• Credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock
     Credit: metamorworks/Shutterstock

Diversity-Bred Innovation Offers Pandemic Cybersecurity

December 2, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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The new threats arising from COVID work habits may be overcome by different approaches.

Innovative ideas may hold the key to thwarting cyber adversaries emboldened by opportunities offered in the COVID-19 pandemic. And, the source of these innovative approaches may be diverse personnel who break the mold of conventional cybersecurity professionals.

These points were front and center in a panel exclusively comprising women at TechNet Cyber 2020, AFCEA’s virtual event being held December 1-3. The five women composing the panel all were information technology professionals, and some of them had military backgrounds. All had come to information technology from other disciplines early in their professional or educational careers, and they offered their own different perspectives in cybersecurity challenges and opportunities.

“We are seeing an increasing amount of cyber attacks in the pandemic,” said Tinisha McMillan, division chief of the Cyber Situational Awareness and NetOps Division, Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA). "Broadening our perimeter defense is very critical. We’re trying to reshape every home.” She added that organizations must train their workforce in cybersecurity, or they will leave a gaping hole in their organizations.

Charisse Stokes, president, Tidal IT Solutions, put the problem out front. “With the pandemic, you have an increase in virtual infrastructure, and companies that didn’t have a virtual component have one now,” she pointed out. “They open themselves up to risk as well as opportunity.”

Stokes especially cited the threat of ransomware, noting that it seemed to be targeted at a specific niche of victims. “You don’t see ransomware in the [Defense Department], but you see it on the state and local side and within smaller industries,” she said. However, she warned that the Pentagon is not immune from ransomware attacks through the cloud services it purchases from commercial firms. The Defense Department expects these providers to ensure cybersecurity, but the threat is still there.

Ultimately, the solution to the new threat may be the creativity of the people tasked with securing cyberspace. “Tools and policy are important for cybersecurity, but the workforce is the key component,” said panel moderator Rear Adm. Janice Hamby, USN (Ret.), chancellor emeritus, College of Information and Cyberspace, National Defense University. Diane Murphy, director, School of Technology and Innovation, Marymount University, noted the emphasis on recruiting young people into the profession, but she described that approach as a long shot. Instead, she called for bringing in people with expertise in the field who can introduce different perspectives.

And these new thinkers may hold the key to effective cybersecurity. “I’m excited to be put into a position to be in charge of airmen who bring innovative thinking,” said Col. Lauren A. Courchaine, USAF, commander, 67th Cyberspace Operations Group. “It is incumbent on people like myself to work to unleash that excitement.” She called for leadership to take advantage of an increasingly diverse workforce by openly encouraging innovative thinking and solutions.

The colonel noted that COVID-19 has been detrimental to women in the military. “You have a lot of women, when you compare responsibilities, with mom guilt,” she offered. The Defense Department has lost some talented women to industry or retirement during this pandemic.

And now, more than ever, new approaches to cybersecurity are needed. “We have to be able to partner with industry and also work from a no-huddle perspective,” Col. Courchaine said. “We’re going to have to make some tough decisions about cybersecurity in the future.”

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