Cyber officials prioritizing securing critical sectors, foreign partnerships amid rising threats

Anne Neuberger, Deputy National Security Advisor for Cyber and Emerging Technology, arrives to speak at a press briefing at the White House, Monday, March 21, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Senior U.S. cyber officials on Thursday shared updates on some of the progress the government has made since last year to strengthen the country’s cybersecurity and address emerging cyber threats.

Anne Neuberger, White House deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, said one of the top priorities in the Biden administration is to protect all critical infrastructure as cyber threats “continue to rapidly advance.”

Neuberger said that over the past year there’s been a “relentless focus” on securing critical sectors and helping them improve their security systems and cyber hygiene. She said the focus is on services and sectors that could bring hazard if disrupted, such as hospitals, the oil and gas industry, and companies that transport chemicals. 

“Our concerns have evolved to where we’re most concerned about degradation or disruption of critical services,” Neuberger said.

Neuberger made her remarks during an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in which the center examined the administration’s plan to strengthen U.S. cybersecurity. Neuberger was also joined by National Cyber Director Chris Inglis.

Her remarks come after the Biden administration rolled out initiatives this week focused on improving cybersecurity standards in the chemical and electric vehicle sectors. 

On Wednesday, White House unveiled its plan to include the chemical sector in its public-private cybersecurity partnership. 

The strategy encourages the sector to adopt higher cybersecurity standards, including improving visibility and threat detection for industrial control systems.

Under the plan, industry leaders will also focus on securing high-risk chemicals from cyberattacks. 

Earlier this week, Inglis’s office held a meeting at the White House with government officials and private sector leaders to discuss cybersecurity standards in the electric vehicle industry. 

During Thursday’s event, Neuberger said the administration is also focused on collaborating more with foreign partners as nations start realizing that cybersecurity is a “global fight.”

“The US has led coalitions to tackle [cyber threats], like ransomware and working with individual countries where we see significant compromises,” Neuberger said. 

That was the case when the FBI deployed a team of cybersecurity experts to Montenegro over the summer to investigate a massive cyberattack that hit the country’s critical infrastructure. 

The attack targeted Montenegro’s water supply systems, transportation services and online government services.

The U.S. Cyber Command also reported that it had recently deployed its “hunt forward” team for the first time in Croatia to help the Balkan country shore up its cyber defenses and network against active threats. 

The team, which is made up of U.S. military and civilian personnel, worked alongside Croatian intelligence and cybersecurity officials to look for malicious cyber activity and vulnerabilities. 

The agency often sends the team overseas to assist allies in strengthening their cybersecurity defenses. It has so far conducted 35 operations in 18 countries, including Estonia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine.

Neuberger was also asked about how the administration is tackling the rise of ransomware. On the international stage, she noted that last year, the U.S. announced the Counter Ransomware Initiative which brings together over 30 countries that pledged greater international cooperation against ransomware attacks.

“Ransomware is a tough problem because fundamentally deterrence is hard when many of the criminal actors are sitting in countries where we don’t have law enforcement relationships with them,” Neuberger said.

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Neuberger said the government is focused on disrupting the “funding ecosystem” by sanctioning cryptocurrency mixers, which are often used by cyber criminals to hide and launder illicit funds. 

In August, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions against cryptocurrency mixer Tornado Cash for helping hackers launder more than $7 million worth of digital currency.

The department said Tornado Cash allowed cyber groups, including North Korean state-sponsored hackers, to use its platform to launder the proceeds of cyber crimes.

Neuberger said that ransomware attacks should be treated as a “fiscally driven problem.”

“Ransomware is interesting because it’s where the money is,” she added. 

Neuberger also said that this should be a wake-up call for organizations like hospitals and schools — which have been targets of ransomware — to start investing and upgrading their cybersecurity standards to make it harder for hackers to breach their systems.

She additionally warned organizations not to pay ransoms because every time they do so, it incentivizes hackers to continue their criminal activity. 

Inglis also mentioned that the government has been trying to hire more tech and cyber workers as threats continue to rise. 

“We have been successful in filling two-thirds of the jobs that have the word cyber and IT in it, and that’s the good news,” Inglis said.

However, he said there’s still a long way to go because one-third of those jobs are vacant.

“This means we need to reexamine everything about the proposition,” Inglis said. 

“Have we specified those jobs properly? Have we appealed to the broadest possible population that would fill those jobs?” he added. 

To address this issue, the White House hosted a cyber workforce and education summit over the summer during which participants, including Inglis, pledged to improve diversity and inclusion in the cyber field as well as build a national cyber workforce and education strategy. 

Tags anne neuberger Chris Inglis
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