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Governor Henry McMaster discusses what South Carolina is doing to combat cyber terrorism during the South Coast Cyber Summit sponsored by the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce on Monday at Tabby Place in Beaufort. Gov. McMaster was one of hand full of speakers from varying professional backgrounds discussing the growing fear of cyber attacks and what is being done to combat it. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Summit brings cybersecurity experts to the Lowcountry 

 By Tony Kukulich 

Threats and opportunities emerged as recurring themes during the opening day of the inaugural South Coast Cyber Summit — a two-day conference that brought leaders in the field of cybersecurity from across the nation to Beaufort, Monday and Tuesday, March 7 and 8. 

Gov. Henry McMaster touched on both themes during his keynote address on the first day of the summit. 

“I am confident that those who would want to destroy this country, or hurt this country, or achieve some sort of financial or economic advantage are trying to find ways to do just that,” McMaster said. “Somebody’s got to stop them, and that somebody is in this room.” 

The governor added that he believes South Carolina is uniquely positioned to lead innovation in the field of cybersecurity. 

The summit was an initiative of the South Coast Cyber Center. Experts covered topics that ranged from cyber crime and phishing threats to building a cybersecurity ecosystem in the Lowcountry.

“Sometimes folks think that cybersecurity, cyber defense or these high tech, highly skilled jobs have to happen somewhere else, and we can’t be successful with them in Beaufort County,” said City of Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray, who is vice chair of the South Coast Cyber Center. “So part of the conference is bringing in nationally recognized partners and speakers and folks who are doing this work in other parts of the country to let folks know what’s going on, but also to plant some seeds that we can do the same things here and be successful in cybersecurity and cyber defense.”

The South Coast Cyber Center was launched in 2019 as a collaboration between the City of Beaufort, Beaufort County, the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB), the Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL), the Beaufort Digital Corridor and the Beaufort County Economic Development Corporation. Its mission is to establish the educational infrastructure needed to groom a potential cybersecurity workforce – including those exiting the military – and meet an increasing demand for cybersecurity experts.

“The world is moving extraordinarily fast, and cybersecurity is something we are dealing with in all our organizations,” Murray said.

Cybersecurity expert David Baker asks questions of Gov. Henry McMaster on how businesses can protect themselves Monday during the South Coast Cyber Summit hosted by the Greater Beaufort Chamber of Commerce. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Peter Reddy, executive director of Naval Information Warfare Center Atlantic, announced an education partnership agreement between his organization and the South Coast Cyber Center that is expected to bring a broad range of additional resources and expertise to the center.

“(The agreement) means that, to the extent they can afford to provide people, they can provide people to do some instruction in cybersecurity,” explained Warren Parker, Chairman and Executive Director of the South Coast Cyber Center. “They can provide excess equipment. They can provide expertise to advise us on how to do things. They have some programs in the K-through-12 arena in robotics that they can give us access to. They have some geospatial engineering programs that they can give us access to. Mostly, (they) have the ability to outreach to the civilian sector.”

The summit’s first presentation featured a team from the University of Notre Dame who developed a program that embeds students studying cybersecurity with the St. Joseph’s County, Ind., Cyber Crimes Unit. Students accepted into the program are sworn law enforcement officers and are referred to as student investigators, not interns. The student investigators conduct analysis of digital evidence recovered as part of criminal investigations, write and review search warrants related to the collection of digital evidence and testify in court proceedings as necessary. For all intents and purposes, the students are fully integrated into that county’s law enforcement system.

The program has reportedly eliminated a backlog in digital evidence analysis and reduced the timeframe for the review of new material to one to three days, a dramatic improvement over the weeks or months previously required to complete similar efforts in the past.

Beaufort County is running in a similar effort motivated by the success of the program at Notre Dame, said 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office Investigator Dylan Hightower.

Currently, three USCB students are working as interns in the Solicitor’s Office examining digital evidence exclusively related to murder investigations. Unlike the program at Notre Dame, the USCB students are not sworn law enforcement officers.

“They have access to our case management system,” said Hightower. “They have access to multiple other tools in our office. They’re able to go in and review these digital assets. They’re able to go with the focus to monitor the digital asset and incorporate their knowledge from what they’re learning in school to how it’s actually used in the real world.

Nick Mesenburg, site manager at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort for Lockheed Martin, summarized the challenge of cybersecurity as he introduced McMaster.

“On the airplane side, we know our threats,” Mesenburg said. “Whether they’re coming from the ground or other aircraft, it turns into more of a technical challenge. It’s not a mystery. We know how to combat these threats to keep our service members safe. Cybersecurity is almost the opposite of that. It’s a constant and evolving threat … but, there’s also opportunity. We have the opportunity here to create that center of excellence to be that shining star for the State of South Carolina and the nation overall.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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