Make threat intel ‘understandable and relatable,’ says Mississippi’s new cyber director
The head of Mississippi’s new Cyber Unit told StateScoop that one of his top goals is to make the threat intelligence and advisories the state receives from the federal government and other partners more digestible for the local governments that are often understaffed on IT and cybersecurity.
In an interview last week, Bobby Freeman, who was appointed Jan. 20 as director of the new unit, said that — as in other states — towns and counties in Mississippi often get alerts about the latest cyberthreats, but lack the understanding or resources to take action.
“There’s a lot of agencies out there sharing information,” Freeman said. “But the question is, is the information getting down to the level it needs to in a way that’s understandable and relatable?”
States and local governments get their cybersecurity intelligence from a variety of sources — including the FBI, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, technology vendors and the Multi-State Information Sharing Analysis Center, which acts as a conduit for this information. But as the job of protecting government networks and critical infrastructure becomes more complex, smaller public-sector entities can be overwhelmed, Freeman said.
“What I’d like to try and work on is making sure that when we push out these security flashes that come out from [the Center for Internet Security]” — the nonprofit that operates the MS-ISAC — “that we push it out in a way that if we send it down to a to a local mayor’s office, that maybe only has an IT department have one or two, we can help them implement those things to better protect their city,” he said.
Freeman said he’s staffing up the Mississippi Cyber Unit in the state Department of Public Safety’s homeland security office. He came to the role after nearly a quarter-century with the Mississippi National Guard, including several years leading its cyber protection team. He said the new role is a good fit because of the Guard’s role in responding to disasters — like hurricanes that’ve battered Mississippi’s coastline — and in helping communities prepare beforehand.
“One of the things I learned working with the military, especially when you’re dealing with subordinate units, you can order them to do things,” he said. “But a lot of times, if you approach them with a list and say these are some things that are good to do, I’d like to help you do them, you get a lot better results. So I’d like to be able to get in with those local municipalities and the sheriff’s offices and just be able to work with them hand in hand to make sure that they’re getting the resources they need and the support that they need.”
Freeman, who’s still a National Guard member, also entered his new role as Mississippi prepares to receive its first round of funding from the federal cybersecurity grant program created by the 2021 infrastructure law. He’s a member of a new planning board that also includes Jay White, the state’s chief information security officer, with whom Freeman said he anticipates working with on sharing useful threat intelligence.
“Ultimately, we want to work with the Department Information Technology Services,” — where White’s office is located — “to be able to push out current and valid cyber threat intel to the state agencies and the local municipalities,” Freeman said. “So then we can better shore up, say, their firewall rules and things like that and help prepare them to be better protected against potential threats.”