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Tech expert discusses cyberattacks’ far-reaching consequences

Dr. Oliver McGee

“Cyber-assaults on the nation's critical infrastructure are on the rise at alarming rates,” says Dr. Oliver McGee.

McGee is the former United States deputy assistant secretary of transportation for technology policy and is currently a professor of engineering at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He has an M.S. in civil engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering mechanics with a minor in aerospace engineering.

He explains the importance of cybersecurity in light of the recent security breaches at major companies such as Target, Neiman Marcus, and Marriott. “Cybersecurity is about protecting the critical infrastructure of America -- which is our food, water, finances, healthcare, transportation, businesses, shopping, personal identities and records, schools, and colleges.”

The effects of these cyber attacks are far reaching and have potential economic consequences as he explains, “They create too much uncertainty in business planning as well as consumer confidence.” He adds that capital reserves and cash liquidity may even be vulnerable as a result of these attacks. While some of the major companies have experienced isolated incidents, McGee is concerned about cyber attacks that feature a simultaneous rolling effect in which several attacks spontaneously occur at once across different industries over a prolonged period of time and get progressively worse to disrupt critical infrastructure. He adds that if and when a cyber attack of that nature occurs, it will happen too fast to respond unless there is a plan in place.

He also mentions that the interconnectedness of cities on the electrical grid across America as well as countries around the world make these attacks especially dangerous as he says, “If a major cyberattack occurs in America, there may be ripple effects around the world.”

He goes into some of the long-term issues that governments around the world will face during the coming years as he believes that these attacks will eventually utilize biotechnology, nanotechnology, and microtechnology.

While McGee acknowledges that businesses and government agencies are taking steps to address these issues, he explains that most of their policies “deal with how to respond to threats or how to mitigate actuarial costs of cybersecurity breaches.” What he finds even more troubling is, “We are not addressing adequately how to eliminate technologically advanced and sophisticated online threats or how to protect our critical infrastructure.”

McGee expressed support for the Obama Administration’s cybersecurity initiative that includes The National Institute of Standards and Technology's (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework 1.0. The initiative is designed to transform and enhance the nation’s cybersecurity policy to not only effectively respond to cyberattacks, but to properly prepare for and anticipate any potential attacks.

“Anticipation and prediction rather than response is the key,” McGee explains while emphasizing the importance of all industries working together to maintain the security of the nation’s critical infrastructure.

“What is essential are strategic partnerships in IT security policy development and implementations working across government, university, industry, and philanthropy enterprises that will keep up with rapidly evolving IT and advanced cybersecurity threats.”

One of McGee’s books, Transforming the Ivory Tower, explains the type of scenario planning that he recommends to not only universities, but to government agencies and businesses to prepare for a number of issues including cyber attacks.

He also stresses the importance of educating and preparing a workforce that is capable of dealing with these issues citing that there is a lack of interest in the STEM fields throughout higher education.

“We need to develop a new workforce that understands cybersecurity, engineering, science, and technology.” McGee advises government agencies and businesses to, “Take Target and Marriott as a warning to get everything in order.”


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