Donald Fry: It’s not good to be clueless in cyberspace

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By Donald C. Fry

Do you know what was in that cool little photoblog app that you installed on your office computer last Tuesday?

This is a seemingly innocent rhetorical question that cyber expert Bill Anderson, founder of Oculis Labs in Hunt Valley, Maryland, asks a Greater Baltimore Committee workshop audience of business executives.

His answer is far less harmless.

“It was a trojan,” Anderson continues. “Today someone in Uzbekistan owns your network.”

This is not a laugh line for Anderson. It’s his way of driving home a very serious message to business executives and their employees: It’s dangerous to be innocent and clueless in cyberspace.

Computer security has become an increasingly important part of our national debate, U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin says at the same workshop. In recent hearings of the Senate’s subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, which Cardin chairs, experts revealed that in the U.S. we protect ourselves from about 80 percent of the cyber attacks against America.

“That means 20 percent are getting through. That’s unacceptable” said Cardin. “We’ve got to do a lot better job.”

Talking to people like Anderson and Cardin, who track what’s happening on the ground in the area of computer security, can be sobering. It certainly has given me a new appreciation of cyber threats to the nation and to Maryland’s private sector.

The seriousness of cyber security is doubly reinforced by the fact that Maryland is squarely in the middle of an emerging national effort to address cyber security issues.

Up until now, there has not been a point person in the federal executive branch responsible for cyber security. That deficiency will soon be addressed, as Congress is considering the nomination of NSA Director Lt. General Keith Alexander to head up the new U.S. Cyber Command, an agency that is expected to be headquartered at Ft. Meade.

“We are literally talking about the defense of America,” Cardin says.

If that seems like a stretch, consider that an entire country – Estonia – has already been the target of a cyber attack. It happened in 2007, when a foreign government launched a massive cyber assault on that nation, manipulating a lot of infrastructure, defacing web sites, shutting down communication and disrupting banks, says Anderson.

He also says business and government managers should not panic because these threats exist. We should instead be aware and be smart, employing “reasonable techniques” to protect our information infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Maryland is ideally suited for the role as the nation’s cyber security center, says Christian Johansson, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.

We have the “ecosystem of talent” and of companies, federal facilities and universities already in the state, he says. “Anybody who’s involved in defending this country from cyber attacks, or is a heavy user of some of the products on the federal side, they’re all here.”

Of the 11,300 jobs created in the U.S. last year in computer systems design and related services, 5,300 – or 47 percent – were created here in Maryland, making Maryland first in the nation “by a landslide” in this type of job creation, Johansson reports.

Nevertheless, in our business world there remain significant vulnerabilities when it comes to cyber security. For instance, more money is stolen from banks today through cyber crimes than by bank robbers, Cardin says.

A good idea for Maryland, say local cyber experts, would be to create a state “computer emergency response team.”

A so-called “CERT,” which now can be found only at the national level and in a few states, would assess cyber threats to Maryland businesses and government and develop coordinated approaches to mitigating them, says Stan Nolen, cyber and critical infrastructure lead at Varen Technologies, a firm in Columbia, Maryland.

“If Maryland is going to be the cyber center of excellence, than we’d better have our act together in protecting our own industries,” says Nolen.

Sounds like an idea worth exploring in these information-driven times.

Donald C. Fry is president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee. He is a regular contributor to Center Maryland.

Previous Center Maryland columns by Donald C. Fry:

Amid fiscal shuffle, Maryland lawmakers pass measures to spur business growth

Thankfully, Baltimore leads with substance over style in luring Google

Leave damaging transportation provisions out of the budget

Amended budget continues recession-induced fund shifts and stimulus rescue

General Assembly setting stage for combined reporting push in 2011

Wrong timing for proposal to change Baltimore City school board

Baltimore City isn’t alone in facing pension funding challenges

A government investment program that delivers

Proposed transportation fund raid -- a bad habit continues

Where's the outrage over crime?

Small business is where innovation lives
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Donald C. Fry has been the president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee (GBC), the central Maryland region's most prominent organization of business and civic leaders, since November 2002.

Under Don’s leadership, the GBC is recognized as a knowledgeable and highly credible business voice in the Baltimore region, Annapolis and Washington, D.C. on policy issues and competitive challenges facing Maryland. Its mission is to apply private-sector leadership to strengthening the business climate and quality of life in the region and state.

Fry served as GBC executive vice president from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1999 Fry was engaged in a private law practice in Harford County. During this time he also served in the Maryland General Assembly. He is one of only a handful of legislators to have served on each of the major budget committees of the General Assembly.

Serving in the Senate of Maryland from 1997 to 1998, Fry was a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. As a member of the House of Delegates from 1991 to 1997 Fry served on the Ways and Means Committee and on the Appropriations Committee.

Fry is a 1979 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He earned a B.S. in political science from Frostburg State College.