PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – President Biden’s top cybersecurity official says she spends a lot of time thinking about cyberthreats from adversary nations, especially those seeking to disrupt infrastructure used every day by Americans.
As an example, U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Jen Easterly pointed to Microsoft, which reported in May a Chinese-sponsored actor called “Volt Typhoon” was exploring ways to disrupt “critical communications infrastructure between the United States and Asia.”
“Our message to all businesses large and small is that we need to anticipate attacks and disruption, and we need to prepare for it now,” Easterly told Target 12 during an exclusive interview on Monday.
“Whether it’s cyberattacks, technology outages, terrorist attacks, weather events – we need to expect that disruption will occur,” she added. “We need to prepare for it, we need to operate through disruption, we need to respond effectively and recover.”
Easterly visited Rhode Island on Monday to celebrate the launch of the Institute of Cybersecurity and Emerging Technologies at Rhode Island College. The program – led by former Congressman Jim Langevin – aims to recruit, train and graduate cybersecurity experts into the workforce where there’s a growing demand.
State and federal labor officials currently estimate there are about 2,700 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in Rhode Island, and roughly 500,000 openings across the country. Easterly said filling those jobs could help ensure government, businesses and consumers are better protected against the rising threat of cyberattacks in the United States.
“If we have students that understand how to design and develop secure systems – that will help,” Easterly said, adding that workers don’t need a doctorate in computer science to get involved.
The director was the keynote speaker at a morning event, which was attended by students and local, state and federal elected officials. Easterly and Langevin then held a smaller “fireside chat,” where a large portion of time was spent talking about the rise of artificial intelligence and how it could affect cyberthreats in the future.
Easterly called AI “the most powerful technology” the world has ever seen, which she said could hold tremendous potential if leveraged for good reasons. But she warned it could also be used as a tool for “the most powerful weapons.”
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in September reported the U.S. should expect to see an increase in bad actors using artificial intelligence tools to flood more misinformation into elections.
And the technology is also expected to be used for more evasive cyberattacks, which federal intelligence officials are concerned will target “critical infrastructure.” The infrastructure includes things that people use on a day-to-day basis, such as roadways and bridges, water and other utility systems, cell towers and even gas pipelines and oil refineries.
Easterly said getting ahead of these attacks is often challenging, in part because the infrastructure systems are owned by private industries and companies – which can make it difficult for federal agencies to see vulnerabilities.
And because technology companies and software providers are so rapidly bringing new products and systems to market for individual consumption, the products don’t get properly vetted for vulnerabilities, making them susceptible to outside attacks and security breaches.
“We need to continue to work with the big technology manufacturers and software providers to reduce that burden off individuals and off families and communities and small business – and put it back onto those big providers,” Easterly said.
“We all deserve safe tech, particularly because everything that powers our lives these days is underpinned by technology,” she added.
Langevin, who was one of Capitol Hill’s leading experts on cybersecurity during his time in Congress, has been the driving force behind the new institute at RIC since stepping down last winter from Congress.
He said bad actors launch ransomware attacks against hospitals, municipalities and business every 11 seconds. And he encouraged Rhode Islanders to join the institute – which will offer both undergraduate and master’s degrees – to help be part of the solution.
“It’s really not just about growing the federal government’s size of the pie – it’s about growing the whole pie itself and increasing the number of cyber-defenders that we have in the workforce,” he said.
Sarah Guernelli contributed to this report.