and what the future of VPNs and remote government work might look like–so you have all the information needed to decide if a VPN is right for you and get started.
Should You Use a VPN for Government Work?
First, What Is a VPN?
A VPN, or a virtual private network, extends a private network across a public internet connection. This gives the VPN user privacy and anonymity online anywhere in the world.
VPNs are able to mask your internet protocol (IP) address by creating a point-to-point data tunnel between your local network and an exit node elsewhere, causing it to appear as if you’re in another location. VPNs also use secure, encrypted connections to scramble any data sent over a public network, making it unreadable to those outside the private tunnel the VPN creates.
These things combined make your actions online essentially untraceable, hiding your browsing history and web activity. When using a virtual private network, the only thing a web server can see is the address of the VPN server, which can be set to appear thousands of miles from where you are actually located.
There are two ways to use VPNs: with hardware or with software. With hardware, the VPN runs on a single, standalone device, which includes a dedicated processor. This VPN setup offers high levels of security, but there are limits to the number of tunnels that can be created and it requires more complex maintenance. Software VPNs, by contrast, run on a server and have a lower upfront cost. Plus, they can be downloaded and set up in just minutes.
VPNs came out just a little over a decade after the birth of the internet. The origins of these private networks can be traced back to 1996, when Microsoft employees first created the point-to-point tunneling protocol (also known as peer-to-peer tunneling protocol, or PPTN). Since then, they have become an essential tool for many, especially as remote work has become more commonplace across all sectors of the workforce. Lately, VPNs for government agencies and contractors are especially popular, as they protect sensitive material in day-to-day operations online.
Why You Should Use a VPN
To put it simply, VPNs make the internet a more secure place for whatever data you may be processing. They allow employers to safely give employees access to important information over the internet and make each individual user less vulnerable to hackers or data breaches.
Online crime is one of the fastest-growing security threats in the United States. There was a 141% increase in the number of records exposed by data breaches between 2019 and 2020, with expectations that this number will only go up in the years to come. This means that now more than ever, it’s important to use every tool available to protect your privacy.
Despite the rise in data breaches, only 5% of Americans use VPNs to protect their online information. By comparison, India and Indonesia are reported to have the highest VPN usage with 38% of their population using a VPN. The number of VPN users across the world has gone up every year and is projected to continue growing.
It’s especially important to note that 2020 saw 42% of the United States labor force working from home. This, combined with the continued rise in cybercrime, means that agencies and contractors alike should consider using a VPN for government work.
Rules to Follow When Using a VPN for Government Work
If you’re thinking about using a VPN for government agency or contractor purposes, you should consider that there may already be a specific set of laws or regulations that govern your transmission of data. The laws and minimum requirements depend on two aspects of the data: the type and sensitivity of the information.
The types of data that government workers or contractors may have to work with include:
- Intellectual property
- Health data
- Personally identifiable data
- Financial data
Government employees or contractors may also find themselves handling various security clearance levels for confidential information and data. This includes but is not limited to:
- Top Secret Information: The highest classification, defined as information that could cause “grave damage” to national security.
- Secret Information: The second highest classification, which would cause “serious damage.” Most classified information falls into this category.
- Controlled Unclassified Information: This data is unclassified, but still not meant for public disclosure.
With that in mind, there are a few existing regulations that must be followed by those working for the government on any level. This is a brief breakdown of the most relevant rules in place for those considering a VPN for government-related work to keep in mind.
1. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Framework for Improving Critical Infrastructure Cybersecurity
This is the standard by which government agencies and contractors measure their cybersecurity posture. Anyone who deals with government data must prove they comply with NIST at a minimum.
2. The Commercial Solutions for Classified (CSfC) Program
Established by the NSA/CSS, the Commercial Solutions for Classified Program was created to allow commercial products to be used for transmitting and handling classified NSS data while keeping it secure.
3. National Information Assurance Partnership (NIAP) Certification
NIAP certification is primarily used to certify commercial technology and products that can be used to deal with all classified data. It is mandated by federal procurement requirements for use in the United States National Security Systems.
4. The Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS)
This is a set of restrictions used in Department of Defense (DoD) applications that protects the U.S. defense industry from becoming dependent on foreign supplies. The specific clause related to cybersecurity is DFARS 252.204-7012, which focuses on cybersecurity controls (including safeguarding defense information and cyber incident reporting) that should be in place for those who contract or supply the DoD.
5. The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC)
From the Department of Defense, this certification piggybacks off the previously mentioned DFARS. The Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) calculates cybersecurity maturity based on five levels, along with a corresponding set of processes and best practices to be put in place depending on the sensitivity and classification of the information being protected.
What This Means for Government Workers
If you’re just starting to consider remote work, the best option is to see if your agency has a work-from-home program with government-issued devices. In this case, you should only have to deal with securing communications on the device. As outlined above, one excellent security measure for this is using a VPN your government agency approves or provides for your use.
What This Means for Government Contractors
For contractors, you will have to follow all regulations that the agency you work for requires.
A company that contracts for the government must already utilize data outside of government networks. Your organization’s on-premises security should already meet these requirements, so work with your IT department to learn how these measures can be replicated or adapted for remote work.
Using a VPN for government work outside of your company’s network is a huge added security feature when it comes to keeping data private.
The Future of VPNs
The use of VPNs has been increasing over the years, but it is still relatively low in the United States compared to other countries. However, usage has been changing as telework becomes more frequent, both in the private sector and for the government.
At one point in 2020, the State Department, General Services Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Energy, and Small Business Administration were all reported to support at least 85% telework. Additionally, the DoD announced there were 900,000 users on its remote work system. When it comes to VPN usage specifically during the pandemic, the Department of Homeland Security experienced a 483% increase in VPNs for government work.
Only time will tell if the adjustments made for the pandemic will last, but many major corporations have already decided to allow employees to start working remotely permanently or on a hybrid model. The importance of VPNs has changed significantly since telework became part of the new normal.
The future of VPNs could take several different forms, starting with the likelihood that the increased use of VPNs overall could be the push needed to increase the use of software-based VPN tech, along with phasing out the use of hardware VPNs. More AI and machine learning could also be applied to security functions of VPNs to increase their effectiveness or offer new features.
Contact Us for Help Using a VPN for Government Work
Now that you are familiar with the advantages of using a VPN for government agencies, you need a dependable partner to walk you through the process and monitor your VPN moving forward. As a veteran-owned company that often works with the government, Sentient Digital knows security is of the utmost importance.
Our team has proven experience managing VPNs for government clients. To learn more about protecting your data and getting started with a VPN, contact us now.