University of South Florida St. Petersburg



Top U.S. cybersecurity experts discuss threats from rival nations during ‘Great Power Competition’ conference

Picture of a globe with the text: The Great Power Competition. A focus on the Great Power Competition in the Central Region to provide a broader understanding of the challenges the U.S. faces in the 21st Century.

A high-profile group of U.S. military commanders, elected officials and current and former members of the intelligence community offered their insights into the growing threats to U.S. cybersecurity and the need for a multifaceted response during a conference hosted jointly by the University of South Florida (USF) and the U.S. Department of Defense Near South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies.

The theme of the two-day conference was “Cybersecurity: The Fifth Domain.” It was part of an ongoing series of gatherings designed to foster a broader understanding of the challenges facing the United States in the 21st century from nations such as Russia, China and Iran.

The online event began with remarks from state and local leaders, including USF President Steven C. Currall, who stressed the need for ongoing research, educational programming and partnerships devoted to cybersecurity.

“As China and Russia develop cyber capabilities and intelligence expertise, they and others seek to further disrupt economic and political systems,” Currall said. “To effectively compete, there’s an acute need for cybersecurity expertise.”

The event’s opening keynote speaker, Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of United States Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency (NSA), also stressed the importance of talent development and collaboration in the effort to boost the country’s defense against cybersecurity attacks.

Nakasone said nations such as China and Russia are conducting persistent, malicious cyber campaigns to erode U.S. military advantages, threaten infrastructure and interfere with election integrity. In response, U.S. Cyber Command has formed strong partnerships with multiple government agencies, as well as private businesses and academic institutions, to share information and best practices related to the latest malware and cyber tactics being developed by potential attackers.

“This bolsters the security of our nation’s networks, as we enable the industry to patch against and disrupt adversarial activities like stealing money and information,” Nakasone said. “This sort of persistent engagement costs our adversaries time, money and effort, as they scramble to rebuild their tools and capabilities.”

The conference was the third event in the Great Power Competition Conference Series, which was created by USF in partnership with the NESA Center for Strategic Studies and U.S. Central Command. The semi-annual events provide military and civilian policymakers and thought leaders the opportunity to learn more about various national security challenges posed by rival countries.

To protect participants from the spread of COVID-19, the conference was held remotely. Most speakers provided pre-recorded remarks but made themselves available for online questions during their sessions.

Participants were briefed on a variety of topics, including the nature and source of threats facing the U.S.; internal and external challenges to cyber-based operations, response tactics, strategies and ethics; and emerging technologies and trends influencing cyber conflict, such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing and the use of social media to spread disinformation and sow discord.

The conference was organized with support from Cyber Florida: The Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF. In addition to Nakasone, the distinguished lineup of speakers included Gen. K. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command; U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Michael Chertoff, former secretary of Homeland Security; Mike Rogers, former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence; and J. Michael McConnell, former director of U.S. National Intelligence and the National Security Agency, currently the executive director of Cyber Florida.

The event comes at a time when high-profile cybersecurity breaches have been in the news, including the massive SolarWinds cyberattack, in which Russian hackers are alleged to have spied on a number of different private companies as well as U.S. government agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security and Treasury Department. At the local level, a hacker recently infiltrated the water treatment facility in Oldsmar, Fla., and attempted to dramatically increase the amount of lye in the supply.

McKenzie, the closing speaker, warned that some of our rivals have thousands of people working in the area of cyber who are well-funded, highly skilled and becoming increasingly sophisticated. This means that the U.S. and its allies must work together and remain vigilant.

“The cyber battlespace is shared, vulnerable and under consistent attack,” McKenzie said. “I continue to be encouraged by the willingness of our partners to share information and contribute to the overall understanding of the shared threat.”

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