DHS Secretary Mayorkas announces new initiative to fight ‘epidemic’ of cyberattacks
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Thursday announced new funding and initiatives to prioritize the nation’s cybersecurity, particularly in order to confront what he described as an “epidemic” of ransomware attacks.
Mayorkas announced during a virtual speech that current cybersecurity grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be increased by $25 million across the nation and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was evaluating further cyber grants to help the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) assist state and local governments.
The grants were a reflection of the DHS’s effort to prioritize cybersecurity funding, with the agency announcing separately Thursday that cybersecurity topped the list of its “areas for attention” in the current budget cycle.
“The nation’s cybersecurity is only as strong as its weakest link,” Mayorkas said during a keynote address at the President’s Cup Cybersecurity Competition.
The newly confirmed secretary also announced an upcoming series of “sprints” that DHS would undertake in the cybersecurity space, including addressing the ongoing spike in ransomware attacks, increasing and diversifying the nation’s cyber workforce and further protecting critical infrastructure against attacks.
Mayorkas highlighted ransomware in particular as an issue to address. This type of attack involves hackers accessing and encrypting an organization’s network, then demanding a ransom to return access. Hospitals, schools and governmental groups have been increasingly plagued by this type of attack during the COVID-19 pandemic as many daily activities have moved online.
“We are currently fighting not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also an epidemic that is spreading through cyberspace: ransomware,” Mayorkas said. “Ransomware, tackling it and protecting the weakest link, will require partnering with state, local, tribal and territorial governments and private sector entities across the country. This cross-sector collaboration is the hallmark of DHS’s approach to cybersecurity.”
Mayorkas also pledged to focus on increasing the diversity of CISA’s workforce, noting that around a third of the agency’s workers are part of minority groups.
“We must ensure a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive cybersecurity workforce, a workforce that reflects America,” Mayorkas said. “With diversity comes more diverse perspectives that help inform better policy and decision making.”
In the wake of what has become known as the SolarWinds hack — an incident that involved likely Russian operatives compromising at least nine federal agencies for most of the past year — Mayorkas noted that CISA would be given increased resources to protect critical infrastructure and hunt for threats in federal networks.
“Looking ahead, it will be critical to ensure that CISA has the resources and capacity to effectively implement its existing and its new authorities,” Mayorkas said.
His comments came less than a week after DHS announced that Mayorkas would appear at a range of events over the next few weeks to highlight cybersecurity, and would engage further with international partners on the issue in addition to other steps taken to promote the Biden administration’s focus on cybersecurity.
The secretary took one of the first steps toward this on Monday, when he discussed cybersecurity and the use of social media for “nefarious purposes” with British Home Secretary Priti Patel, according to a readout of their call from DHS.