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State’s Cyber Experts Offer Key Takeaways

Two of the state’s top authorities on cybersecurity were among 1,200 government and industry people who attended Tuesday’s Cybersecurity Education Summit in Sacramento. Amid breakout sessions, guest speakers and workshops, state Chief Information Security Officer Peter Liebert and Chief Scott Howland, the CIO of the California Highway Patrol, took a few minutes to talk with Techwire about the day’s takeaways.

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Two of the state’s top authorities on cybersecurity were among 1,200 government and industry people who attended Tuesday’s Cybersecurity Education Summit in Sacramento. Amid breakout sessions, guest speakers and workshops, state Chief Information Security Officer Peter Liebert and Chief Scott Howland, the CIO of the California Highway Patrol, took a few minutes to talk with Techwire about the day’s takeaways.

 

Liebert: I love this event because it shows that we’re focusing on one of the most critical areas of cybersecurity — and it has nothing to do with technology, but rather people. That is, we need to make sure that our state workforce is as cybersavvy and as knowledgeable as possible. 

This event brings together the best of breed in technology from the private sector, as well as from the public sector. I would encourage anyone who didn’t make it to the event this year to try to make it next year.

With all the panelists and the workshops (Liebert was a panelist in three breakout sessions), our go-to is that we’re vendor-agnostic. We’re focusing on making it as educational as possible and not making it a sales pitch. It’s very unique, and it allows us to use this as a knowledge transfer. 

Of course, we do recognize the key role that our vendors play. We need them. 

The bar of success is that if we come away from an event like this with a whole bunch of government workers walking around thinking about these [cybersecurity] issues — people in IT, or even not in IT — and if we spark their interest and whet their appetite, and they want to learn some more about cybersecurity, then mission accomplished.

 

In one breakout, Liebert said that if the state's cybersecurity apparatus were in a football game, "We'd be a couple of downs into the first quarter."

It’s almost like a perpetual game at this point. We’re never going to get to the end, because there is no end. But we're getting our team the expertise to play at the professional level. I think we’re quickly getting there.

We also partner with contractors, the private sector. We want their expertise — we want them to come in and train us. If you look at any of the contracts we send out … every one of them says: “You will be training the trainer. You will be teaching our staff." We want to make sure that it’s not a black box solution. I want our folks working with their folks. 

And we’ve gone, our team, from nine people to 60, and that’s just in two years, and that’s in state government. That shows that our executive leadership is all-in on this. 

 

Techwire concluded the interview by asking Liebert what changes, if any, he expects in the state’s cybersecurity posture and policies after the gubernatorial election next month.

It’s total conjecture, at this point: Obviously, something’s going to change. We’re keeping our head down and doing what we can to go forward. It’s going to be exciting, whatever happens. 

 

Howland: The biggest and most exciting thing is the progress we’ve made in the last few years in cybersecurity. In the last three or four years, people are really taking it much more seriously. It’s on the radar screen. 

And seeing the synergy with the vendors is important: “How do I make sure I’m partnering with the right vendors to make sure we’re as secure as we can be?” 

The other thing is that with the [public-private] partnerships, we share that information, we learn from it, and then I don’t fall victim to the same thing. In the past, everything was in a silo. 

Looking to the future how do we do a more effective job, across the state, to share with other governments? How do we reduce that time from when something doesn’t look right, and then to share that so it’s almost an automated process, so that we don’t even need to pick up the phone — it just blocks it. It happens that quickly. When you look at how fast these attacks are, and they’re always changing, then the faster we are in responding, the more effective we’re going to be.

When you look across government — state government, local government, county government — there is not any part of government that’s not touching cybersecurity. With ransomware, it actually interrupts government operations. In the case of the CHP, that affects everyone’s safety.

How do I make sure that what worked for yesterday’s threat also works for tomorrow’s threat? We have to stay ahead. 

I always run a parallel between traffic safety and cybersafety: We’re never done with education. We’re always having new trends and new issues. Ten years ago, [drivers using] smartphones wasn't an issue. That’s an ongoing issue today. Same with cyber: How do I make sure that we’re focusing on the challenges of today, and how do we understand those threats that are coming? It’s all about education.

Dennis Noone is Managing Editor of Techwire. He is a career journalist, having worked as a reporter and editor at small-town newspapers and major metropolitan dailies in California, Nevada, Texas and Virginia, including as an editor with USA Today in Washington, D.C. He lives in the Northern California foothills.