laptopcomputerSTOCK.jpg

CHEYENNE – When it comes to the always growing and evolving threat of cyberattacks, Wyoming’s top elected official sees not only a need to do better, but an opportunity for the state.

Scenarios such as ransomware, where software can block information on a system until a ransom is paid, present significant economic threats. In 2016, there were fears about possible hacking into voting systems nationwide. Even more grim, malicious entities could potentially attack infrastructure, such as shutting down an electrical grid or manipulating water systems. Military systems are also possible targets, as well as any private individual or business. 

For Gov. Matt Mead, such threats must be taken seriously.

“It’s not just an economic concern, but a health and safety concern,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot to do in the state.”  

Tony Young is the chief information officer at the Wyoming Department of Enterprise Technology Systems. Among the many roles he’s held in the state have been law enforcement coordinator for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and an investigator for state law enforcement. Cybersecurity, Young said, serves very much the same role as law enforcement in Wyoming in how it protects people’s lives and property.

“It’s just a different battleground,” he said.

Monitoring of networks at the state of Wyoming shows there are somewhere around 220,000-225,000 cyberattacks on those systems every day, accumulating to around 6-7 mil-lion each month, Young said.

The ETS was established to help foster the growth of technology in the state, but at Mead’s direction, its mission has evolved to being Wyoming’s leading entity in cybersecurity.

“We’ve got a lot of different issues going on with our focus on cybersecurity,” Young said. “But mostly we’re trying to protect the state’s network, to keep the state’s data – of course, the people’s data – secure.”

Making sure Wyoming has the highest tier of protection, however, is a “heavy lift,” Young said. It not only requires the latest and best tools in terms of software and hardware, it also takes individuals trained to do the job.

“I think people misunderstand a little about cybersecurity when they think you can buy products for protection,” Young said. “You need good people to do this. It’s a combination of people and tools for the basic hygiene you need.”

While Wyoming’s developing revenue picture for 2018 is giving some cause for optimism, deficits in areas such as education will continue to pressure the state’s budget. In 2016, Mead requested $1.2 million to fund programming at the state’s institutions of higher education, with a focus on cybersecurity.

Lawmakers denied that request. Relative to the state’s overall budget, Mead said he thought his request was “fairly modest.” And while Mead understands lawmakers have their own priorities and processes when it comes to allocating state funds, he said he plans to continue advocating for improving the state’s preparedness for cyberattacks. The ETS already works well, Mead said, but to assume there isn’t more work to be done would be a mistake.

“The experts I listen to say, ‘It’s not a question of if – it’s a question of when and how you respond to it,’” he said. “You have a perception you may be fine, but you might not know until well after the fact. I think our state, (Young) and his office do a great job. But I think they’d be the ones to tell you we need to do more on the defense side.”  

Mead’s 2016 request for state funds would have, in part, paid for programming in UW’s College of Engineering and Applied Science’s Department of Computer Science to enhance education and research in the cybersecurity field.

Jim Caldwell, UW’s computer science department head, said the state’s only university continues making progress in cybersecurity programming. UW has new faculty hires working in applying artificial intelligence to cybersecurity. The developing Cybersecurity Education and Research Center is in the early stages of providing support of cybersecurity education, research and outreach. Within months, UW should be added to the list of Centers of Academic Excellence in Cyber Operations, a National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security designation that has left Wyoming an outlier among other states.

And while all of those are excellent achievements, Caldwell said, there’s always more work to do.

“Even the most sophisticated companies on the planet in terms of cybersecurity have been attacked,” he said. “Nothing is safe. … There’s no way you can be completely prepared.”

But it’s not all doom and gloom for Mead. He said he sees a glass-half-full scenario when it comes to cybersecurity, as it presents economic opportunity for Wyoming.

One of Mead’s highest priorities is the ENDOW (Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming) Initiative, which he signed into law in March. With a goal of developing a plan to diversify the state’s economy in coming decades through a $2.5 million allocation, Mead thinks cybersecurity could play a key role in the initiative.

“Ultimately, I wanted to expand the computer science department so that we could be recognized, as some other areas of the university are, as the place or one of the places that people go to become experts in cybersecurity,” he said. “Rather than us hiring people from outside the state to provide protection, why not have protection provided by Wyoming citizens educated in Wyoming?”

Mead said he’s been looking beyond UW, too. Some of the funds from his $1.2 million re-quest would have gone to support a new faculty member at Laramie County Community College and a position to help coordinate statewide marketing efforts for the program, as well as to transfer the LCCC program to other community colleges. Additionally, Mead said he’s been communicating with K-12 educators in the state to explore implementing coding programs in Wyoming’s public schools.

“I’d like to see broader opportunity in K-12, and see coding in every grade level,” he said.

Young said it’s also a wide-ranging opportunity for jobs because cybersecurity professionals wouldn’t all need to have high-level degrees.

“Not everybody needs to have a Ph.D. or master’s or even a bachelor’s,” he said. “It could be undergraduate or certifications – all of that is available here.”

During the Wyoming Business Report’s 2017 Cybersecurity Symposium in Cheyenne in April, Noel Kyle, program lead for Cybersecurity Education and Awareness at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said there’s already an enormous need for cybersecurity professionals in the U.S. Because the volume of threats will likely only increase, Kyle said it’s estimated there could be a need for millions of professionals in coming years.

Public and private entities in Wyoming, including a recent incident at Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie, have been successfully attacked or were victims of close calls, Young said. And the threat isn’t going away. For Mead, making investments in cybersecurity is not only prudent, but also a chance to seize on some of the state’s economic goals.

“I still have to go from the understanding that we’re paying for cybersecurity now,” he said. “I’m glad we are, and the question is, how do we leverage that … into providing what we’re already paying for, but also career opportunities for our citizens?” 

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

comments powered by Disqus